Final Resting Place for 250,000 Vets is a Tin Can on a Shelf

The Missing in America Project is scouring funeral homes looking for the unclaimed remains of veterans, some dating back to the Civil War, to provide the dignity of a military service to America's forgotten soldiers.

Military rites for Michigan veterans whose remains went unclaimed for decades are a tradition at the Dearborn Memorial Day observance. (Photo: @sean_verma/Flickr via Missing in America Project)
Military rites for Michigan veterans whose remains went unclaimed for decades are a tradition at the Dearborn Memorial Day observance. (Photo: @sean_verma/Flickr via Missing in America Project)

World War I Sgt. Russell A. Shumway’s cremated remains were encased in a sterile metal can that collected dust on a Michigan funeral home shelf for nearly 35 years until Fred Salanti and an army of volunteers from the Missing In America Project became the forgotten soldier’s family.

Sgt. Shumway's new family knew little about him. 

A North Dakota native, he had served with the 14th Cavalry in World War I, and was in the Army from May 1917 to September 1917. He was 86 when he died March 31, 1980 in Grand Rapids. Beyond that, all they knew was that he was just another forgotten old soldier, utterly alone in the world when he drew his last breath.

Shumway’s cremains and those of four other Michigan soldiers will be led through downtown Dearborn, MI, in a horse-drawn caisson as part of that city’s May 26 Memorial Day observance.

They will be given the full dignity of military rites afforded other veterans. The five veterans will lie in state at a special remembrance ceremony and, later, they will be saluted with 21 volleys from a rifle, thanked posthumously for serving their country, and serenaded into eternal rest by a bugler playing “Taps.”

When they are properly buried, Salanti can check five more names from a list that could include as many as 250,000 veterans whose remains are “sitting on a shelf,” unclaimed and forgotten.

The MIA Project founder and executive director boils at the affront.

“You hear the sometimes overused cliche, ‘We don’t leave anybody behind,’ but when I look at veterans, there’s quite a variety in veterans and each is treated differently,” Salanti said, indignation quick in his speech.

“When POWs and MIAs don’t come back, we're still going in 40, 50 and 60 years later, always trying to find them; and when KIAs come home, there are big parades and all kinds of things,” he told Patch.com. “On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, we celebrate the modern, active-duty soldier; we throw them in a Jeep and parade them around. and we pay a lot of lip service.

“But the story that is never told – the story nobody wants to hear – is the story of the veteran who survived, who came home, who probably had a family, who probably became dysfunctional and became alienated, may have moved to a remote part of the country because of PTSD, may never have had any success in life.

“He was forgotten and and maybe even despised, so he ended up on a shelf for decades.”

Rites for 2,000 Vets Barely Dent Problem

Salanti, 66, of Redding, CA,  was a major with the U.S. Army in Vietnam before he was discharged with a disability after 12 years.

A voluteer with the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motoryclists who provide escorts and other services at military funerals, Salanti was taking care of some logistics with Eagle Point Veterans Administration Ceremony in 2006 when he discovered an injustice that has since become an almost singular focus.

“Out West, most VA cemeteries had a lot of unclaimed, homeless, indigent veterans and they were having a service once a month,” he said. “They were burying 30 veterans at a time, with one chaplain and one funeral home director there, and no one who cared for them showing up to send them on their way.”

The same situation existed in Idaho, Nevada and each of the nine Western states he covered for the Patriot Guard. The more he dug, the greater the problem became.

Nearly all of the nation’s approximately 23,000 funeral homes are storing the unclaimed remains of as many as 1.2 million people. In many states, there’s no law requiring funeral homes to report unclaimed remains to the Veterans Administration – or to their states, or to anyone.

“We started going into the funeral homes, and found that 10 to 30 percent of the people on the shelves were veterans,” Salanti said, pointing out that so far, the Missing in America Project has arranged for military rites and burials for close to 2,000 soldiers.

They’ve barely dented the need. Salanti and his volunteers are finding the forgotten veterans one at a time as they scour thousands of mortuaries. They’ve reached 1,500 so far.

Initially, Salanti and others expected the canvass to tally 10,000 or 15,000 veterans whose ashes hadn't been claimed. The actual number is probably closer to 250,000 – “and that’s a low estimate,” he says.

Laws in 23 States Untangle Red Tape

Besides a lack of reporting standards, funeral home personnel worry about confidentiality laws, Salanti said.

The Missing in America Project has become a strong lobbying force, getting laws in 23 states, including Michigan,  protecting mortuaries and their staffs from liability if they provide identifying information about abandoned remains to the Veterans Administration and others. Additionally, Congress passed the MIA Project-proposed Veterans Dignity Burial Act, which provides for a casket or urn for every veteran. Rules are still being written.

Even with a reporting process in place when a veteran’s remains are unclaimed, the information released by the Veterans Administration is often bare bones.

Some 400 genealogists volunteer their time to verify the military histories, a process that can take more than a year and a half, but too often, they have little more to show for their efforts beyond the soldier’s name, date of induction and date of discharge.

That’s a final indignity given these forgotten soldiers, Salanti said.

But in other cases, the Missing in America Project has been able to put a final piece of history in place, as it did in 2013 when two brothers from Indiana who served in America’s Civil War were buried in a new columbarium court dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery, the Associated Press said.

The ashes of Zuinglius and Lycurgus McCormack, had been sitting on a funeral home shelf since their deaths in 1912 and 1908, respectively. Zuinglius was a lieutenant serving with Indiana’s 132nd Infantry Regiment and part of Sherman’s Army; his younger brother was a private in the state’s 103rd Infantry Regiment. Both went on to serve in the Senate.

Such rich, historical stories are a rare gift, Salanti said.

“You don’t find many stories for the average guy who hid out in the woods,” he said. “To tell you the truth, we don’t try too hard to find that private story, because it detracts from the workload before us.”

Alone on a Shelf: America’s Skeleton

The task ahead is daunting, to be sure.

There’s not much funding available for a group like the Missing in America Project, which operates on a shoestring budget of $30,000 to $40,000, tied together by donations made $10 and $20 at a time.

Numerous programs exist to help veterans buy homes, find jobs and assimilate back into society after they’ve served in the military, “but nobody wants to address the fact that veterans are dead and forgotten on a shelf,” Saltanti said. “We’re so low on the totem pole, there’s are no government grants or funding.”

Not only are final resting places of hundreds of thousands of veterans a tin can on a shelf in a funeral home or storage unit, it’s not a story people seem eager to hear, Salanti said.

“Nobody wants to think about it, and that’s the big skeleton in the closet,” he said. “After seven years as an organization, we’re still not in the national consciousness. Nobody wants to discuss how a person ended up alone on a shelf. 

"Maybe they were a criminal or forgotten by the family – and we’ve had some that say, ‘You bury that s.o.b.’ But that wasn’t who he was when he went into the Army and served his country. Maybe it's what happened after he went to war.”


Joseph Borrajo May 20, 2014 at 08:32 PM
So why is this any different than the superficial attentiveness that many have for so much of what goes on in life. Words of support for veterans come easy for many, but, as usual, a dollar short and a day late when it comes to real support for veterans. P3


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