In 2005 it was shocking and disturbing for Vietnam veteran Richard Cesler, the newly named director of the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery at the time, to learn an ugly truth.
The cremated remains of thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of U.S. veterans had been abandoned, marking time and eternity in the back rooms of funeral homes, coroners’ offices, medical examiners’ offices, storage facilities, retirement homes, unclaimed freight lockers, car trunks and other inappropriate final resting places.
Just weeks after starting his job in Idaho, Cesler was approached by concerned citizens in the Treasure Valley veterans community and made aware of dozens of unresolved situations.
“At a veterans meeting, a young lady stood up and asked me, as the new director of the cemetery, what was I going to do about veterans who were abandoned in funeral homes,” said Cesler, who sat for an interview last week along with present Veterans Cemetery Director James Earp. “I was dumfounded by that. Such a situation wasn’t even on my radar.
“As I left the meeting I went by the Cremation Society of Idaho and I asked someone there: ‘Ma’am, are you holding any veterans remains here, that had never been picked up and never been buried and given any honors?’ And she said, ‘Why, yes, I’ve got six.’ ”
Cesler began to get a grasp of the scope of the problem, in Idaho and around the country. He went to work with lawmakers to find a way to get possession of the abandoned remains (release funeral homes from liability), to extend beyond two years the time allotted to veterans’ survivors to arrange for their burial in a veterans cemetery — and to secure the reimbursement funding for the state cemeteries.
Along the way he crossed paths with Army veteran Fred Salanti of Grants Pass, Ore., a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, a national group that provides motorcycle escorts for public safety and veterans’ burial processions. Together they formed the Missing in America Project, now more than a decade old, which is responsible for locating, acquiring and finding a final resting place for thousands of forgotten troops. At least 200 of those so far are in Idaho. More are being discovered in Idaho and inurned at the rate of 12 to 15 per year, according to Earp.
Equally sad and troubling to discover are the life circumstances that lead to many of these veterans’ remains being abandoned, say Earp and Cesler.
“Unfortunately, this project has no end,” said Cesler. “There are a lot of young men and women coming back today who are PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), who have traumatic brain injuries. ... They are kind of lost souls. We have created a generation of people who are going to always need help.”
They don’t stay home. They lose contact with relatives and withdraw. They are loners. Many, sadly, end up at a coroner’s office.
“They all have their own story,” said Earp. “They make individual decisions to separate. Maybe there are family troubles and there are no surviving next of kin.”
But all have their military families and the Missing in America Project. The goal is, even after death, to return them to the ranks.
On Memorial Day we have all the more reason to pay our respects to those once lost and abandoned. No veteran who served honorably should ever be forgotten.
If you venture out to the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery this weekend or this summer, the staff can direct you to the area where these men, women and, in some cases, spouses have been returned to the fold.
Take note, for instance, of Staff Sgt. Richard Trueman and his wife, Martha, among the first of the Idaho cremains to be rescued — this after five years in a Meridian storage facility.
Had Cesler and his allies not recognized this injustice, we citizens may have never known that Sgt. Trueman earned two Purple Hearts, that he served in Korea and Vietnam, that his wife endured his service with him.
The men and women who served before, now and in the future surrendered a part of themselves, and we owe it to them to honor and remember their sacrifice.