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Headstone Carvers Find Ages of the Fallen Hard to Take at Times

THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM BARRE, VT.

Mixed in with stones for World War II or Korea veterans at Granite Industries are markers for the Iraq war's young casualties.

September 14, 2004|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BARRE, Vt. — In a cavernous factory in central Vermont, it fell to Ben Smith to render the final honor for Michael Yury Tarlavsky.

The Army captain's father and grandfather had been soldiers in Russia, and Tarlavsky continued the tradition by enlisting straight out of college. He had risen to the rank of captain in the Special Forces, fought in Afghanistan and was on his second tour in Iraq last month when his unit came under fire in Najaf. Three hours before the attack, he had instant-messaged his sister to say he was in safe territory: "Tell Father, tell everybody, I am all right."

But all Smith knew as he sandblasted the inscription onto a 232-pound of white Vermont marble was that Tarlavsky was 30 years old when he died Aug. 12.

"That's awful young," said Smith, 29, a buzzer and finisher at Granite Industries of Vermont. "We see the names of guys who have fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam. But guys like this, they're fighting right now and dying right now."

As part of a $3-million contract with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Granite Industries will produce about 20,000 upright marble headstones this year for government cemeteries. Most memorialize veterans of World War II, who are dying at a rate of about 1,100 a day.

Some are replacement stones honoring soldiers as far back as the Civil War, such as Leigh R. Terrell, a member of the 47th Alabama Infantry who died Oct. 21, 1864. Terrell's headstone was scheduled to be carved right after Tarlavsky's.

But with the U.S. casualty count in Iraq passing 1,000 last week, the weekly headstone orders at Granite Industries lately have included a half-dozen or so for men and women killed there. Workers on the "government line" never know how a soldier died. They just know that every U.S. veteran deserves the dignity of a proper headstone.

Wearing goggles, gloves and custom earplugs, Smith and his co-workers produce at least 400 veterans' markers each week. They inspect them for flaws, pack them into cardboard boxes and ship them off by flatbed truck to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and other government burial grounds.

Their days are noisy, dusty and busy, affording little occasion to reflect on the lives that pass before them. Yet Smith said the names of those killed in Iraq stand out: "They feel more real."

Along with firms in Georgia and Mississippi, Granite Industries is one of three companies nationwide that manufacture about 63,000 white marble grave markers for members of the armed services. According to the National Cemetery Administration, a government agency, about 1,800 U.S. veterans die each day.

Some veterans' cemeteries permit granite headstones, also provided by the government. Others use markers that lie at ground level. But each year, about 60,000 veterans are buried in cemeteries that only allow white marble headstones.

The contractors divide their headstone deliveries geographically. Granite Industries handles the Northeast and is the sole provider of marble headstones for Arlington National Cemetery. The 107-year-old firm also produces all the marble markers for Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipients. Veterans' headstones represent about a third of the company's $10-million annual sales.

(Granite Industries also has supplied and inscribed the black granite for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The firm created a national monument at Arlington out of granite for the Pentagon victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, and recently shipped an additional granite 9/11 monument to New York City.)

The company gets the 20- to 40-ton slabs of marble for its headstones from a quarry in nearby Danby, Vt., that lies 920 feet underground and 1 1/4 miles into a mountain. Inside the factory, a row of power saws operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- methodically using blades 10 to 12 feet in diameter to slice the marble into 4-inch-thick slabs.

When fully shaped, the gravestones will measure 13 inches wide by 4 inches thick by 42 inches high. The bottom 18 inches will sit in the ground. The top will curve gently.

The stones are lifted 12 at a time by radio-controlled cranes that dangle from the 28-foot ceilings. The stacks are moved across the 57,000-square-foot building to a machine that, in 45 seconds, grinds the oval tops. Stone-cutter Sefkija Osmanovic, 57, scrutinizes each stone before it is sent for inscription.

"These people who have lost their lives -- maybe in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq -- well, Americans have been involved in many wars," said Osmanovic, a former geography teacher from Bosnia who spent three years in a Serbian concentration camp.

Government policies that allot a free headstone to the family of any deceased veteran also provide for a small degree of personalization on the grave markers -- names of grandchildren, a Bible passage, a paean to a hobby.

In a tiny office behind the veterans' headstone line, Linda Beaudin, 53, is in charge of preparing those inscriptions.

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