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Missing in America Project honors veterans whose remains have been long forgotten

Monday, November 07, 2011

It’s the right thing to do. This simple yet cogent statement is the motto of the Missing in America Project (MIAP), a national effort to locate, identify and inter the unclaimed cremains of veterans across the United States.

Cofounded by Vietnam War veterans Richard Cesler and Fred Salanti, the project first came about in 2005 after Cesler, who was working as Idaho’s Veterans Cemetery Director at the time, came across the cremains of Sgt. Richard Trueman and his wife, Martha, locked away in a storage unit for five years.

In 2006, Cesler helped organize interment ceremonies, with full military honors, for the Truemans along with 20 other veterans whose cremains had been left unattended over the years.

Around the same time, Salanti was working in Oregon and came across the same issue — numerous veterans’ cremains that had been forgotten and left to collect dust on the shelves and rarely-visited rooms of funeral homes across the state.

"Any veteran that died that was either indigent, homeless or had no family, they were delivered directly to the cemetery and buried," Salanti said. "No military honors. No rifle salute."

Adding, "So I started rounding up people to come attend the service for those cremains I had found."

Once Cesler and Salanti connected on their state-specific projects, they realized the problem was not just an isolated, local one.

"It was not single to Idaho or Oregon," Salanti said.

Since then, the MIAP has become a nationwide effort that includes 47 states with over 300 volunteers.

Project volunteers have visited over 1,500 funeral homes, identified close to 1,600 veterans’ cremains and interred over 1,500.

"It’s still a long process ahead," Salanti said. "We’ve visited over 1,500 funeral homes so far but there are 54,000 in the nation. And we haven’t even tapped the east coast."

Salanti recounted the time two Missouri funeral homes alone turned over 2,400 cremains.

"This isn’t a small problem," Salanti said. "And it’s not something that was necessarily hidden. But people didn’t want to address it."

The group’s most recent work was in Washington where 62 veterans and two spouses were interred. Salanti says volunteers are now working on close to 800 new cremains now, identifying which are veterans or veteran’s spouses.

"This brings up a problem." Salanti said. "Because, how do you find out who was the wife of a veteran? So there’s a lot of research involved in this."

In addition to their research work, the project has been advocating for various local and national legislation that would make their work less cumbersome.

"The newest and best law is California’s state law," Salanti said.

Under this law, MIAP volunteers and other veterans’ organizations would be allowed access to unclaimed cremains in order to identify veterans and their spouses.

Before this legislation, if no next-of-kin claimed a cremain, it was placed in storage at a funeral home or coroner’s office. This remains the legal reality in many states.

"Laws like this increase how we can research people," Salanti said. "We need local veteran service organizations to look up and help us research our genealogy list. This speeds up the whole thing."

Nationally, the MIAP is advocating for the passage of House Bill 2051, which directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to cooperate with organizations like MIAP and to provide for and cover cost of burial and funeral expenses for positively identified veterans’ cremains if there are no next-of-kin identified nor other sufficient resources available to cover the expenses.

"Most of my volunteers pay out of their pocket for this work," Salanti said. "We’re purely living off of donations and other stuff. So now we need to move up a step higher to higher levels of recognition and acknowledgement."

"We need to be hand-in-hand with the Office of Veterans Affairs," he added. "And this legislation will do that."