LIANE HANSEN, host:
Dick Cheney will mark Veterans Day this morning at Arlington National Cemetery. The vice president will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns. It's one of America's most revered spots. But there is what some consider a blemish on the monument; cracks in the marble. Officials at Arlington National Cemetery want to replace it; others consider the stone sacred and want it repaired instead.
NPR's Jenny Gold has this story.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
JENNY GOLD: The marble weighs 48 tons. It came from a quarry in Marble, Colorado. Inscribed upon it are 12 words: Here rests in honored glory, an American soldier known but to God.
Unidentified Man #1: The ceremony that you are about to witness is the changing of the guard. In keeping with the dignity of this ceremony, it is requested that everyone remains silent and standing.
GOLD: The silence of the ceremony is broken only by the snap of a tourist's camera, by the crisp measured steps of the guards. They stand watch over the final resting place of three unknown casualties - World War I, World War II, Korea.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
GOLD: But look closely, two thin cracks circled the massive marble block. They run right between the words: American and soldier. The cracks are nothing new. They don't endanger the tomb or the honored remains of the men inside, but to superintendent John Metzler tare a blot on an otherwise perfect memorial.
Sergeant JOHN METZLER (Superintendent, Arlington National Cemetery): The tomb itself has cracks on all four sides. The cracks continue to grow. Repairing the cracks do not stop the cracks. It is only a temporary fix.
GOLD: Metzler has been in Arlington on and off since 1951 when his father was superintendent. He wants to replace the whole thing. He feels it's a matter of keeping Arlington flawless for the 4 million people who come here each year.
Sgt. METZLER: I have dedicated my entire life to national cemeteries, and I have spent 17 years here at Arlington Cemetery, and I want to do everything I can to maintain this facility in the very best condition it can be in.
GOLD: There's even a replacement block of marble ready and waiting in Colorado, cut from the same quarry as the original, but the replacement process has stalled. The National Trust for Historic Preservation does not want the stone replaced.
Mr. BOB LAFORTUNE(ph) (Former Sentinel, Tomb of the Unknowns): The tomb is a monument, but it's a sacred monument. It actually marks the spot of three people who have given their life.
GOLD: Bob LaFortune should know. He was a sentinel with the Tomb of the Unknowns in the 1970s. He's walked those 21 steps countless times himself. He was dismayed when he heard about the plans to replace the stone. He wrote to the National Trust supporting their preservation efforts and agreed to meet me at Arlington Cemetery to explain why.
So is it sort of, like, neither was, you know, a crack in the Lincoln Memorial or the crack in the Liberty Bell.
Mr. LAFORTUNE: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And, you know, even more so because of the sacrifice that it represents. If we saw a crack in Lincoln's head in the Lincoln Memorial or - we wouldn't just replace its head, we would…
Unidentified Man #2: Ready. (Unintelligible)
(Soundbite of footstep)
Unidentified Man #2: Hats on your order. Halt and order.
GOLD: The sentinels watch over the tomb 24 hours a day, 365 days a year even when there are no tourists there to see it. For LaFortune, the best way to honor the men inside is to make sure the tomb remains unchanged.
Mr. LAFORTUNE: You really do develop a personal connection, wondering about them, wondering what they are like, what their hopes were, and even say I have, you know - you find yourself talking to them and just like you would, I think, when you visit a family member's grave or a friend's grave.
GOLD: The debate has left Arlington and landed on Capitol Hill. Congress is considering a bill that would require a full report on the state of the tomb before any changes are made.
Jenny Gold, NPR News.
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