Waging a Final Battle for Forgotten Vets

The cremains of those who served in the armed forces sit languishing on the shelves of funeral homes, a sad scandal as we mark Veterans Day this month. But an unlikely army of supporters — bikers — are determined to identify the departed and give them a dignified send-off
Illustration by Craig LaRotonda

Throttling down, Jim “Bingo” O’Donnell pulls his lava-red Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic bike into the parking lot of a funeral home in western Wayne County, then smoothly glides to a halt. He kills the 1450-c.c. engine, drops the kickstand, and pops off his old-school shorty helmet. Moments later, he is strolling through the building’s heavy white entrance door and into the spacious and finely appointed reception area — a man on a mission.

With a tight smile, Charlene answers what questions she can from the two drop-ins. Later, out of earshot, she mildly criticizes their approach. “Normally, somebody has an appointment,” she says. “But someone who I don’t know from Adam just walks in and says, ‘Have you got any cremains?’ and starts asking a lot of questions and handing me all this material. Meanwhile, I’m trying to get a family ready for visitation.”
O’Donnell is nonplussed. “We prefer a sneak attack,” the 56-year-old Canton resident explains, smiling. “When you mail someone some literature about what we’re up to, they like to just put it aside and forget about it. This way, we can look into their eyes. So far, it’s been working out pretty good for us.”

It turns out that this particular funeral home has about 40 sets of unclaimed cremains, an indeterminate number of whom once served in the U.S. armed forces. O’Donnell and Price are given the funeral director’s phone number and encouraged to talk to him directly. “We’ll be back,” O’Donnell promises.

Sons of anarchy? Hardly. O’Donnell and Price are part of the Missing in America Project (MIAP), a national volunteer effort to locate, identify, and respectfully put to rest an unknown number of American military veterans whose cremains lay forgotten inside funeral homes, mortuaries, hospitals, prisons, and medical schools around the country.

The nonprofit project was launched in January 2007, with Fred Salanti, a retired Army major living in California, serving as executive director. It came on the heels of a startling discovery inside the Oregon State Hospital (the setting for the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), where roughly 5,000 rusting tin cans holding human cremains were found languishing in the basement. Some dated to the 1890s. Salanti figures as many as 1,000 of them are veterans. But hospital officials have so far refused to fully cooperate in identifying them, saying they can’t release confidential patient records to MIAP and that they lack the staff to sort through the cremains themselves.

Such neglect rankles Larry Root, the MIAP coordinator for Michigan. He mentions a master sergeant who was killed in Iraq in 2006. Two years later, his cremains remain uncollected at a funeral home in Rockford. Root is fond of a quote from an unknown author. A veteran, he says, “is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America, for an amount of ‘up to and including my life.’ That is honor, and there are way too many people in this country who no longer understand it.”

“I suppose in a way this project is my way of serving,” says Root, a 52-year retired railroad worker who lives on a 50-acre farm in Concord. “It’s very satisfying when we can get these veterans out of closets and basements and give them the kind of proper send-off they deserve. It means that from now on, each Veterans Day and each Memorial Day they’re going to have a wreath or a flag placed on their grave. They’ll be remembered and honored for their service.”

As funeral directors everywhere have learned to their chagrin, the growing popularity of cremation has given new meaning to the term “shelf life.” (For more information on this topic, see the March 2008 issue of Hour Detroit). Through the immediate post-World War II era, cremation was a relatively rare practice. However, social and religious objections, particularly among Roman Catholics, began to wane in the 1960s.

Today, about one-third of all deceased Americans are cremated, the Cremation Association of North America reports. But a vexing problem accompanied this surge: What to do with all those boxes of cremains that family members either forget or refuse to pick up? In most cases, the next of kin has either died or moved or otherwise vanished, and after several decades the oldest of the abandoned cremains are unlikely ever to be retrieved.

There are no laws governing the disposal of cremains in Michigan. Any policy “depends on the individual funeral home,” says a funeral director in Mount Clemens. “The problem is that there’s no law that says you either have to hold on to them for so long or that you’re free to get rid of them.”

According to Jim Vermeulen, Jr., the owner and president of funeral homes in Westland, Plymouth, and Detroit, roughly 35 percent of the three homes’ collective 500 funerals each year are cremations. “The problem [of abandoned cremains] is only as bad as you let it become,” he says. Over the last 10 to 15 years, the firm has become more savvy about collecting information from next of kin and vigorously follows up when nobody collects the cremains. Families also sign a release that allows the funeral home to inter the cremains as they see fit after a specified period of time.

All this has substantially reduced the problem of unclaimed cremains over the past decade or so. However, it’s done nothing for the backlog of older cremains.

There wouldn’t be any criminal repercussions if an undertaker were to simply treat cremains as so many overfilled ashtrays. But civil liability remains a possibility — and that’s the rub. Most have already been consigned by their caretakers to that better-safe-than-sorry category of possessions that includes old tax returns and yellowing ledgers. Just hold onto them — and remember to take them when you move.

The fear of a lawsuit is what keeps funeral homes from being more helpful than they currently are. A MIAP volunteer will visit a funeral home to first determine if there are any unclaimed cremains and, if so, how many there are. The next step is to ask the home to provide private information from its files on each so that MIAP can check it against a database at the St. Louis Office of Veterans Affairs to determine if a particular decedent was a veteran. But MIAP volunteers rarely get that far. Few directors will release such information without a law to protect them. In fact, only a couple have even allowed the volunteers to view the cremains.

Photograph by David Lewinski

Jim “Bingo” O’Donnell, foreground, and Larry Root are part of the Missing in America Project (MIAP), a volunteer group whose goal is to identify and put to rest the cremains of forgotten vets.

“We don’t blame the funeral homes,” Root says. “At this point, Michigan just doesn’t have any good laws governing this problem, but we’re hoping to fix that. We are all going to have to work together — funeral directors, families, different veterans organizations — if we want to see this project through.”

Curiously, Root, O’Donnell, and Price — the three prime movers of this state’s MIAP effort — aren’t veterans. However, each had a father who served in uniform, a distinction that qualifies them for membership in the Sons of the American Legion. The auxiliary is an offshoot of the American Legion, whose own membership is restricted to wartime-era veterans.

Price, a product of Detroit’s west side, remembers as a boy wondering about a neighbor “who used to go around like he was walking on spurs.” Price’s father, a Navy veteran of World War II, explained that the man had been tortured as a prisoner of war, his Japanese captors cutting the bottom of his feet.

“Guys like that just don’t get the respect they deserve,” Price says. “I remember lots of nights when my dad would wake up in a cold sweat. He’d suffered shell shock in the Pacific, and years later he was still fighting the war. I think maybe that’s why I’m involved. My dad was always proud of being a vet. I like to think he’s looking down and smiling at me, saying, ‘Good job, son.’ ”

Most MIAP volunteers are motorcycle enthusiasts, underscoring the symbiotic relationship that has long existed between veterans and bikers. “Most bikers are pretty patriotic; I’m not really sure why that is,” says O’Donnell, who grew up in Detroit’s scrappy Brightmoor neighborhood and rode with the Blue Angels, Scorpions, and other gangs of the ’70s. “I think a lot of the guys who came back from Vietnam, the only place they could really fit in was with bikers.”

The American Legion Riders, today an authorized motorcycle auxiliary of the American Legion, was formed in 1993 by “Polka Bill” Kaledas and Chuck “Tramp” Dare, a pair of free spirits who belonged to Post No. 396 in Garden City. To the relief of many older non-riding veterans, whose only acquaintance with the biker lifestyle was news stories of Hell’s Angels and vague recollections of outlaw biker Marlon Brando in The Wild One, the American Legion Riders turned out not to be a motorcycle club in the traditional anti-establishment sense, but rather a family-oriented program whose charity runs support a variety of American Legion causes. It’s currently active in more than 30 states and has added hundreds of thousands of new names to the American Legion’s membership ranks of nearly 3 million.

The American Legion Riders begat the Patriot Guard Riders, an organization that first captured national attention in 2005 when members of a Kansas post began escorting and shielding mourners from anti-war protesters at the funerals of fallen servicemen and women. Soon there were chapters in many states, including Michigan. “We never show up unless we’re invited, and 95 percent of the families want us there,” says Price, who, like Root and O’Donnell, belongs to both motorcycle auxiliaries.

The sight of scores of leather-clad bikers holding giant American flags at a funeral or memorial service to block out protesters is impressive and even intimidating at times, but the Patriot Guard is respectful, not confrontational, says Price. “If you ask the vets in the group, they’ll say, ‘Let ’em protest. We fought to give them that right — whether we agree with them or not.’ ” If the protesters get too loud and obnoxious, the bikers sing patriotic songs or rev their engines, drowning out the chants and insults. Root, who rides a 2005 Harley Ultra Touring Bike complete with satellite radio and GPS, recalls a recent “mission” to Sturgis, Mich., where eight protesters tried to disrupt the funeral of a soldier who had died in Iraq. “We had 300 escort riders. The family didn’t even know the protesters were there. Our flag line kind of made them invisible.”

In September, a bill was introduced by State Rep. Martin Griffin, D-Jackson, aimed at greatly easing MIAP’s herculean task. The legislation allows a funeral director to notify the family of the deceased of any veteran status. If the cremains are not claimed within six months, a letter is then sent to the family. If no response has been received after 30 days, the director is free to release personal information to the Veterans Administration or a veterans organization, such as the MIAP, which would then secure the deceased’s discharge papers and arrange for a suitable military burial at a national cemetery. The bill, which was amended to include a veteran’s dependents (spouse and children under 21), passed the House and now awaits approval from the Senate. “I’m looking to make the Michigan law the model for all the states,” Salanti says. “It’s the first one to have teeth.”

A federal statute also is in the works. According to Salanti, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., is drafting legislation that she hopes to get before Congress sometime in 2009. Recognizing the reality that funeral directors have little incentive beyond “doing the right thing” in expending time and effort in cooperating with MIAP, the proposed statute would allow funeral homes to have certain costs reimbursed by the Veterans Administration.

And what of the abandoned cremains of all those who didn’t serve in uniform? “It tears me up to shut the door on the non-vets,” Salanti says. “However, our general plan is that after we’ve worked with a funeral home to get the veterans identified and properly interred, we can arrange to have all the others placed in a single casket for a mass burial. It would be dignified. And we can clean the shelves.”

So far, MIAP volunteers have visited nearly 600 funeral homes across the country. They’ve catalogued 6,327 sets of cremains, of which 491 have been determined to be veterans — some from such distant conflicts as the Spanish-American War and World War I. So far, 312 have been interred at national cemeteries. Sometimes the only attendees at the funeral are the members of the Patriot Guard Riders, who escorted the veteran to his grave. “We just buried a Vietnam vet in Redding, Calif., with no family,” Salanti says. “It was us or nobody. There wasn’t a biker there without a tear on his cheek.”

Salanti says the Missing in America Project is a long-term, but not time-sensitive, undertaking — a good thing, since there is a shortage of volunteers and upward of 45,000 funeral homes around the country to canvass. So far, O’Donnell has visited about 60 of them. “Taylor, Westland, Inkster, Port Huron, Canton, Farmington Hills — and I haven’t even started on the ones in Detroit yet,” he says. “I just know those older Detroit funeral homes are going to have thousands of cremains.”

In the parking lot of a funeral home in Dearborn, where O’Donnell and Price have just dropped off some MIAP literature, the two advocates chat for a few minutes. It’s a mild, sun-splashed afternoon — perfect riding weather. The talk turns to suicide clutches and old biker hangouts and days gone by, back when Bingo’s and Grinner’s tanks were sloshing with testosterone. “You don’t hear too much about gun battles anymore,” Price says. O’Donnell recalls working as a bouncer at a Detroit bar. Once a bomb blew up the restroom just moments after he’d used it. Both laugh. Good times.

The old defiance briefly flares when the conversation strays to riding in Canada, where the law prohibits the flying of foreign flags on all vehicles. “That’s why I quit crossing that bridge into Windsor,” O’Donnell says. He points to the miniature Old Glory fluttering atop the trunk of his Harley. “No way am I taking that flag down.”