DETROIT — Decades after their death, four U.S. veterans have become like family to 23-year-old Rachael Racisz.
Unable to find relatives, she has become a legal next-of-kin, seeing that the men are honored with proper military interment at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly.
“It’s much better than having them left in a cabinet,” said Racisz, a funeral director at Voran Funeral Home in Taylor, who has been able to track down only the barest details of the men’s lives. “It’s my way of honoring what they’ve done.”
On Monday, the shoebox-sized, plastic boxes of their ashes will be placed in a flag-draped casket and carried through a funeral procession before Dearborn’s 90th annual Memorial Day parade.
The cremated remains of Seaman 1C John Avram — who was in the Normandy and Okinawa Landings in World War II — as well as those of Pvt. Andrew Hudacko, Pvt. Howard Johannsen and Pvt. Orville Koonce had been among those unclaimed in Voran’s storage areas since as far back as 1976.
Remains of Sgt. Russell Shumway, who served in the Army in World War I, were brought from Grand Rapids and also included.
Racisz and others have taken to heart a state law passed in 2009 that gives non-relatives an opportunity to ensure U.S. veterans get the military funerals they deserve. The work involves reaching out to relatives and ensuring that records are in order, as well as setting up funeral arrangements.
The Missing in America Project sparked the national effort and helped bring about the change. Its volunteers work with funeral homes to confirm whether unclaimed remains are eligible for military burial.
The Department of Veterans Affairs received more than 1,400 requests from the project in 2013, although searches can come up short when details and family members aren’t available, according a spokesperson with the National Cemetery Administration.
In Michigan last year, the Missing in America Project resulted in roughly 20 burials, said Mary Compeau, the project’s state coordinator. She said funeral homes aren’t always cooperative about opening their books. Some, with hundreds of unclaimed cremains, appear concerned they’ll be seen as negligent, she said.
Compeau of Clinton Township became involved with the project a few years ago. As someone who’s part Chippewa, she said it’s a traditional belief that “you’re never really gone until nobody remembers you. What I do, what this organization does, it brings these people alive, makes these lives known and admired and noticed.”
She said participants make sure to save photos from the military funerals. That way, if family members ever inquire, they can show them “we took our responsibility seriously.”
Compeau coordinates about a dozen volunteers in Michigan, who cold-call funeral homes to find names that can be confirmed through the VA database.
“I lost somebody in Vietnam,” Compeau, who’s in her 60s, said of her inspiration to volunteer. “And that has stayed with me my whole life.”
At 17, she saw the man she loved buried in Lakeville after he was shot dead in an ambush at age 22. She plans to visit his burial site on Memorial Day.
Greg Price, 68, of Huron Township is the national executive committeeman for the Sons of the American Legion in Michigan and a Missing in America Project volunteer. He said he became involved in part out of respect for his father, Kenneth Price, who served in the Pacific during World War II and was on the USS Cleveland during bombardments.
“He got banged up,” Price said, adding that he had what would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder and died of congestive heart failure at 49. The family gave him a proper burial in his uniform, with freshly shined white spats.
“These guys and ladies put themselves in harm’s way for myself and everybody else,” he said, adding that this compelled him to help see that they get proper funerals. “For me, it’s a no-brainer: If we can help, we just got to help.”
Racisz has spent dozens of hours working on the military interments. She has helped eight veterans get proper funerals since 2011, clearing the list across the funeral home’s three metro Detroit locations. With a father, grandfather and brother serving in the military, she said the funerals are her “little part” toward service.
“It’s been challenging, but rewarding,” she said. “It’s very meaningful. They had people who loved them.”
On Thursday, Racisz was able to finalize arrangements for the May 30 interment of the five men. As many as 100 Michigan Patriot Guard riders are expected to be there, along with military traditions of taps and volleys.
But Racisz won’t be there. The next day, she’s getting married.
She plans to stop by and honor the veterans, though, as they’re being placed near her fiancé’s father, a Navy veteran from Flat Rock who died in 2012.
The veterans to be honored in Monday’s procession are:
- Sgt. Russell A. Shumway: Born Nov. 16, 1894, in North Dakota; died March 31, 1980, in Grand Rapids; Army Troop A, 14th Cavalry WWI May 1917 to September 1919.
- Seaman 1C John Avram: Born March 29, 1924, in Detroit; died Jan. 25, 1986, in Detroit; Navy, USS LST-51 WWII July 1943 to December 1945 (Normandy Landings, Okinawa Landings).
- Pvt. Andrew Hudacko: Born Feb. 10, 1918, in Pennsylvania; died Feb. 22, 1993, in Detroit; Army Signal Corps May 1944 to June 1946.
- Pvt. Howard W. Johannsen: Born Aug. 10, 1918, in Chicago; died Dec. 31, 1976, in Detroit; Army June 1942 to October 1945.
- Pvt. Orville M. Koonce: Born April 26, 1924, in Nashville; died Feb. 25, 1993, in Taylor; Army Air Corps August 1943 to October 1945.