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Veterans’ remains go unclaimed, unburied, sometimes for years

WASHINGTON — On Friday, 15 veterans will be buried with full honors in an Arizona cemetery. One served in Africa during World War II, another in Korea. A third earned an Army Commendation Medal for his service in Vietnam.

The men were homeless or indigent when they died, and their remains sat unclaimed in funeral homes for months, even years. In other states, volunteers have found the remains of veterans who fought in the Civil War.

A new bill from Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, would instruct the Department of Veterans Affairs to work with veterans’ organizations to help find and identify the unclaimed remains of former servicemembers, and, if they are eligible, to ensure their interment in national cemeteries.

Portman and Begich’s office predict bipartisan support for the bill, which they expect to pass with little resistance. A similar bill sponsored by Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, already has 38 co-sponsors. But a version that was introduced in the last Congress died in committee.

Fred Salanti, the executive director of the Missing in America Project, which looks for and identifies the unclaimed remains of veterans and their dependents, worries that this year’s legislation will meet a similar fate.

“To me it’s very frustrating, because anybody that hears what we’re doing or sees what we’re doing automatically is on board,” he said.

Since Salanti’s organization began in 2006, its work has led to the recovery, identification and burial of the remains of more than 1,600 veterans. He said the volunteers expected to reach 2,000 burials within the next couple of months.

Many of the veterans they find were homeless or indigent when they died, he explained, while others were lost in mix-ups after their spouses or other loved ones died. Steve Ebersole, an American Legion member who lobbied Tiberi about the House of Representatives bill, has been working with the Missing in America Project to find unclaimed remains in Ohio.

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Volunteers have found 10 veterans’ remains — among them the recipient of a Bronze Star with valor — and they’ll be buried in Dayton National Cemetery on May 22.

A Bronze Star recipient “does not belong — I don’t care what anybody says — does not belong in the basement of a funeral home,” Ebersole said.

The legislation, Salanti hopes, would help streamline the process and encourage funeral homes — which are sometimes fearful of releasing information or burial rights due to liability issues — to work with veterans’ organizations to identify unclaimed remains.

Neither the National Funeral Directors Association nor the Cremation Association of North America has records on the number of unclaimed remains at funeral homes.

Barbara Kemmis, the executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, said the issue of unclaimed remains came up at a recent trade conference. Her impression from funeral home directors was that it’s an extensive problem.

Funeral home directors will, “to a one,” she said, do everything they can to preserve cremated remains on the off chance that someone claims them. Some have even put up additions or new buildings to store them.

The Congressional Budget Office hasn’t researched the cost of the Senate bill yet. A representative from Portman’s office said the CBO suggested that the cost should be low, considering that the VA already sets aside money for burying eligible veterans in national cemeteries.

Another provision of both versions of the bill would instruct the VA to create a nationwide public database of missing remains to aid in their identification. Portman’s office added that the VA already keeps a database of veterans’ grave sites that could be adapted for accounting for missing remains, keeping costs down.

There’s no CBO research into the House version of the bill, either, but an aide from Tiberi’s office said the cost would be “negligible.”

The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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