Volunteers Canvas Funeral Homes for Forgotten Veterans

PHOTO: Missing in America Project

When Catherine Grant's husband died in 1994, she never imagined she would find his obituary in the paper 17 years later. But there it was, under the heading "Veterans Honored."

"It was very strange," said Grant, 77, who lives in St. Louis, Mo. "I never look at the obituaries. But that day I did."

Over in Louisville, Ky., Carolyn Russell, 72, was about to receive a shocking phone call.

Her brother Donald Ritz, a World War II combat veteran, had died of throat cancer in 1987 – but she never found out where he had been cremated. Until this year.

"I was just thrilled to death, it kind of gave me cold chills," she said.

The non-profit group Missing in America Project (MIAP) was behind the burials of both of these forgotten veterans.

In the central U.S., Dale LeMond, a former Marine who helps coordinate burials for MIAP, delivered the news to Russell.

"It's gratifying that you find these veterans that have been lying there all these years, some of the families didn't know they were there," he said.

Missing in America, the passion project of founder and former U.S. Army Maj. Fred Salanti, holds military burials for unclaimed veterans' cremains. The group has nearly 700 volunteers in 48 states who canvas funeral homes searching for veterans' remains in backrooms and storage areas where, in many cases, they have been long forgotten.

Since its inception in 2007, 63-year-old Salanti says MIAP has visited more than 1,400 funeral homes and found more than 1,200 veteran remains. Of those, 1,049 have been interred.

As soon as they find a veteran at a funeral home, MIAP volunteers examine funeral home notes and the death certificate, track down living relatives, and study genealogy resources and old Department of Defense databases. Sometimes the most time-consuming process can be obtaining proof of military service.

When MIAP discovered the poorly stored remains of Russell's brother in a box at an abandoned cemetery they also found three other veterans and began researching each of them. Three years later they located Russell, but the next hurdle would be obtaining verification from the Military Personnel Records facility in Missouri – it was the only way he'd be eligible for burial at the Kentucky Veteran's Cemetery.

"It's a slow process," LeMond said. "Their [military] records are filed by branch of service."

Fortunately, Russell knew her brother had been a scout for the 355th infantry in the 89th division of Gen. George Patton's army.

She quickly began calling family members.

"Everyone was so excited and couldn't wait for [the burial] to happen," she said.

Finally, this month, Russell, six of her siblings and two nieces, buried Ritz. The ceremony, Russell said, was "beautiful."

There were bagpipes, and a 21-gun salute. They also presented Russell's family with a flag.

MIAP provided closure for Grant's family as well.

Over the years her husband, Theodore Grant, had become estranged from his family -- after he got back from the war, she said, he never was the same.

"He was in the heat of it and it affected his life … Even after we were married … he would wake up at night just in a cold sweat and a couple of times whenever he'd wake up he'd have his fist balled up," she said.

"He told our boys a lot of war stories, never wanted to talk about the serious things -- just his buddies and the funny things that happened."

Before he died, he had told her that he didn't want a funeral and made her promise not to have a service. She obeyed his wishes.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...