It towers above the fields of white headstones, stretching about 60 feet into the air from the highest ridge in Leavenworth National Cemetery. And Thursday will be the first Veterans Day when its limestone surface has sparkled like new.
The cemetery's obelisk monument underwent a restoration in late August, thanks to federal stimulus funds allotted to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Cemetery officials said that, to their knowledge, it was the first restoration for the monument since it was installed in 1919, the year when Armistice Day - which later became Veterans Day - was first celebrated on Nov. 11.
“It's 100 percent different,” said Bill Owensby, director of the Leavenworth National Cemetery Complex.
The tower, which has no formal name but which the cemetery staff refers to as “the obelisk” or “the memorial spire,” is shaped like the Washington Monument. From its ridge near the eastern edge of the cemetery, it overlooks the Missouri River valley.
At its base, an inscription declares its purpose: “In memory of the men who offered their lives in defense of their country.”
Debbie Williams, administrative officer at the cemetery, said that when it was being installed, a team of oxen carried the pieces of the monument from the state prison in Lansing, after the Santa Fe Railroad transported the pieces there.
“It was a very long process,” Williams said.
At the foot of the monument are the graves of some of the first managers of the “old soldiers' home,” a retirement home for veterans that pre-dated the Eisenhower Veterans Administration Medical Center adjacent to the cemetery.
Owensby said the contractor hired by the VA filled in holes that had formed in the limestone from water erosion, buffed out scratches and replaced caulking around the edges of the stone to prevent future damage. But he said the most striking improvement was simply how much cleaner it now looks.
He said he watched a worker in a lift work his way down the obelisk as he cleaned it.
“It was almost like they were rolling a cover off it,” Owensby said.
The VA also used stimulus funds to restore a smaller monument nearby at the cemetery: the headstone of Thomas Brennan, a Civil War veteran who in 1886 became the first person buried at the cemetery. On the headstone, workers buffed out scratches and cleaned it thoroughly. Williams said she didn't know of another time the Brennan monument had been restored before this year.
The VA allotted slightly more than $1 million in stimulus funds for repairs at Leavenworth, Fort Leavenworth and Fort School National Cemeteries, all of which are overseen by the office at Leavenworth National Cemetery.
Owensby said the cemeteries' limited budgets often required choosing between providing more burial space and conducting repairs. Because the cemeteries' primary mission is to lay veterans to rest, the repairs often must be put off until later.
“It's enough for us to get by on and operate, but it's not enough for us to do the things we want to do to make it more beautiful,” Owensby said of the cemeteries' typical budgets.
So the stimulus money was a godsend, he said, allowing the cemeteries to take on projects that had been neglected. Besides the monument restorations, the money went toward repairing roads, realigning headstones and planting grass, among other things.
Owensby said the monument restorations ensured that they would be fixtures at the cemetery for years to come.
“If we don't take care of our monuments,” Owensby said, “future generations will never know what we did.”