Sgt. Daniel Cunningham was at the last race his favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt, ever raced, in 2001. Cunningham watched in horror as Earnhardt’s famous black No. 3 skidded head first into the wall, killing him instantly. The number was pulled out of circulation among NASCAR racers, placed into unofficial retirement in Earnhardt’s honor.
A little more than two years later, Cunningham himself was killed when his vehicle fell into a ravine while he served with the U.S. Army in Iraq.
Neither Earnhardt nor Cunningham, who was from Lewiston and Oxford, ever made it back to Daytona in person. But in February, Austin Dillon, the young driver behind the wheel of the first No. 3 car to compete in a NASCAR race since Earnhardt’s death, carried the legendary driver all the way to the pole position. There in the stands, David and Toby Boyd carried a stone engraved with Cunningham’s name. There they were, the Intimidator and the Maine soldier, together again in spirit.
The Boyds, a husband and wife from Shapleigh, carried Cunningham’s stone with them throughout the race weekend and lived out the vision Marine Maj. David Cote had set in motion when he created The Summit Project to collect stones and stories of Maine soldiers killed in action since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“I felt the weight and mass of the stone every step I took, which made me realize the sacrifice of these heroes and the sacrifice of their families,” David Boyd recalled later. “We took pictures with Sgt. Cunningham’s stone in many places. Many people asked us what we were doing with the stone, giving us so many opportunities to tell them about Sgt. Daniel Cunningham Jr., which truly made this stone a living memorial.”
Cunningham’s stone, along with those emblazoned with the names of 39 other Maine soldiers killed in action since 2001, was on the move again Friday. This time they were secured in packs draped over motorcycles as more than 70 Patriot Riders from across the state carried the stones from the Portland Elks Club to Baxter State Park. Thirty-six hikers, including volunteers, family members and military recruiters, are set to gather on Saturday in Millinocket to carry the stones to the peak of Owl Mountain, then bring them back down the mountain for the trip back to Portland.
“This is a living memorial,” Cote said Friday, standing outside the West Gardiner Service Plaza, off the Maine Turnpike and Interstate 295, one of two planned stops during the 200-plus-mile ride. “This is so much more than a name on a T-shirt or a name on a wall.”
Cote, who was born in Waterville and graduated from Bangor High School in 1997, served in both Iraq and Afghanistan after completing his studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. Cote, who has filled a number of positions, including flying helicopters and training recruits, now works as a Marine Corps budget analyst in Washington, D.C.
Cote, 35, is weighing career options for a course that, sooner or later, will return him permanently to Maine. He has carried his home state in heart as he has traveled around the world, so when Cote decided to create an organization aimed at carrying memorials of dead soldiers around the world, Maine was the natural launching point. Veterans comprise nearly 15 percent of the state’s population, Cote said.
“Maine’s patriotism and commitment to service in our Armed Forces is nothing short of extraordinary,” Cote wrote on the project’s website, MaineMemorial.org. “We must match with equal devotion, our commitment to them. They served us, we must now serve them by remembering them.”
Cote’s inspiration came in 2012 when he climbed Mount Whitney in California with Navy SEALs, each of whom carried a stone engraved with the name of a SEAL who died that year.
The stones The Summit Project collects are all unearthed by family and loved ones of the dead soldiers. Families typically select the rocks from places significant to the soldier. Cunningham’s stone, for example, came from Oxford Plains Speedway. The stones, which are engraved with the soldier’s initials, year of birth and year of death, are displayed at the Military Entrance Processing Station in Portland, but they don’t stay there. Volunteers carry the stones with them on Summit Project outings or personal trips, such as the Boyds’ trek to Daytona.
“Some have been all over the world,” Cote said. “We just got one back from Mount Everest.”
The volunteers must do more than just carry a rock, however. Cote requires anyone who takes a stone to learn as much as possible about the fallen soldier it represents and share the experience with that soldier’s family.
The Boyds said they have gotten to know Cunningham’s mother through the process and even have invited her to their home on Mousam Lake, where, coincidentally, Daniel Cunningham’s godfather lived. Their Harley-Davidson is decorated with a small crochet butterfly given to Cunningham’s family after his death. As the Boyds talk about Cunningham and his family, which includes three brothers, it is easy to forget they never knew him in life.
“He’s part of the family now,” Toby Boyd said.
“I feel like I know him,” David Boyd added. “It’s just amazing how far this has gone.”
Cote hopes every person who hears the stories of the fallen soldiers is another pair of shoulders to help carry the families’ burden. He is driven to continue to share those stories with more people. His next plan is to carry the stones to schools across the state.
“Everywhere they’ve been, people have interacted with the stories,” Cote said. “It’s about building and fostering community. We’re a state of 1.3 million, but we’re all one big family.”
Cote said the stones will be an ideal symbol for sharing the burden of that loss Saturday as the volunteers carry the stones to the top of Owl Mountain. There are a total of 48 stones: 40 to represent the fallen; seven with words of inspiration, such as “courage,” “duty” and “honor”; and one stone scribed with the dates July 4, 1776, to Sept. 11, 2001, to represent every Mainer killed in every other war.
“When that pack gets heavy, we’re not going to think about ourselves,” Cote said. “It’s an honor for us to do it.”
Cote said he has adopted a liberal policy when it comes to identifying Maine soldiers. The Summit Project will accept stones from families of soldiers born and raised here to those who might have just vacationed here and loved something about Maine. Cote hopes someday to have a stone for all of Maine’s fallen soldiers, but that is up to the families still coming to terms with the loss.
“Everyone is in a different place,” he said.
Cote said he is motivated by three numbers: Zero forgotten stories of fallen soldiers, 1.3 million residents to hear those stories and remember them, and 50 states to create their own version of The Summit Project.
The Boyds, at least, are doing what they can to make sure nobody forgets the story of Daniel Cunningham.
“It’s something we can do for the soldiers in the state of Maine,” David Boyd said.
Craig Crosby — 621-5642 | [email protected] | Twitter: @CraigCrosby4