(CBS NEWS) – Hidden high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, in a remote and unmarked field, is a secret monument honoring war veterans. The lonely pillar of polished granite sits at more than 11,000 feet, in a clearing among majestic peaks.
Just what it is, and how it got all the way up here, has for decades puzzled the hardy few who have found it.
“They just stumble on it and go, ‘What the heck is this?'” said Rob Roy, who isn’t comfortable talking about this mountaintop mystery, in part because he made a vow of silence to the man who built it – his late uncle, Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Allen Beckley, the soldier behind “Soldierstone.”
Roy told correspondent Lee Cowan that the memorial “makes people think.”
“This is kind of contrary to what Uncle Allen may have wanted,” Roy said. “He doesn’t want to beat the drum, but I’m beating the drum for him, and a lot of other people are.”
By all accounts Beckley was a soldier’s soldier. He served for nearly a decade in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. “If you know anything about Special Forces, Green Berets, they’re the people that parachute behind the lines and they work with indigenous people and help them defend themselves,” Roy said.
“But most of what he was doing then, he couldn’t really talk about?” asked Cowan.
The troops he trained and served with had been secretly recruited by the CIA. Made up mostly of Hmong and Lao decent, this secret army took tens of thousands of casualties fighting communism in Southeast Asia – lives that otherwise might have been American.
But for decades, the U.S. government denied their sacrifice.
In a recording Beckley made after he retired, it was clear that ignoring those foreign fighters haunted him long after the war had ended: “I made a silent promise to myself that they would have their memorial, and it would not just be in Asia; their memorial would be in the Unites States as compatriots of ours,” he said.
In 1990, Beckley set out to build his tribute with the help of stone cutter Mike Donelson. “I mean, this was a mission,” Donelson said.
“So, when he first described what he wanted to do, what did you think?” Cowan asked.
“I thought he was a quack at first, and within 30 minutes I knew he wasn’t,” he replied.
“Did he explain why he was building it?”
“It kind of got revealed to me over time,” Donelson said. “He did want it remote, and the people who needed to find it, would find it.”
A long-forgotten videotape documented the construction “on top of the world.” Civilians, active duty, and retired veterans made up the small army who unloaded eight tons of hand-carved granite, not just for the pillar but 36 so-called “quote stones,” weighing 300 pounds a piece, etched with a poem or proverb written in Laotian, Thai, and Vietnamese, among other languages.
They were scattered like fallen troops around the monument itself.
In the summer of 1995, Beckley’s memorial to foreign fighters was finally finished. It was the same year he died of cancer. He never saw his offering in person.
“When we walked away, it was done; that was the end of it,” Donelson said. “Besides a few people that stumbled across it on the Continental Divide trail, nobody knew it was there.”
Until this happened:
In 2013, a YouTube post appeared and the secret of Soldierstone was out.
Ranger Tristram Post will help you find Beckley’s Soldierstone, but only if you ask: “We have tried very hard, as much as we can, to respect his vision that it would be a spot where people would just sort of find it,” she said.
She doesn’t publicize the exact location, and neither will we.
Rob Roy had only seen pictures of his uncle’s dream; Mike Donelson hadn’t seen it since he built it. So, they made the long drive in fresh-fallen snow, and then began the long hike.
You have to really want to pay your respects way up here. Once there, the solitude is part of the experience – as is leaving a token of military service.
After a quiet pause, it was time to go. And they, like everyone, left Soldierstone to its isolation.
Cowan asked, “Think the colonel would be proud?”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s proud right now,” said Roy. “I think a lot of people would be proud.”
Especially the memories of those who are now no longer forgotten.
Although the National Forest Service watches over the memorial, it’s been volunteers who really keep it up, managing the collection of mementos left behind by visitors, such as military service pins, and making sure there’s no trash or graffiti.
Soldierstone has done what Beckley hoped it would in so many ways. But something that selfless can’t be a secret for too long.