WASHINGTON — Fifteen veterans will be buried with full honors in an Arizona cemetery on April 20. One served in Africa during WWII, another in Korea. One earned an Army Commendation Medal for his service in Vietnam.
The men were homeless or indigent at the time of their death, and their remains sat, unclaimed, in funeral homes for months, even years. In other states, volunteers have found 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 unclaimed remains of former service members, and, if they are eligible, to ensure their interment in a national cemetery.
Both Portman and Begich’s office predict little resistance and bipartisan support for the bill. A similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, already has 38 co-sponsors. But a version introduced in the last Congress died in committee.
Fred Salanti, executive director for the Missing in America Project, which looks for and identifies unclaimed remains, worries this year’s legislation also will languish.
“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 more than 1,600 veterans, and he said the volunteers expect 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. Some were lost in the shuffle of end-of-life mix-ups.
Steve Ebersole, an American Legion member who also lobbied Tiberi about the House bill, has been working with the Missing in America Project to find unclaimed remains in Ohio.
Volunteers found 10 veterans’ remains, among them the recipient of a Bronze Star with valor, and they will be buried in Dayton National Cemetery on May 22.
“We have one act of valor, one Bronze Star that does not belong, I don’t care what anybody says, does not belong in the basement of a funeral home,” he said.
The legislation, Salanti hopes, would help streamline the process and encourage funeral homes, which are sometimes fearful to release information or burial rights due to liability issues.
Neither the National Funeral Directors Association or the Cremation Association of North America have records about the number of unclaimed remains at funeral homes.
Barbara Kemmins, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, said the issue of unclaimed remains came up at a recent trade conference. Her impression, hearing from funeral home directors, was this 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 someone claims them. Some have even put up additions or new buildings.
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 costs should be low, considering the Department of Veterans Affairs already sets aside money for burying eligible veterans in national cemeteries.
Another provision of the both versions of the bill would instruct the VA to create a nationwide, public database. Portman’s office added that the VA already keeps a database of veterans’ gravesites that could be adapted for accounting for missing remains, keeping costs down.
There is no CBO research into the House version of the bill either, but an aide from Teberi’s office said agreed the cost associated with the legislation would be “negligible.”