Volunteers Canvas Funeral Homes for Forgotten Veterans

PHOTO: Missing in America Project
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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.

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.

"There are people who arrange for the cremation of their loved one and then fail to retrieve the cremated remains in a timely manner -- and some even choose to completely abandon them," he said. "There are some consumers who incorrectly believe that when they choose cremation no other decisions need to be made and that is not the case … that's why today it's a nationwide dilemma for funeral homes …They are not just ashes. What they are is a human being."

Some funeral homes offer financial incentives – when relatives approve the cremation they are asked to put down a deposit and they receive that deposit back when they pick up the ashes.

Regardless, unclaimed remains continue to pile up, especially because of the "massive increase in the number of cremations," according to Dr. William Lamers, 79, who co-authored a book with Kubasak and was one of the first physicians to develop a hospice program in the United States.

"It's a simple principal -- it's called out of sight out of mind," he said.

New Bill Would Help MIAP Find Veterans and Provide Military Burials

Salanti and two Ohio congressmen are hoping to change that for the large number of unclaimed veterans – Salanti estimates there are more than 100,000 stored in funeral homes around the nation.

Last Thursday Republicans Pat Tiberi and Steve Stivers introduced the Missing in America Act, which would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to help determine if unclaimed remains are eligible for burial at a national cemetery. The bill also asks the VA to work with veterans service organizations and other groups, including MIAP, in possessing the abandoned or unidentified remains.

An earlier version of the bill was introduced in 2009 when the House was controlled by Democrats, and it fell short of the required number of co-sponsors.

Tiberi says he thinks this year will be different, and is "pretty confident" the bill will make it to committee.

Salanti said, "The chances of getting this law passed now are tremendously better and it's just exciting that we're getting some recognition at the national level."

"We think this is a home run issue," Tiberi said.

For now, MPIA continues searching funeral homes and tracking down documents, working without pay. The organization is run by individual donations, without any corporate sponsors. It's tough, at times, Salanti says, "We're in tears and crying half the time. My nickname is waterworks."

But for him, in the end, it's worth it.

"We represent what those guys lived for. Otherwise they're going to be alone going on their last journey."

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