Bureaucracy at the Tomb of the Unknowns

The marble’s cracked, but donating a perfect replacement isn’t so easy

This is a story, a saga, really, of a big, white rock and that invisible, but impenetrable, red tape.

In Marble, Colorado, sits a 60-ton (120,000-pound) slab of creamy Yule marble.

“The graining is perfect,” says quarry superintendent Gary Bascomb.

And it's hog-tied by a bureaucracy that can only be — Washington.

“It's very important that this be the right decision,” says Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson.

The Third Infantry soldiers who guard the hallowed Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery may never crack under the summer heat, but the tomb has. The crack is growing, and all agree that it needs to be fixed.

“I thought, ‘That's something easy I can do,'” says John Haines.

Haines, a retired car dealer, thinks the memorial to men “known only to God,” as the tomb is inscribed, should be perfect. So he wants to donate, including transportation, a new slab of marble taken out of the same mine as the original 76 years ago.

When one of the 219,000 other markers at Arlington develops a crack, it's simply replaced, but when it comes to the Tomb of the Unknowns, officials say it's not so simple.

“We can't just take a piece of rock,” says Arlington deputy superintendent Herman Higgenbotham. “The 106 process doesn't allow us to do that. That's a process whereby the historical Congress has mandated that historical preservation comment before replacing historical type structures.”

In other words, a whole lot of people have their hands in this project. And some say the tomb's crack can be patched like Lincoln's memorial, even though the 16th president's patch looks patchy.

“It means a great deal to all Americans,” says Secretary Nicholson. “It's very important.”

One more thing — even if a new slab of marble is free, the job may have to be put out to bid — another one of those pesky regulations.

Little did anyone know how a gesture of patriotism could be so complicated — at a place so dignified.

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