Robert Stapleton led the way up the hill, climbing layer upon layer of flat stones that formed a massive stairway of rock to the sky.

At the top, he pointed out the features of what eventually will become a 290-foot-long, 70-foot-wide waterfall. Clear water will rush and fall down the layers of rock, spilling into a pool. Along the way, the water will pass by gray granite stones bearing the names of soldiers killed in action in Iraq or Afghanistan. One of them belongs to Glen Rose’s fallen veteran, Rhett Butler.

“The key to this is to build it so you can’t tell it wasn’t built by nature,” Stapleton said. “There are 15 layers of stone by the time you get to the top and eight feet of stone underneath you.”

Stapleton, who is 50, has been building waterfalls for more than 20 years. He’s even built a bigger one, Tranquility Falls in Colorado. But Stapleton said none of his projects is as significant as Veteran Falls, the centerpiece of a 20-acre memorial park taking shape in Granbury on U.S. Highway 377, several miles west of the State Highway 144 intersection.

“This is the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Stapleton said.

Finishing Veteran Falls has turned into an all-consuming passion, leading Stapleton and his wife, Vickie, to trade their house for an RV and drive all over North Texas, speaking to civic groups, veterans associations and others to help raise money to finish Veteran Falls. Last month Stapleton spoke to the Glen Rose Lions Club about the project.

The land where the waterfall is taking shape is part of a 2,100-acre property that’s being developed for mixed use. Stapleton was tapped to build a 100-foot waterfall as a tribute to veterans. He decided it needed to be bigger. All the stones for the waterfall came from the surrounding acreage.

The big ones — some as large as a car — had to be lifted with a crane and placed just so.

Stapleton matched up the stone’s edges. Gaps between stones are filled with smaller rocks to look as natural as possible.

Stapleton began working on the project more than two years ago. Some people have wondered what’s taking so long.

“Why this is so time-consuming and precise is that each one of these stones has to be placed one at a time,” Stapleton said. He estimated that tens of thousands of stones have been laid so far at Veteran Falls.

Funds to finish the project also have fallen short. While the landowner donated the land and put up the capital for a 100-foot-long waterfall, Stapleton said he assumed the responsibility to raise the funds to make it longer. He estimated the project needs about $30,000 to buy the filtration system and equipment that will pump the water up to the top and keep it circulating. He didn’t make that goal by this past Memorial Day, but Stapleton is aiming to raise the money and dedicate the waterfall this Veteran’s Day — 11/11/11.

“Right now it’s on God’s time,” he said.

Stapleton grew up in Los Alamos, N.M., and used to hike in the canyons and mountains. He liked looking at rocks and discovered he had a talent for matching them up. In the late 1980s, while living in northern Colorado, Stapleton opened a waterfall center that catered to clients who wanted a natural-looking waterfall. Clients could see and hear their water feature on display at the center before they bought one. Then it was taken apart and reassembled at their home.

The waterfall center grew to 11 acres, a waterfall wonderland. In the late 1990s Stapleton developed what he claimed was the first waterfall school were people could come and learn about building natural stone water features without using cement or chemicals.

It was a good life, but Stapleton became an alcoholic, used drugs and it was “all about the money,” he said. He was a Christian, but it wasn’t until four years ago, on Christmas Day, that something happened to change his life.

Stapleton’s pancreas ruptured and he spent three weeks in the intensive care unit in a Sherman hospital. When he got out, he vowed to do something worthwhile with his life. The opportunity to build Veterans Falls arose and he jumped at the chance.

“I was very, very selfish,” Stapleton recalled. “If something didn’t go my way, I got very upset. It was all about the dollar. The pancreatitis was a blessing. I started looking at all the beautiful things God has created. I really feel like my life is just beginning now.”

So far seven memorial stones bearing the names of veterans have been placed along the waterfall. A dozen more are waiting to be laid. The cost of buying the stone and engraving them is covered by donations.

The long-term plan is to give the park to the City of Granbury. A 501(c)3 non-profit organization will be formed to raise money for maintenance costs.

“This is a spiritual place,” Stapleton said. “It’s an eternal place. It’s a place of healing for the families of those who have fallen.

“It reaffirms the fact that we respect their love and that sacrifice and we’re going to celebrate their life in a big way,” he added. “We want to remember not just that they died, but they lived.”

Anyone interested in nominating a veteran for a memorial stone, sponsoring a stone or receiving more information about Veteran Falls can call 903-669-9150, e-mail veteranfalls@yahoo.com or visit the Web site at www.waterfallcentersofamerica.com.