Volunteers Honor Remains of Forgotten Veterans With Final Ride
Missing in America Project riders accompany a hearse containing the remains of 13 veterans to the Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)
It's a clear November morning in Redding, California, when the sudden revving of motorcycles interrupts the quiet.
"We gotta get moving. Load 'em up, let's do a line here," says retired Army Major Fred Salanti, marshaling his troops into a convoy. One by one, the half-dozen men and one woman pull out into the street. Leading this motley escort is a "trike," or three-wheeler, outfitted with buffalo horns, a wolf pelt and an American flag flapping in the wind. Bringing up the rear, a white hearse follows the crew through the countryside. Some cars pull over to the side of the road to let the troops pass, while others salute.
We cross over the Sacramento River and drive along a winding road past fire-charred trees to the Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo (Shasta County).
At the cemetery, 13 boxes of cremated remains in different-colored velvet bags are carried from the hearse into the cemetery's chapel.
"We have a Marine Corps lady and two army veterans ladies from World War II," Salanti says. "We have another guy that was in prison for a while and he got his changed to be honorable. So, there's a whole menagerie of types of reasons why they're here today."
About seven years ago, Salanti discovered a problem: The remains of thousands of indigent and forgotten veterans were left on shelves in funeral homes and cemeteries.
"We fail," he says. "How can we have people, thousands of thousands. … How can they have that many unclaimed remains in urns sitting on their shelves?" he asks.
And this isn't just a problem for veterans. Funeral homes all over the country are struggling with what to do with cremated remains that have been abandoned for years and sometimes decades. So, Salanti started his nonprofit Missing in America Project to bury at least the veterans that are unclaimed.
Ephraim Laintz is director at Allen & Dahl's Funeral Chapel in Redding -- the first funeral home that started working with Salanti.
"If we require young men to go out and spend their blood and their time to serve this country," he says, "and then we send them back and just throw them into a situation where they're not cared for and they're not honored, I think that's a condemnation on us."
Laintz says helping the Missing in America Project find veterans is about honoring each individual who has served his country. Each has a story.
"There's a couple right now that are going up there today," he says. "She would fly military aircraft from this destination to that, and that's how she served our country during World War II. Her husband was in the Navy, so we have an opportunity to lay to rest a married couple who served our country."
So far, 33 states have passed laws allowing Salanti's organization to claim veterans' remains and handle their disposition. Last year, the Dignified Burial and Other Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act promised to reimburse individuals and groups that help bury veterans.
Salanti's project, funded largely by private donations, has located and buried more than 2,000 veterans across the country. Laintz says that before Salanti started his work, there really wasn't anyone going into funeral homes and trying to identify these people.
"When we have volunteers in the community that are willing to devote time to that -- that's the missing link -- because on the other side of that, the veterans cemeteries don't have time or resources or allocated funding from the state and federal government to send people specifically to do that," he says.
Kristen Parker, spokeswoman for the National Cemetery Association -- the federal organization that handles veterans' remains -- says sometimes it is just difficult to track down these individuals. They end up falling through the cracks.
"Unfortunately, when a veteran-anyone-dies with no next of kin or insufficient resources, I think it makes thing a little bit more complicated," she says. "I just think for the National Cemetery Administration and for the VA as a whole, we're honored to take care of veterans and their loved ones, and I think organizations like Missing in America Project help us to do that."
The project now has over 2,000 volunteers across the country, including the men and women who are attending the funeral in Igo. After the funeral service, some attendants -- bikers clad in bright green T-shirts with the letters MIAP emblazoned on the back and a few friends of the deceased -- file out of the chapel down to the columbarium to lay the veterans to rest in their niches.
Sheran Gertsch, who does a lot of the detective work for the Missing in America Project of identifying remains, lays to rest the remains of a man she spent two years tracking down.
"He had no Social Security number, so all I had to prove that he was a veteran was that he was in Fort Lewis when he became a citizen of the U.S. in 1914," she says. "I feel like I know the gentlemen, you know? I know so much about his life after combing through every record I can find on him, so it's, yeah, it's a heartwarming feeling to know that I finally got the gentleman buried."
The chaplain offers a final prayer to the congregants, and Salanti and the group embrace after the ceremony. One by one, they head off on their bikes.
"I do it because, over my period of career with the military and during war, I did lots of things that I'm maybe not the proudest of," Salanti says, tearing up. "This is my way of paying back. I feel satisfaction that I'm helping others. And the second reason, I don't want to be one of these guys, and I could very easily be one that's left on a shelf, and I would hope someone would be coming to get you off of there. That's why I do it."
Salanti says his next funeral will be in January, but in the meantime, he and his troop of volunteers will be combing the shelves for lost vets, making good on a country's promise to never forget.