Group helps identify, hold funerals for cremated and unidentified soldiers

Posted at 6:45 PM, May 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-28 21:45:09-04

It is a group of volunteers who have made it their mission to locate, identify, and lay rest to the unclaimed cremains of American veterans.

Since 2006 the Missing in America project has interred 3,000 veterans, more than 400 of them here in Arizona.

"It's the right thing to do. Those people, those veterans signed the oath of allegiance to fight for their country. They should be honored along with everyone else," said Patricia Palermo, the Northern Arizona Assistant State coordinator for the Missing in America Project (MIAP).

Volunteers said many funeral home storage rooms and basements were filled with unclaimed cremated remains. 

The group would get the cremains processed, and with the help of the Department of Veteran Affairs, names would be run through a national database, to identify the cremains that belonged to veterans.

Palermo described the "world of unclaimed cremated remains" as daunting and overwhelming.  

"There are just so many. We see shelves, storage units, and we find bags, we find boxes, we find cans," Palermo said.

In some cases, she added they will have names and death certificates that help in identification.  

In other cases, they start with absolutely nothing.

Once the cremated remains were identified, and volunteers started to learn more about the soldier, where they fought, Palermo said the mission became more real.

"My biggest emotion is when it's all over, and I'm ready to go out there and start all over again. I'm ready to go out and find more veterans."

Clyde Taylor, the Northern Arizona State Coordinator for MIAP said their job had become a lot easier since 36 states in the country passed laws, giving funeral homes the ability to pass on unclaimed cremains to the Missing in America Project. 

Before that, many funeral home directors were hesitant, as they worried about liability in case family showed up years later to look for a missing loved one.

Now MIAP can claim the cremains, and with the help of dozens of volunteers in the community including high school ROTC clubs, the Patriot Guard Riders, the American Legion and others, they were able to give a funeral with full military honors to these forgotten veterans.

In some cases, MIAP can reunite loved ones with a missing family member.

Susan Ruth lost track of her father years ago.  She knew he lived in Phoenix, but had no idea what happened to him. When MIAP identified the cremains of PFC Clyde Douglas, they were able to track Ruth down at her home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and invited her to the funeral.

Ruth called it an amazing experience. Her father served in World War II and Korea.

"I loved him so much. When they put the flag in my hand, I knew it was final. I knew that he could be at peace, and I could be at peace," Ruth said.

Volunteers said MIAP had interred soldiers from every war in United States history, from the Civil War all the way up to Afghanistan.

The group is always looking for more volunteers.

If you're interested in volunteering with the project, CLICK HERE