The Rock Garden Memorial… An Enduring Legacy of Stones
By Steve York
Geologists say the stones that line the riverbeds here in our northwestern North Carolina mountains may date back to between 300 million and 1.8 billion years ago. That’s when our great Appalachian range was formed during the massive tectonic plate collisions of the Americas with Europe, Africa and Asia. Over many millennia, mountain peaks were whittled down by the elements with many stones eventually coming to rest in the waters which snake throughout our mountain valleys.
And that’s where this story begins. Or, should we say, that’s where several stories converge—in the riverbeds surrounding Banner Elk, NC. For it was here that the family of local sign maker Bill Dicks, the family of Pedro and Gisela Munoz, and the inspiration of their young daughter, Dalia, began a shared destiny to create an enduring legacy of stones.
Bill Dicks has been a commercial sign carver for the past 50 years. His sign shop—aptly named The Sign Shop—is located at the base of Beech Mountain in Banner Elk. After Bill and his wife, Donna, were married in 1967, they moved to Lakeland, Florida, where Bill had graduated from Florida Southern College three years before. After moving back to North Carolina and graduating from App State with a Master’s Degree in Industrial Arts in 1972, Bill found himself being called on to make small signs for local businesses, a calling that would tie his destiny to that same legacy of stones.
Bill and Donna had two kids, Jennifer in 1972, and Dave in 1976. Dave grew up on our surrounding ski slopes and planned to become a professional ski instructor in Colorado. But, during his senior year in high school, he came home one day and announced—to his parents’ surprise—that he’d decided to join the Army’s 82nd Airborne. “I want to jump out of planes,” he proclaimed, a decision that would lead his destiny to converge with that of one Pedro Munoz.
SFC (Sgt. First Class) Pedro A. Munoz had been a member of 1st Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group for seventeen years when he first met Dave at Fort Bragg, NC. Dave, who had taken up skydiving with his dad during his senior year in high school, had joined the Army just after graduation. By the end of his second year at Ft. Bragg, Dave was selected for the Army’s elite parachute team, The Golden Knights.
A year later, Pedro, already in his early 40s, joined The Golden Knights, making him the oldest member on the team. Despite their age difference, Dave and Pedro quickly became close friends. And their friendship naturally led to the further linking of shared destinies between their two families.
“Donna and I got to know Pedro and his family at the air shows we attended,” recalled Bill. “On one occasion in 1999, Pedro, his wife, Gisela, and Dalia, came up from Fort Bragg and spent a weekend with us at our home in the mountains. During that visit I showed Dalia how to sandblast a sign.”
Two years later Pedro was back up in the mountains, hiking the Appalachian Trail with a fellow Golden Knight friend. That was September 13, 2001. And that’s when Pedro first learned of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. That evening, by their campfire light, Pedro stood up and sang the National Anthem. He then said, “We’re going to war.”
It was on that fateful day that Pedro decided to leave the parachute team and return to his Special Forces Unit. That decision placed Pedro in Shindand, Afghanistan, on January 2, 2005, and it was on that day that SFC Pedro A. Munoz became the Battalion’s first Afghanistan combat casualty of 2005 and their first combat casualty since Vietnam. Pedro’s daughter, Dalia, was only sixteen at the time.
The following year, Bill got a call from Dalia, who by then was a senior in high school. “She asked me if it would be possible to sandblast her father’s name on a rock,” recalled Bill. “I told her it was, and I would be glad to do it for her. But what she really wanted was for me to teach her how to sandblast so she could do it herself. She then told me about the five other 1st Battalion soldiers who had been killed in Afghanistan in 2005. She said she also wanted to sandblast a rock for each one of them and then place all six rocks in a memorial garden that she was going to build at the Battalion Headquarters.”
Over the next few months, Dalia and mother Gisela made several four-hour drives from Fayetteville to Banner Elk so that Dalia could learn how to sandblast. When she was ready, Dalia and Bill waded through Banner Elk’s nearby riverbeds and carefully selected six rocks for the project.
After completing the job, however, she discovered a problem. “Her eyes filled with tears,” said Bill. “She turned to me, pointed at the rocks and said, ‘Bill, look, they’re not right.’” On three of the rocks, the names were in the customary ALL CAPS. But on the other three the names were in upper and lower case letters. Bill tried to console Dalia saying they looked fine, and he didn’t think anyone would care. “I care! They have to be right!” Dalia insisted. Early the next morning, Bill and Dalia were back wading in those riverbeds selecting three new rocks.
By that evening, all the names were in capital letters and all six memorial stones were on their way back to The Battalion at Fort Bragg, where, with the help of some of her Battalion friends, Dalia created the beautiful memorial rock garden she had first envisioned.
Two years later a major with 1st Battalion called The Sign Shop and said, “Bill, we need another rock.” Over the next two weeks he ordered two more rocks. And by the time 1st Battalion had departed Afghanistan in 2008, there were seventeen memorial rocks laid together. Later, four more rocks were added honoring the four 1st Battalion soldiers killed in Viet Nam.
In 2011, 7th Group was moved from Ft. Bragg to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and the Rock Garden Memorial was carefully moved along with it. Since then, five more rocks have been added, totaling 26.
Two years ago, Bill Dicks memorialized this story in a video he created with videographer Jordan Nelson of Hickory. It was presented and donated by Bill to the Battalion on May 28, 2021, at their annual Memorial Day Remembrance Ceremony held at Elgin Air Force Base. The video has since become a popular view across the internet and on social media (https://vimeo.com/532068201/ad60bec368).
As Bill notes, the Rock Garden Memorial only exists because of the inspiration of 17-year-old Dalia Munoz, her dedication to her father’s memory and her desire to honor those other fallen soldiers of 1st Battalion. The Rock Garden Memorial is the only one of its kind in the US Army and is greatly appreciated by active soldiers, vets and Gold Star families. It has become an enduring legacy of shared destinies, family friendships and a memorial made of riverbed stones as old and enduring as our North American Appalachian range.
Post Script: Dave Dicks eventually went on to become a FedEx pilot. On a recent trip to Puerto Rico, where Pedro had grown up, Dave was greeted by a member of the ground crew upon landing. At the time, everyone was still Covid-masked. Dave looked into the eyes of the ground crewman. “It was like looking into Pedro’s eyes.” There stood Pedro’s younger brother, Carlos, who Dave had met seventeen years earlier almost to the day at Pedro’s memorial service. They reconnected, reminisced, and Dave posted a video of their reunion on social media, which ended up receiving over 300,000 views in just four days. Carlos’ family and other relatives in Puerto Rico had no knowledge of the Rock Garden Memorial and took great comfort in knowing Pedro has not been forgotten.