DAYTON, Ohio — One by one, they carried the cremated remains of “forgotten” veterans from the back of a black hearse and laid the urns next to tri-folded American flags.
The veterans served from World War I to the Vietnam war in the Army, Air Force and Navy, but at the end of their lives had no one claim their remains.
Tuesday, they got the remembrance they never received: A memorial interment service at the Dayton National Cemetery where the cremains of the 15 airmen, sailors and soldiers will be buried next to 49,000 other former service members or their spouses along long rows of simple white gravestones.
“This is American veterans and they need the honor of a military funeral and that’s what we gave them,” said Roger Casto, a Marine Corps veteran and chaplain with the Missing In America Project’s Ohio chapter. “They’ve all served honorably in the U.S. military.”
The Missing in America Project looks for the unclaimed cremains of war time veterans at funeral homes, coroners’ offices, and cemeteries to give a proper burial to those that have been left behind by family or friends or reasons that aren’t known. “We are their families now,” said Casto, 60, of Columbus.
The 15 cremains were stored at Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum in Dayton, said Steve Ebersole, Ohio state coordinator of the Missing in America Project. The date of the veterans’ deaths spanned 1972 to 2008, according to the organization.
“There are hundreds of thousands of unclaimed cremains all over the United States,” he said. Eight to 10 percent of those may be veterans, said Ebersole, 67, of Columbus.
“They’ve never had a flag flown over their graves,” the Navy veteran said. “When we get done, we’ll make sure that never happens again.”
Nearly 20 American Legion motorcycle riders Tuesday accompanied the veterans final trip to Dayton National Cemetery. Nine American Legion members in crisp, white shirts and caps fired in unison a volley of three ceremonial rifle shots from the top of a hill. A bugler played taps on a World War II-era plastic green trumpet.
Each headstone on the veterans’ graves, Ebersole said, will have an inscribed message: “You Are Not Forgotten.”
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, who spoke at the ceremony, wants to expand who can request a gravestone from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Portman co-introduced legislation in the Senate to allow state veterans service organizations, military researchers, historians, genealogists and others, if next-of-kin or a designated representative cannot be found, to request a headstone or marker. The bill, known as The Honor Those Who Served Act of 2014, also would let anyone ask for a headstone for a deceased veteran if the past service member was on active-duty at least 75 years before the date of the request. Companion legislation is in the House.
The bill was spurred when the VA in May 2012 enforced a policy that did not allow veterans organizations, among others, to request a headstone for a veteran. The VA had said it would modify the policy in April 2013, but hasn’t, according to Portman.
“What they have said is they are concerned about privacy and therefore want to keep it just for next of kin,” said Portman, who added the legislation tackles that concern “so we think we can preserve the privacy for the family, but also ensure that our veterans are given a proper burial and the proper recognition they deserve.”
VA spokesman Craig Larson did not have information on the status of a modification to the policy, but he noted in an email only the deceased veteran’s next-of-kin, or an authorized representative of the next-of-kin or the veteran, may ask for a headstone, marker or medallion.
In 2012, Congress endorsed legislation that allowed the VA to work with veterans groups to determine if abandoned or unidentified remains were veterans eligible to be buried in a national cemetery.