Project Ensure Final Dignity for Veterans

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Project Ensure Final Dignity for Veterans by Dianna Trayer

(published in the VFW Magazine, May  2016, pages 24-27)

The Missing in America Project(MIAP) officially endorsed by the VFW five years ago, celebrates its 10th anniversary 2016.  Nationwide it oversees the burial of cremains of forgotten veterans. (The Patriot Guard also actively participates in the MIAP

MIAP by the Numbers Since It’s Organization:

1,947 Funeral homes visited

12,656 Cremains found

2,878 Veterans cremains identified

2,597 Veterans interred

A simple question stunned Vietnam veteran Rich Cesler shortly after he started his job to establish and direct the then-new 76-acre Idaho State Veterans Cemetery in Boise in 2006.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, the question would spark a nationwide crusade to find and inter the unclaimed cremated remains of more than 2,500 veterans, some dating to the Civil War

Two weeks after starting his job, Cesler, who served as a crew chief with the 16th Tactical Recon Squadron at Tan Son Nhut (1967-1968), was in a meeting to introduce himself and his goals.

“A woman asked what I planned to do about the cremated remains of veterans that had been left for years in homes.” recalled Celser, 68.  A legacy life member of VFW Post 1173 in Boise, he has held numerous leadership positions, including All-American Post Commander from 2014-2015.

“I was flabbergasted,” he said, “I had no idea this was happening.  These veterans had served our country and deserved to have a dignified funeral.  The military is like family.  You never leave someone behind, and cremains had been left for unknown reasons.  It wasn’t right.  I had to do something about it.”

Doing The Right Thing

With chock, anger, and grief energizing hin, Cesler began searching funeral homes, coroner offices, nursing homes, and hospitals for abandoned cremains.  

He was even handed the ashes of Army Staff Sgt. Richard Trueman and his wife Martha after their remains were found in plastic cremation containers inside the auctioned storage unit in the nearby city of Meridian.

“Richard Trueman had been awarded two Purple Hearts in Korea and served in Vietnam, too,” recalls Cesler.  “All of his paperwork was right there.  He was a forgotten heart.”

While search for cremains in Idaho, Cesler realized he was not the only person haunted by the heart-rendering issue of veterans’ ashes being abandoned.

Vietnam veteran (an Army advisor with MACV, 1968-1969) Fred Salanti, who was living in Grants Pass, Ore., confronts the same dilemma.  While organizing  a color guard for indigents and veterans without family, a retired Army major learned Oregan funeral homes had veterans’ unclaimed cremains.  He began calling cemetery directors in surrounding states to see if it was an issue elsewhere and met Cesler.

Realizing they shared the same vision, in August 2006 Cesler and Salanti collaborated and founded the Missing i America Project (MIAP)m a non-profit organization whose members identify and inter unclaimed cremains of veterans.  Salanti began serving as executive director to launch MIAP nationwide, while Cesler  became the national cemeteries/law coordinator.

To celebrate Veterans Day at Boise’s cemetery in 2006, Cesler organized MIAP’s first funeral, a long overdue service for Truemans and 20 other nearly forgotten veterans he had discovered.

With the rugged Idaho foothills as a backdrop, the veterans were interred in granite-covered niches in a special columbarium wall with honors that included a Blackhawk helicopter flyover, rifle salute, flag folding for all five services, and playing of “TAPS.”

Since then, MIAP volunteers have interred nearly 2,600 veterans nationwide.  They summarize their mission with two mottos.

“It’s the right thing to do.”  “No one left behind.”

Salanti estimates there are still thousands more unclaimed veteran’s cremains.

“We have no idea how many are out and can only make an educated guess.” says Salanti, 68, who now lives in Redding, Calif., where he is a life member of VFW Post 1934.  “Volunteers usually find 10-35 veterans in each funeral home, and there ae still 23,000 funeral homes to visit.  For me, this is a lifelong mission.”  

Funeral Home Reluctance

As they began their quest to claim forgotten veterans’ remains, Cesler and Salanti encountered resistance from some funeral home directors.  They were reluctant to allow access to their records or release cremains in case a family member eventually came to claim them.

To deal with that, Cesler helped write legislation in Idaho allowing the directors to release the cremains to veterans service organizations such as MIAP when no family exists or in able to claim the remains.  Since then, 33 states have passed similar legislation.

“Every state needs to acknowledge that release of cremains effort.” says Cesler.

With Idaho’s veterans cemetery established, Cesler was hired to establish and direct the Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake in 2007.  During the next five years, he and MIAP volunteers interred the remains of more than 60 veterans and two spouses.

One of his most poignant memories while working there was Army Spec. Lyndon A. Atwood’s story.  He had served in the Army from 1956 to 1959 and died homeless in Clarkston, Wash., in 2005.  Six years later, his cremains and an American flag turned up in the trunk of an abandoned car.

“An acquaintance of his had apparently picked up the remains and for some reason had put them in his car, which was left by the side of a road, ” recalls Cesler.

Since retiring in 2012 and moving back to Boise, Cesler has continued MIAP’s mission.  In November 2015, he was able to acquire paperwork to inter a veteran’s cremains after they had been found in a storage unit.

Learning about veterans like the Truemans and Atwood distresses Salanti.

“My nickname is ‘Waterworks’ because I get so emotional hearing these veterans’ stories,” says Salanti.  “It’s sad there are any unclaimed remains.”

Why Were They Left Behind?

Why are ashes unclaimed even though VA provides burial benefits?

“For every 1,000 veterans, there are 1,000 different circumstances and stories, ” says Cesler.

In some cases, veterans lost touch with family because they were homeless when they died and were suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries.  Some veterans told family members they did not want a funeral.  Sometimes, family members forgot to retrieve the remains or died. Salanti says becoming a surrogate family for veterans has led to some of his most gratifying experiences.  In 2009, he led motorcyclists from Redding to Arlington National Cemetery to escort and inter vets.  They were two Silver Star recipients and a Medal of Honor recipient who served in an all-black regiment and had been in an Arizona pauper’s cemetery.

During the 3,100 mile, 10-day ride, he was overwhelmed with the spontaneous outpouring of support for MIAP along the back roads of America.

“People were saluting us, standing on overpasses waving flags, and organizing community barbecues for us,” says Salanti.  “We started with 37 riders and has as 3,000 at times.  It was unforgettable and a spiritual experience for those who went.  We’ve come a long way since we started.”

MIAP’s mission has been bolstered with support from several national veterans organizations, including VFW.  At its 2011 national convention, delegates passed Resolution 632  supporting the organization’s efforts.

It is funded by donations.  VFW Post 1173, for example, contributed $33,000 in 2015 and expects to donate more than $50,000 during 2016 to local veteran programs than include MIAP.

Today, MIAP has more than 2,450 volunteers and chapters in every state except Hawaii, Mississippi, North Dakota, and West Virginia.

“One of my goals is to have an active MIAP chapter in every state,” says Cesler.  “We’re almost there.”

Challenges of Verification

Interest in becoming a MIAP volunteer is growing, says Linda Smith, the organization’s national vice president who lives in Lake Ozark, Mo.

“When people learn about where we’re doing, they want to help,” says the 65-year-old Navy veteran.

She travels nationwide, training volunteers to contact funeral homes and how to verify whether abandoned cremains are those of a veteran or dependents.

“It’s a complex process to obtain all the military paperwork needed for funerals,” she says, “but it’s worthwhile because we owe these vets a wonderful send off.”

To make it easier to do research and pick up cremains at funeral homes, Salanti has obtained a memorandum of understanding between several national funeral home network’s and MIAP.

“It’s a win-win partnership for us all,” says Salanti.

Acquiring documentation of military service can be a time-consuming process, explains Cesler, a former veterans service in Idaho.

“A veteran with an honorable discharge isn’t in the VA system until he or she applies for benefits,” he explains.

To further complicate verification, each military service maintains its own records.  There also are records at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo.

“It takes a while to file a request at the correct agency and to get an answer,” says Cesler.

His patiences and persistence have rewarded him.

“It’s not often in your life that you’re given a chance to start an organization like MIAP and do something on a national level that touches so many people’s lives,” says Cesler.  “MIAP has become the voice for those who have none and continues to be dedicated to remembering our forgotten heroes.”