In mid-October, as part of the Summit Project, I carried the stone and the story of Marine Corps Sgt. Kevin Brian Balduf to the summit of Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park. In reality, Balduf carried me.

Kevin, as Balduf has become known to me, was a Marine Corps radioman who lost his life in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province on May 12, 2011.  

Today is Veterans Day and while there are literally millions of stories I could tell you today, I want to stick to just this one, because in many ways it’s symbolic of the sacrifice many veterans and their families make.

It was Kevin’s second tour in Afghanistan — in his first, he had been awarded a Bronze Star with a combat “V” for valor, after he put himself in harm’s way in order to get to a position where he could call in an airstrike that ultimately saved the lives of his fellow Marines.  

He considered himself as much of a survivor of the event as the day’s hero, and would often tell people, when asked, “I was just doing my job.” 

Don’t get me wrong, Kevin was tough as nails while he was relatively diminutive in stature. He was a go-getter, a hard-hitter and pushed his Marines in action and in training to their limits. 

But he considered the day he earned his Bronze Star, June 5, 2004, his second birthday. In the years following until his death, he and his family would celebrate that day like a birthday.

But like most who serve in the armed forces – Kevin was in his ninth year in the Marine Corps when he died — he spent many birthdays, holidays and other special occasions away from home.

He did so willingly and did not gripe about it. It’s a way of life for military families and a privilege often taken for granted by others.

Sadly, Kevin, at the age of 27, was shot to death by an insurgent who had infiltrated the Afghan National Civil Order Police force, known as ANCOP. 

A native of Nashville, Tenn., Kevin had a deep bass voice with a strong southern drawl. His wife would later say the size of Kevin’s voice did not necessarily match the size of his person, but it certainly matched the size of Kevin’s heart.

He was working on training ANCOP officers on communications systems and is among dozens of lost American servicemen with similar stories – including Pfc. Buddy McLain, a Mexico, Maine native – who lost their lives in betrayal from those they were trying to help.  

It remains one of the most bitter parts, in what has now infamously become America’s longest war – or in any war for that matter.

A few weeks before the Summit Project hike on Cadillac, I sat and had coffee with Kevin’s widow, Amy Balduf, to learn a little bit more about Kevin, his family, his personality and his background. 

Amy, a native of Richmond, Maine, still lives there with her three children, including her and Kevin’s two daughters, Stephanie, whom he adopted, and Eden, who was just three weeks from her fourth birthday when Kevin was killed in action.

As you can imagine, his loss was devastating. But Amy, like most Gold Star wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children and other relatives, is remarkably strong in spirit.  

Somehow, they usually manage to carry on with a grace and a dignity that in itself should inspire us all to remember we have little to complain about. Not the weather, not the size of our paycheck, not a long line at the checkout counter, not this nagging little cold – really these minor inconveniences that we often let overwhelm us with negativity are nothing at all.

On Veterans Day, we also need to especially consider that every day is Veterans Day for Gold Star families.

With Thanksgiving, Christmas and the holiday season approaching, I couldn’t be more thankful and honored that Amy, Stephanie and Eden permitted me the great privilege of carrying Kevin’s memorial stone up a mountain in our beautiful Acadia National Park at the height of the fall foliage season. 

There were 19 others in the group I hiked with and 80 hikers in all as we carried the memorial stones of Mainers or of those with Maine connections and family, up the east, west, south and north slopes of Cadillac Mountain – the highest point along the state’s seacoast and famous for its sunrise. 

The stones, engraved with the initials of the fallen, represent only a tiny portion of the weight those loved ones left behind carry with them. But these stones and the stories behind them are a valuable source of spiritual power and inspiration, I discovered.

“We had an American flag with us that day on the mountain, Kevin, and we taped it to a ski pole so we could carry it high in the wind and at the front of our renegade column,” I wrote in a letter to Kevin and his family after the hike. “I know you were there and saw it all, but I just keep thinking about how beautiful that was to see Old Glory waving high before us as we made our final push to the summit.

“I thought a lot about how much that flag means to me, how much it means to all of us who served under it and how tight that family ultimately is.

“I want to thank you for reminding me of that, Kevin, of how lucky I am to be an American veteran, to have served this great nation and to have these bonds that stretch over generations and space.”

There are a lot of times when people discover I’m a veteran and want to thank me for my service. And while I appreciate that, I like to say, “Don’t thank me, thank guys like Kevin Balduf and all those who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan and back again several times in recent decades. That’s who you can thank now.”

Thank those living far from home and missing birthdays and holidays. 

Thank Amy Balduf and her girls and all of our Gold Star families for what they’ve sacrificed, and try to stop now and again to fully cherish what you have that’s good in life.  

That’s the best way you can thank a veteran.

[email protected]

“The Summit Project is a Living Memorial because we live by our motto: We carry their stone for a hike, we carry their story for a lifetime.”

Maine Heroes Are Not Forgotten. #MHANF

To learn more about the Summit Project online go to:

thesummitproject.org


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