Friday, 21 June 2024

Missing in America Project searches for forgotten veterans

For generations, they've waited. Unclaimed, forgotten, silently occupying the shelves of mortuaries and state hospitals across the United States.

The cremated remains of veterans, many indigent, many more forgotten through loss of family and friends wait for someone to remember them.

Their stories have begun to emerge from the shadows of society's forgetfulness, thanks to a group of veterans and dedicated civilians who want to see them honored and given a final resting place.

Today, the Missing in America Project – called MIAP for short – is seeking out what the group believes will be tens of thousands of unburied veterans who served in wars throughout the past century.

Lots of ground to cover

The movement's founder is Vietnam vet Fred Salanti of Grants Pass, Ore., who served as a major in the U.S. Army's I-Corps in northern Vietnam from March 1968 to December 1969.

Salanti also is a member of the Patriot Guard Riders. That group formed in 2005 to protect the families of fallen Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers from religious zealots who were disrupting the soldier's funerals.

While working as a regional facilitator for the Patriot Guard Riders, Salanti became involved with conducting monthly services at regional and state cemeteries for veterans with no family and no money.

It was then that he stumbled across the unrecognized need to bury indigent and forgotten veterans, an issue that he said “has just been ignored.”

He took the cause back to the Patriot Guard, who supported starting the MIAP, which has since become a separate organization.

The MIAP's guidelines call for assisting funeral homes with researching all cremains in their possession to find veterans, submitting the cremain's records to the Veterans Administration Cemetery System for screening for eligibility for burial and notifying funeral homes of cremains eligible for burial.

The funeral homes must then follow requirements for submitting the cremains to a VA cemetery. From there, MIAP will coordinate a full military service with the cemetery involved.

The massive, ongoing effort is open to everyone who wants to help, said Salanti. “We've got a lot of ground to cover.”

The group officially got started on Nov. 9, 2006, when the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery held its first ceremony, complete with full military honors, to inter the cremains of forgotten veterans.

Since then, the effort has rapidly gained steam, said Salanti.

On Feb. 12, MIAP officially incorporated, he said. A week later, on Feb. 19, the cremains of 21 veterans and veterans' family members – for whom MIAP also provides burials necessary – were interred at the Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo.

An overwhelming need

The finds of cremains have started happening at a rapid pace, said Salanti.

In a piece that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, The Oregonian told the story of 3,500 cremains, many of people who had been patients in the state hospital, which were put in copper, quart-sized cans and stacked on shelves in a basement storage room.

One thousand of those forgotten souls are expected to be veterans, said Salanti. The findings span the years from 1890 to 1971, an era that begins with the Spanish American War and ends with Vietnam. Salanti said he expects even to find the cremains of Civil War veterans as well.

While Oregon is the most glaring case, the discoveries are taking place around the country, said Salanti.

In Michigan, they're working to identify 350 sets of cremains recently discovered, he said. In Reno, 34 unburied vets recently were discovered. Idaho alone has found and interred 91 vets.

And they haven't even scratched the surface, he believes. So far, the larger urban areas of the Bay Area and Southern California haven't been addressed. Thousands of funeral homes across the country that have yet to be approached could contain thousands more.

“Everybody that looks at what we're doing estimates we're going to have 10,000 to 15,000 veterans that we find on the shelves,” said Salanti.

He believes that number is low, and adds the number of vets that could be found “is pretty limitless.”

Salanti said MIAP is establishing a nationwide network of individuals who will help conduct research and complete the voluminous paperwork needed to gain the cremains' release for burial.

They're getting support from groups such as the American Legion, and hes advocating with the California Department of Veterans Affairs, the Oregon State Hospital Board and Oregon Veterans Affairs for support.

Approaching the funeral homes

Many of the difficulties MIAP faces aren't so much about finding the veterans but cutting through voluminous red tape.

“Sometimes the easy part is getting in to find the cremains and writing the names down,” Salanti said.

The cremains are often found in funeral homes. Sometimes the family abandons them at a funeral home, said Salanti, or there is no family left to see to final arrangements.

Those unclaimed or abandoned cremains are then stored, said Salanti. “It's easy to put them on a shelf. They're out of sight, out of mind.”

But Salanti emphasizes that MIAP isn't out to point fingers at anyone, from funeral homes to families. “Our project isn't out to say one word of accusation.”

Once legal time limits for holding the cremains pass, said Salanti, it's up to the funeral home to decide what to do.

In California, there is a $30 fee to transfer the bodies from the funeral homes for burial. Of that, $10 goes to the county and $20 to the state, Salanti explained. Efforts are under way to get the state to waive those fees.

But Salanti believes that it isn't the issue of money that keeps the cremains in storage, but rather the hope that family will come forward and take the responsibility.

Because of concerns for liability, “Nobody wants to act too fast,” said Salanti.

MIAP is working to build credibility, said Salanti, which is essential to getting funeral homes to open their doors to the group.

While focused on the vets, Salanti's voice breaks when he talks about the difficulty of leaving behind the thousands of other unburied and unclaimed people, for whom no one is advocating.

Needed: Dedicated volunteers

One of MIAP's greatest needs is dedicated volunteers, said Salanti.

“We need help and people from throughout the country who are just concerned that this is a problem,” said Salanti. Through the efforts of such people, he said, MIAP “eventually will cover the whole nation.”

“It takes volunteers like Slick,” said Salanti.

Slick is Earl “Slick” Hultquist of Scotts Valley.

If you didn't know any better, you'd swear Hultquist was a career military man. At 68, he's trim, he wears his hair short and he has an air of precision. The home he shares with wife Sandy is complete with a white picket fence and American flag waving from the porch.

Hultquist, who retired after 35 years with Pacific Bell, did a five-year stint in the Army Reserves. He's never fought in a war himself, but his older brother is a World War II vet. In addition, one of his uncles died in World War II, and he lost relatives in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. One of his two grown sons just retired after 20 years in the Air Force.

As such, the needs of veterans strike a chord with Hultquist, a motorcycle enthusiast who joined the Patriot Guard and helped escort the body of a fallen Ukiah soldier to his funeral last year.

Working with the Patriot Guard led Hultquist to the MIAP. Both groups' efforts on behalf of vets “is all about respect,” said Hultquist.

Hultquist is now being trained in the intricate research and paperwork necessary to help handle cremains, look for family members and train new volunteers. “My head is practically spinning from all the information.”

He'll work with the 11 mortuaries in Lake and Mendocino counties – such as Chapel of the Lakes Mortuary in Lakeport, one of the first he contacted – to look for unclaimed vets.

Talking of the nationwide effort to recover vets, Hultquist said, “The more we get into this, the deeper it gets.”

He added, “We open our arms” to volunteer help.

So far, the MIAP has 95 volunteers like Hultquist nationwide, but they need more, Salanti said. Their plans includes formulating their own database of names and genealogy research.

Locally, indigent vets have a place prepared for their final rest. Called Veterans Circle, the United Veterans Council Military Funeral Honors Team created the space at Hartley Cemetery last year.

So far, no vets have been laid to rest there, according to Rich Feiro, the honors team's firing party commander.

Getting the government's attention

Salanti wants to see laws created to address veterans' burials.

That effort already is under way, with Idaho Sen. Larry Craig introducing S 1266 in the wake of his state finding and finally interring the cremains of 91 veterans.

Craig's legislation would increase the VA burial plot allowance from $300 to $400. The plot allowances, according to Craig's legislation, were created in 1973 to keep veterans from ending up in paupers' graves.

S 1266 also would change current law, which says state cemeteries may be reimbursed for interring eligible veterans by plot allowance revenue only if the internment takes place within two years of cremation.

“Just as our system of benefits does not abandon or give up on veterans who are homeless or chronically ill, so too should our burial benefits system be designed not to abandon or give up on veterans whose remains are unclaimed,” Craig told Congress.

One of the MIAP's most significant hurdles is convincing the Veterans Administration to formally acknowledge the issue of unburied veterans, Salanti said. The VA published a 2003 study that addressed the issue, so they know the problem exists, he added.

MIAP also is advocating to get the Veterans Administration to give them access to a database of military personnel so they can double-check names of veterans and their spouses and children. In some cases, where records are so old they haven't been computerized, it may take giving volunteers access to actual file boxes at the VA headquarters.

Checking those military records, said Salanti, is the bottleneck in the process.

Respect and honor is due

Salanti said it's important to remember that, despite their best efforts, MIAP likely won't be able to recover some veterans, who in some cases may already have been interred in unmarked graves.

Those they can find, however, have honor and respect due to them, he said.

“Now that we know that they're there, let's go get them,” he said.

How you can help

If you would like to become involved with the local MIAP effort, contact Slick Hultquist at 263-8105. In addition, Salanti can be contacted via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Monetary donations are also requested, as Salanti said MIAP will need donations to pay for fees in states where burial and transfer fees aren't waived. MIAP is a nonprofit, so donations are tax-deductible.

For more information about MIAP and Patriot Guard, visit them online at, or

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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