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Calif. vets: State may have money, or even medals, waiting for you to claim

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It’s another call to duty.

In a massive effort to reunite California’s military veterans with $36.3 million in unclaimed cash, as well as their “lost or forgotten” wartime mementos, state officials announced Thursday that they are mailing out more than 95,000 letters to military men and women, asking them to step up and claim what’s theirs.

For those in the military, in which frequent reassignments and relocations are common, it’s not unusual for refunds, bank accounts and even wartime medals to become missing in action.

“When someone serves in the military, many times they move around a lot and family heirlooms are forgotten, utility deposits are ignored and things get lost in the shuffle,” said Peter Gravett, California Department of Veterans Affairs secretary.

The unification effort is part of the state controller’s unclaimed property program, which is California’s financial “lost and found” department. By law, financial institutions or companies must turn over to the state for safekeeping accounts that have sat untouched for more than three years. That means uncashed paychecks, utility refunds, life insurance payments, proceeds from stocks and bonds. It also applies to safe deposit boxes.

The state is sitting on $7.1 billion in unclaimed property, including that identified as belonging to military veterans.

In a first-ever collaboration, the CalVet office and the state Controller’s Office merged their massive databases and were able to match more than 95,300 names of veterans or their survivors, primarily from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Gravett said the cash amounts average $300 each, with some as small as 8 cents.

Aside from millions in cash, there’s a trove of wartime memorabilia: Aluminum dog tags. A sobering lineup of prisoner-of-war medals. A parade of Purple Heart medals, given to soldiers who suffered injuries in combat, and blue-boxed Silver Star medals. A drab-green U.S. Army cap from World War I, neatly rimmed with a dozen ribboned medals.

There’s also written correspondence, including a typed 1944 letter from Walt Disney Productions, accompanying a color illustration of a swaying Hawaiian hula dancer created for “the men of the Aircraft Rescue Service.” She was intended to be worn on uniform arm patches or painted onto the nose of military aircraft. Some of the wartime memorabilia is poignant: a “Dear Mom” letter by a USS California sailor, written in 1942 to his mother in Los Angeles, describing some of the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Pete Conaty, who represents a bevy of veterans’ organizations statewide, said the personal items have important emotional significance for families.

“So often, veterans don’t talk about their experience with their families. The families may not even know these mementos even exist,” he said.

He urged all veterans, as well as children, grandchildren or other heirs of deceased military members, to search the state’s unclaimed property database at www.claimit.ca.gov. There’s also a national database that covers unclaimed property programs in every state: www.unclaimed.org.

One of those who got an unexpected surprise Thursday was Reid Milburn, a former Air Force staff sergeant. She stopped by CalVet’s lobby to type her name into the state controller’s website. A quick online search turned up nothing. But when she typed in her father’s name, Milburn hit a jackpot. She found $130, $500 and $2,130 in long-lost accounts attached to his previous addresses in Long Beach and Atascadero.

Her dad, Charles Milburn, 67, is an Air Force veteran who lives in Sacramento, she said.

“It’s a pretty exciting day. He’s 100 percent disabled with service-related injuries, so it’ll be a really good surprise for him.”

At Thursday’s news conference, Controller John Chiang said a proud moment for his office came in 2007, when he was able to return a Congressional Medal of Honor and a U.S. Navy Cross to the family of the late Lt. Commander Jackson Charles Pharris, who was a 29-year-old gunner during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“The last place a medal should be is in a vault in the state of California,” said Chiang, urging veterans and their heirs to search the state’s unclaimed property database.
 

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