Forgotten Veterans

CBS 13

November 12, 2007 – SACRAMENTO (CBS13) ? The military burial is how this nation shows gratitude to the men and women who have faithfully defended our country.  Wes Nell knows that sacrifice, serving for your country. 
Every year the 85 year old veteran climbs an extension ladder and places his flag in the same place, prominently displayed at the front of his house.
“You see, I am a little shaky, but I get up there,” says Nell.
Wes fought in World War II in the South Pacific.  His roommate, Norman Robert Chester fought in Germany, even rescuing prisoners locked in concentration camps.  The two were room mates for 31 years.
“He was the brother I never had,” says Wes of his roommate Bob.

Bob and Wes met after the war.

“I appreciated fighting for our country, and he did too, because we were at war,” says Wes.  It’s a sentiment shared by the World War II generation; a generation fading by the day.

In June, Wes’ buddy Bob became one of those voices silenced.  He died of natural causes at the age of 83.  He suffered, but according to Wes, now he’s at rest.

But Wes can’t rest until his friend is given a proper burial.  Bob did not have a family, –no close relatives to bury him.  Bob’s remains sat on a shelf in the coroner’s office for the four months since his death.  Wes wanted to bury him, but was told he couldn’t because he’s not family.
Larry Otto, who lived next door to Bob and Wes for more than two decades, says the one thing Bob wanted when he passed away was to be buried as a veteran.  “We would like to see Bob gets his wish,” says Otto, “that he be buried in a veteran’s cemetery with the honor he deserves.”
That honor is one a group called the Missing in America Project is fighting for veterans across the country.
“This is a secret that has gone on too long,” says Fred Salanti, head of the Missing in America Project.  “Many many people have known about this, have been told about this, but it’s like anything that’s a skeleton in the closet, even in our own families, who’s going to bring it out?”
Salanti, a Vietnam vet himself, estimates the cremated remains of at least 15,000 veterans just like Bob Chester have long been forgotten or overlooked.  That’s 15,000 veterans sitting on shelves, never honored; never getting the proper burial.  Since Missing in America formed a year ago, the group discovered a troubling newspaper photo.    The Oregonian took photos of a warehouse at an Oregon State Hospital with 3,500 brass canisters – all numbered and named – left on shelves.  Salanti and his group believe that at least 1,000 veterans are there, some even dating back to the 1890s.
“These are our people who wrote a blank check for their lives and said ‘I’m going to die for you’,” said Salanti.  “How do we respect them?  It’s not by leaving them on a shelf.”

Salanti believes the ashes, forgotten or ignored by their families, are spread all across this country, from state hospitals to funeral homes.  The project has spent the last year knocking on the doors of funeral homes nationwide, asking to be let in to identify these veterans so they can get them properly buried in a national or state cemetery.  It’s a challenging task, considering not all the nation’s 45,000 funeral homes are willingly opening their doors to show what’s in their back rooms.

We took this information to Richard Wannemacher, a representative with the Memorial Division of Veterans’ Affairs in Washington, D.C.  The V.A. is the agency responsible for burying veterans, and Wannemacher admits the agency does not always know when a veteran dies.

“All we’re concerned about is that every person in one of those funeral homes that’s identified as a veteran be offered the opportunity to be honored in one of our shrines in the nation,” says Wannemacher.  “Some things slip through the cracks as years go by,” he says.  He blames family members for forgetting their loved ones.

But how could a homeless vet, or someone with no family like Bob Chester end up at a national cemetery if the government has no idea they died?  We’ve learned that there are no laws requiring a coroner or a funeral home to verify if someone ever served in the military.  So if no one is really checking and there is no family, these ashes of the forgotten soldiers can end up sitting on shelves. 

Wannemacher says they’ll accept a call from anyone about a veteran’s death, but Wes Nell says when he called the V.A., they weren’t interested in helping.

“They acted like they were reading from a card or something,” says Wes.  “I’ve been through a lot of things in my life, but I’ve never been talked to like that, over trying to have someone buried.”

We couldn’t let that happen to Bob Chester, so we worked the phones, first calling the coroner’s office, then the V.A. where we finally got the results Bob’s friends have waited months to hear.  “The fact that this situation has occurred is deplorable, but on behalf of a grateful nation, thank you for his service,” says Wannemacher of Bob Chester.

On October 23rd, under a sunny, breezy day, Bob Chester was buried at the cemetery in Dixon with full military honors, in front of Wes, his friends and members of the Missing in America Project.

“I could tell him how good this has been, how wonderful . . . he wouldn’t believe it,” says Wes Nell.

Bob Chester, honored as a hero with a dignified burial, won’t end up forgotten on a shelf.  In a year, the Missing in America Project has managed to bury 162. 

“Peace,” says Fred Salanti, “it’s just peace.  They’re not abandoned; they’re not on a dusty shelf.”

But there’s much more to do.  Thousands of America’s war veterans are warehoused in back rooms, dusty basements and closets waiting for a proper burial.  It’s a monumental effort, but Salanti says it’s the right thing to do.

“We have veterans that want to be taken care of,” he says.  “If we ant to mouth the words that we’re patriots, if we want to mouth the words we want to honor and respect our veterans, then let’s do it for all of them.  The ones left on the shelf, and the current ones.”

Just recently the group found a funeral home in the Midwest with the cremated remains of 300 people.  They are now trying to identify how many of the 300 are veterans.

Veterans Affairs says they will ask all funeral homes…. to work with the Missing in America Project.

And on this Veterans Day, at 85 years old, Wes Nell climbed his old extension ladder yet again outside his Sacramento home.  This time, he displays two flags: his regular one, and now Bob’s flag, in a place of honor.

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