Honoring The Fallen
story: Jon Lewis photo: Brent Van Auken
MISSING IN AMERICA PROJECT HONORS OUR FALLEN VETERANS
They served our country, and then they were stashed away by the thousands. The cremated remains of veterans are on the shelves of funeral homes and hospitals across the country. They are silent and unclaimed; their efforts in service to America largely forgotten.
Forgotten until now, thanks to the work of Redding resident Fred Salanti and the hundreds of volunteers who have signed on with the Vietnam veterans’ nonprofit Missing in America Project.
The group’s mission is straightforward: locate, identify and inter the unclaimed cremains of veterans. The motivation is straightforward as well: “It’s the right thing to do,” says Salanti, a large man who maintains a large belief that all veterans, whether they crawled through a jungle or flew a desk, deserve to be buried with honor and respect.
Salanti’s mission started in the spring of 2006 while he was still residing in Eagle Point, Ore., and involved in veterans issues as a regional facilitator for the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle group. Salanti began attending monthly services at regional and state cemeteries for veterans with no families or financial resources, and recruiting other vets to attend.
He then attended a service at the Idaho State Veterans cemetery where the cremains of 21 forgotten veterans had been discovered and given proper burials with full military honors. Salanti started wondering how many forgotten veterans’ remains were languishing in funeral homes, mortuaries and state hospitals.
He called a cemetery in Nevada and learned the unclaimed remains of another 31 vets had been interred. A state hospital in Oregon revealed that the cremains of a staggering 3,500 people—from the 1890s to 1971, a span of time stretching from the Spanish-American War to Vietnam—were stored in a basement, awaiting identification. An estimated 1,000 of those urns are believed to be the remains of veterans.
“That told me it was a national problem,” Salanti says, who adds that he contacted the Veterans Administration and was told the unclaimed remains of between 20,000 and 30,000 vets remained on shelves. Salanti disagrees with the estimate: “I’d say there’s a couple hundred thousand veterans waiting to be buried.”
Using the organizational skills he picked up in the Army (four years active duty, including 18 months in Vietnam as an infantry officer, and eight years as an active reserve), Salanti set out to tackle a national problem with a national effort and he formed the Missing in America Project. By early 2007, it was incorporated as a nonprofit and in May of that year it received the full backing of the National Executive Committee of the American Legion.
On Feb. 19, 2007, the MIAP conducted its first memorial service at the Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo, giving full military honors to unclaimed, forgotten vets. Volunteers with MIAP continue to conduct bimonthly services at the Igo cemetery, complete with a 21-gun salute, the playing of “Taps” and the folding of an American flag.
The next service is scheduled for 11 am Nov. 18, when the remains of 18 veterans “who have been sitting on shelves in Chico for 20 or 30 years” will be interred, Salanti says. Two of those veterans served in World War I.
Salanti’s organization has grown to 440 members volunteering in 47 states. Most are veterans and motorcycle riders, but not all. Some contribute their time for the meticulous research and scouring of genealogical records that’s needed to identify veterans and locate any family members.
To date, Salanti says more than 648 funeral homes have been visited and some 6,642 sets of cremains have been located. Of those, 571 were determined to be veterans and 387 have been interred.
The program really got on the map last May when Salanti and 36 other riders organized the “Honors at Arlington” trip to escort the remains of two Silver Star medal recipients and one Medal of Honor recipient from Redding to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
It was, Salanti says, “the longest motorcycle funeral escort in the world.” Between 4,000 and 5,000 riders joined in the procession at various points across the country. In Elko, Nev., the community gathered to honor the riders with a parade. “We were two hours late and the first thing we saw was a family with kids, standing in the rain and waving flags,” Salanti says.
In Kentucky, the riders were escorted from border to border. In Virginia, some 86 miles from Arlington, state police closed all five lanes of the highway during the afternoon rush hour to allow the escort clear passage. “We thought it was raining, and it was us crying. It was impressive as hell,” Salanti says. “Here we are, some hicks from Redding, and we had garnered the country’s attention.”
Garnering the most attention was “Indian” Dave Woodcook, a MIAP member who joined the Arlington escort on his three-wheeled motorcycle known as “The Longrider.” A native of Redding, Woodcook said he’s an Eastern Band Cherokee from the Spirit Seeker Clan and his Native American heritage is reflected in the buffalo cape, wolf and coyote that adorn his 15-foot-long vehicle.
“For me, it was a spiritual journey. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Woodcook says.
“A lot of this program is veterans wanting to help other veterans,” adds Salanti, who is fully disabled due to his exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange during his time as an infantry commander in Vietnam.
The MIAP members also the only authorized group permitted by Redding police to conduct funeral escorts, a service it provides free for the family of any veteran or eligible dependent. Members also assist the Old Guard Riders motorcycle group with a weekly food bank program for veterans in cooperation with Redding Loaves and Fishes. •
On the Web: www.miap.us • Phone: Fred Salanti, 229-9000