The first time Bob Day came across Arthur Uffman, the World War II veteran had long been cremated, his ashes forgotten on a shelf at an Arizona mortuary.
For Day, who served in Vietnam, allowing the veteran’s remains to languish any longer would have been akin to abandoning a fellow soldier stricken in combat. So the point man in Arizona for the Missing in America Project set out to give Uffman a proper sendoff.
In April, a hearse carried Uffman’s ashes in a golden metal urn to his final destination: a veterans’ cemetery where he and 17 other long-neglected service members, most indigent and homeless, were laid to rest with military honors. Uffman had died in 1994, two years after his wife, Pauline. Her ashes, which sat unclaimed in the same funeral home, were buried alongside her husband’s.
That he knew almost nothing about the lives of any of the veterans honored at the solemn service mattered little to Day, one of hundreds of volunteers with the Missing in America Project working to identify and inter the unclaimed ashes of veterans. He knew they had served their country well and received an honorable discharge. “That’s enough for us as veterans. They belong with their brothers in a place of honor.”
In 48 states, from Oregon to New York, New Mexico to Missouri, funeral ceremonies like the one near Tucson — the first of its kind in the region — are happening more frequently. Since its creation in 2007, the nonprofit Missing in America Project has recovered the cremated remains of 1,847 veterans, laying most to rest, said Fred Salanti, the group’s executive director.
So far, volunteers have visited 1,982 funeral homes and found 11,219 cremated remains, he said: “We just got 700 names in Florida and they’re working like crazy to identify them. Florida has yet to have a service, but when they have one it will be pretty good-sized.”
The program primarily deals with cremated remains, and trying to determine whether the unclaimed ashes belong to veterans is an arduous process that includes hours of poring through piles of paperwork. Each name is checked against records from the Department of Veterans Affairs that confirm military service and confer burial benefits.
Salanti, an Army veteran, lives in California, and his home state has yielded about a third of the unclaimed veterans. He attributes that to friendly laws that facilitate their recovery. The organization has pushed successfully for similar legislation in several states, and is lobbying for a federal law that would bring the Missing in America Project into the fold of the VA.
Meanwhile, volunteers continue to scour mortuaries for signs of fallen troops. “I think it’s unconscionable to leave them 20 to 30 years on a shelf, never to have a burial with their peers,” Salanti said. “The right thing to do is to bury all of these veterans with honor and respect.”
The inspiration for the veteran recovery program originated in Idaho, where Richard Cesler was once asked what he was doing about the remains of veterans abandoned around the state. Taken aback, the then-director of the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery focused his attention on the problem. In 2006, he helped recover more than 20 unclaimed remains, among them a Korean War veteran and his wife who lay forgotten in a storage unit.
“This was a situation that I felt like it needed to be rectified,” said Cesler, now director of the newly opened Washington State Veterans Cemetery. In September, the Missing in America Project and other veterans groups honored 62 former troops from all five military branches in the state’s first such funeral ceremony.
Back in Arizona, a harried Bob Day suspects that he and his team will soon add more veterans to the list of 39 already recovered. “I just got told that I may have more than 1,000 names to go through at a local funeral home.”
Not all mortuaries are as forthcoming, but more tend to cooperate as they become familiar with the organization's work, Day said. He understands the reluctance of some to release information given delicate privacy concerns surrounding unclaimed remains and the rights of families. Day often points out to funeral home operators that his organization carries liability insurance and is prepared “to help funeral homes in case a family member gets upset if a veteran is buried.”
Also, retrieving a veteran’s urn from a columbarium is a lot less complicated than an underground exhumation, he explains.
Adair Funeral Homes in Tucson works closely with Day and his team while still being mindful of its clients’ privacy, said general manager John Chapman.
“We’ve turned over about 25 to30 records,” he said.
Those numbers included veterans who died penniless and might otherwise have ended up at paupers’ graves; the VA estimates as many as 100,000 veterans can be homeless on any given night. Many veterans go unclaimed simply because they are estranged from family, Day said. He tries not to dwell on the reasons, but thinking about those veterans, and the ones he has yet to find, make his head ache.
“The numbers are increasing so fast I worry about keeping up and doing what needs to be done.”
On a recent night, what he needed to do was put on a $10-a-plate barbecue to help raise the $180 it costs to bury each veteran’s ashes. Day hoped to make enough money to buy more urns, the highest expense, and some flags that will flutter in the breeze during funeral ceremonies.