On a clear November morning, a retired Army major, Fred Salanti, marshalls his troops into a convoy. One by one, a half dozen men and one woman rev up their motorcycles and pull out into the street.
Leading the group is an escort is a trike, or three-wheeler, outfitted with buffalo horns, a wolf pelt and an American flag flapping in the wind. Bringing up the rear, a white hearse follows the crew through the countryside. They cross over the Sacramento River along a winding road to the Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo near Redding, Calif. The group carries 13 urns filled with cremated remains into the chapel.
“Many of veterans here today were lost, never forgotten,” Salanti said.
About seven years ago, Salanti discovered a problem: The remains of thousands indigent and forgotten veterans left on shelves in funeral homes and cemeteries.
“We fail,” Salanti said. “How can we have people, thousands of thousands — and I’m telling you that we have one funeral that gave us four thousand, two funeral homes two thousand — how can they have that many unclaimed remains and urns sitting on their shelves?”
Since starting his nonprofit, the Missing in America Project, Salanti and his group has been able to locate nearly 10,000 cremains. The non-profit has also identified and buried more than 2,000 veterans.
“If we require young men to go out and spend their blood and their time to serve this country, and then we send them back and just throw them into a situation they’re not prepared for, then that’s a condemnation on us,” Ephraim Lantz, director at Allen and Dahl funeral home, said.
Allen and Dhal Funeral Home in Redding, Calif. was the first funeral home that started working with Salanti.
“There’s a couple right now that are going to be up there today,” Lantz said. “She would fly military aircrafts from this destination to that and that’s how she served our country during World War II. Her husband was in the Navy and so we have an opportunity to lay to rest a married couple who served our country.”
Thirty-three states have passed laws allowing Salanti’s organization to claim remains of veterans and handle their disposition. Last year, the federal Dignified Burial Act promised to reimburse individuals and groups who helped bury veterans.
The National Cemetery Administration handles the remains of veterans. Kirsten Parker, the organization’s spokesperson, said sometimes it’s difficult to find people.
“When a veteran of anyone dies with no next of kin or insufficient resources, I think it makes things a little bit more complicated.”
Parker added that groups, like Missing in America Project, help their organization to take care of veterans and their loved ones.
The Missing in America Project now has over 2,000 volunteers across the country.
Salanti says his next funeral will be in January. But in the meantime, he and his troop of volunteers will be combing the shelves for lost vets, making good on a country’s promise to never forget.
KPCC aired this piece as part of our ongoing coverage of issues affecting veterans for Veteran’s Day 2014. See more of our coverage at KPCC.org/vets.