Unclaimed Weber County vets receive full military funerals

OGDEN — They have no known family and some of them have been dead for nearly 20 years, but last weekend a group of Utah veterans finally received the resting place they deserve.

On Aug. 1, an organization known as the “Missing in America Project” honored 21 Utah veterans whose remains have been in the care of area mortuaries, in some cases for as long as 18 years, but have remained unclaimed. A full military service was held for the veterans at the Utah Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Riverton. 

Eleven of the veterans are from Weber County and 10 hail from Salt Lake County. A pair of Salt Lake County veterans who have been in the care of family will also be included in the service.  

Roger Graves, a Cedar City resident who oversees the MIAP project in a five-state region that also includes Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming and Montana, said the MIAP’s mission is to locate, identify and inter the unclaimed cremated remains of veterans to “provide honor and respect to those who have served this country,” by securing a final resting place for veterans that Graves calls “Forgotten Heroes.”

“To put it in the simplest terms, we travel all over the country, going to funeral homes, crematoriums and coroner’s offices searching out unclaimed cremated remains,” Graves said. “Then we find out if they were veterans, and if they were honorably discharged, we honor them (with a military funeral).”

To date, the MIAP has interred 2,441 veterans across the country. The organization estimates the remains of 200,000 to 300,000 veterans are still unclaimed.

“There is a lot of work to be done,” Graves said. “But we’re not jumping in trying to recruit armies of volunteers, because it has to be done right.”

Graves said his organization first attempts to find family or friends who will accept the ashes, but it doesn’t happen very often. If the group can’t locate anyone associated with a veteran, the veteran is given a funeral.

“It’s tough because you want to locate someone still living who knew this person, someone who had some kind of connection,” he said. “We get death certificates from hospice centers, senior care facilities and sometimes the person just died on the street.”

Graves said there are numerous reasons veterans can remain unclaimed.

“Sometimes there is family dysfunction, sometimes it’s homelessness, some of it is old age and the person has outlived all their family,” he said. “We’ve been to care homes where the workers there will tell us a particular person hadn’t had a visitor in 15 years. There are all kinds of reasons, most of them are very sad.”

The MIAP relies heavily on the assistance of state, federal and even private organizations to accomplish that objective. After names are gathered from funeral homes, MIAP takes them to the Department of Defense for verification, and then works with state organizations to arrange for funerals in state veterans cemeteries. The group also receives donations and other assistance from the private sector.

Ogden resident and Vietnam veteran Terry Schow worked with the organization when he served as director of the Utah Veterans Affairs. In the 2013 legislative session, Schow said, Utah passed a law that allows organizations like the MIAP to identify, claim, and inter the unclaimed cremated remains of veterans. The law authorizes facilities holding such remains to release status information and allows for the participation in the burial process by a state agency.

“It’s important work,” Schow said. “A veteran deserves his final respect. Twenty years is too long for anybody to wait for that, but especially for some that served their country.”

For the Utah service, Graves said, Deseret Memorial Mortuary in Salt Lake City donated a hearse and driver to carry the veterans’ remains. The vehicle was escorted by members of the MIAP, independent veterans motorcycle organizations carrying large American flags and other vehicles.

Graves said government officials, the public and media were invited to attend.

Dennis Howland, another Ogden Vietnam veteran, planned to attend the ceremony in his official capacity as director of the Utah Vietnam Veterans of America.

“As a (soldier), the worst thing that can happen to you is not being killed, it’s not being captured,” he said. “It’s being forgotten.”

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