The rumble of hundreds of motorcycle engines could be heard from miles away. Leather-clad motorcyclists, many with American flags fluttering proudly behind them, streamed into Quantico National Cemetery in Virginia on Saturday morning, June 22. The bikers, from Veteran groups like the Patriot Guard Riders and the Nam Knights, escorted a funeral procession for 18 ‘no longer forgotten’ Veterans. The ceremony was sponsored by the Missing in America Project (MIAP).
MIAP is a nationwide, non-profit organization that facilitates the rescue of unclaimed cremated remains of Veterans from the shelves of funeral homes, hospitals and coroners offices. When MIAP volunteers discover unclaimed remains, they work with VA to determine eligibility and arrange for interment in national and state Veterans cemeteries.
“For me, it’s all about bringing them home,” said Virginia MIAP coordinator Brigitte Corbin. “We want them all to be recognized.”
The cremated remains of the soldiers, sailors and airmen honored on this day were found stored on shelves, some left for decades, in a single funeral home in Hampton Roads, Va. Among them were Veterans of both world wars, Korea and Vietnam.
There were no family members present for the deceased, yet hundreds participated in the funeral service complete with rifle volleys, flag folding, a rendering of “Taps” and the solemn lowering of the urns into their final resting places.
“These 18 Veterans earned the honors being rendered to them today,” said Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Steve L. Muro during his remarks at the ceremony. “They earned our undying gratitude and they earned our respect.”
The reasons that cremated remains go unclaimed are many and it is not always because the deceased is indigent. Family situations involving estrangement, money issues and distance can contribute to a Veteran’s remains being left behind. Others simply have no family—they die alone.
The organization has interred more than 1,500 Veterans since its establishment in 2007. On the same day as the Quantico ceremony, Long Island National Cemetery hosted a MIAP interment ceremony for 34 Veterans and spouses including two Veterans of the Civil War. Just one day earlier, 11 Veterans were interred at a MIAP ceremony at Bath National Cemetery in New York.
Part of the challenge for MIAP has been to overcome the laws that require a funeral home to keep possession of remains until they are signed for by a family member. MIAP representatives have been successful in lobbying local and state governments to relax laws that would leave funeral homes vulnerable to litigation if they were to release Veterans’ remains for burial. Nationally, President Obama signed the Dignified Burial and Other Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2012 on Jan. 10 directing VA to cooperate with groups like MIAP in determining whether unidentified or abandoned remains are those of Veterans eligible for burial at a national cemetery.
With the firing of rifles and the bugler’s solemn tribute, 18 more forgotten Veterans were laid to rest. While MIAP’s efforts have produced encouraging results, the problem of unclaimed remains is still prevalent in our nation’s funeral homes according to the Cremation Association of North America. VA, for its part, will always help Veterans find their way to dignified and honorable final resting places. For what they gave for their country, they deserve nothing less.
Chris Erbe is a public affairs specialist with the National Cemetery Administration. He is a 26-year Veteran of the U.S. Navy where he served as a musician and public affairs specialist.