Volunteers Canvas Funeral Homes for Forgotten Veterans

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But after seeing her husband's remains had been discovered by MIAP, she and her family decided a military burial was the right decision.

"My son said, 'You know what, he didn't say we couldn't go to a service after 17 years," Grant said.

"He never would have admitted it but I think he would have liked it," she said. "It was the best thing that could have happened to all of us."

'We Are The Family'

Stories like those of Russell and Grant are rare. Most of the time the MIAP volunteers are the only people to attend a veteran's military burial. And that's exactly what drives them.

"That's a real tearjerker knowing that we, the Missing in America people … are the family," Salanti said. "They accomplished something honorable, respectful and they're receiving what was due them for service to the country."

The MIAP volunteers are mostly retired, many of them former servicemen and some who aren't, but all consider this a calling.

"When I found out there were this many people who have fought for our country and they're sitting on shelves it moved me to a point that I said let's do something about it," said Dave Woodcook, 63, who joined MIAP about five years ago and began leading burial escorts near Redding, Calif.

When he was younger he had wanted to join the military, but couldn't because of health reasons.

"I understand and appreciate what they've done to give us the freedoms that we enjoy," he said. "When I heard about the program I said, 'Hey, count me in because I want to help the veterans as much as we can. I believe we owe more than what we give them."

One of the burials he remembers most – and the one many MIAP volunteers reference – was a cross-country journey in 2009 to escort the remains of three veterans from Sacramento, Calif., to their final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery. One of the veterans, Medal of Honor recipient Isaiah Mays, had originally been buried in a pauper's grave.

As they drove from state to state, Woodcook found patriotism across the heartland: parades, young children waving flags and holding signs, and elderly veterans saluting.

"It changed my life as far as how I look at veterans, what they contribute, and what they feel about this country," he said.

Salanti says the unclaimed veterans' remains are nobody's fault: funeral homes aren't required to seek out anyone but next of kin and funeral homes aren't required to report the unclaimed remains to the VA.

"A lot of people come out and say the VA needs to be in charge of this, but how does the VA know [where the remains are]? They don't have authority to go into a private funeral home," he said.

Unclaimed Remains: Why They're Left Behind

The laws regulating how long funeral homes are required to keep remains vary from state to state, and 13 states, such as Maryland and Nevada, don't have any laws governing unclaimed remains.

There are 19,903 funeral homes in the U.S. according to the National Funeral Directors Association, and nearly all of them have unclaimed cremated remains.

Michael Kubasak, 79, has been a licensed funeral director for 50 years and owned his own funeral home in California before eventually moving to Mesquite, Nev.

Kubasak says there are several reason why the remains get left behind.

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