Memorial Day is an opportunity to reflect on and honor those who gave their lives in the service of the U.S. Today, many Americans will visit the graves of the millions of soldiers buried in national cemeteries, including Fort Logan in Denver and Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs.
This year, while honoring those fallen service members, I encourage you to pause and think about another group of veterans – the unclaimed.
An unclaimed veteran is a member of the military who has passed away without anyone coming to claim their remains. Unclaimed remains typically will then sit in a funeral home until someone comes to retrieve them – if someone ever comes to retrieve them.
While there are countless unclaimed remains in funeral homes and mortuaries across Colorado, it is especially unfortunate that the remains of veterans go unclaimed and therefore are not properly buried.
Nationwide, a 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General, cited recently by the Washington Post, said there could be anywhere from 11,500 to 52,600 unclaimed veterans’ remains.
Honorably discharged veterans have the right to burial benefits: a grave in a national cemetery, opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, a headstone, marker or medallion, a burial flag, and a presidential memorial certificate.
Veterans across the country have taken up the task of finding the unclaimed remains of veterans and ensuring their right to a proper burial in programs like the Missing in America Project, which has interred 5,383 veterans nationwide. In Colorado, internment efforts are managed by the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1071, led by Jim Topkoff; the group has successfully buried 122 unclaimed Colorado veterans in a mission called the Honors Burial Project.
This year, a group of University of Denver students led by associate professor Carol Helstosky have taken on the project as well. The students began their work by compiling biographies of unclaimed veterans who were laid to rest at Fort Logan National Cemetery on April 14.
The students are working in tandem with the veterans of the Honors Burial Project by contacting mortuaries, working with lawyers, and spreading awareness for the project with the hopes of interring as many veterans as possible.
As one of these students, I can say learning about the staggering numbers of unclaimed veterans has impacted me deeply and driven me to be more involved in local veteran’s affairs.
A measure that passed in the Colorado legislature in 2020, House Bill 1051, gives an authorized “veterans’ remains recovery organization” like the VVA the right to access and inter the unclaimed remains of veterans throughout Colorado. But that task has proven difficult even with government backing.
Unclaimed remains are not an issue unique to veterans. While veterans make up a disproportionate 21% of the unclaimed, any individual can go unclaimed.
The ways in which someone can go unclaimed are both numerous and more common than you might expect. You could be the last living member of your family, or your urn could have been misplaced.
Take the veteran I biographized, John Schulte, for example: He was the only child of two parents whom he outlived. When his time came, there was no one left to come for him. That is, until 22 years later, when the members of VVA Chapter 1071 finally laid his remains to rest.
This chilling reality is far more common than expected, and most unclaimed persons remain in mortuaries for decades without the aid of these galvanized groups of veterans.
Once again, I urge you this Memorial Day to both remember the fallen and reflect on the forgotten. I encourage you to support our cause by donating to the Missing in America project on their website and learning more from the local veterans of Chapter 1071 and from DU history students at the More Than a Headstone website.
Angelina Scolio is a second-year history major at the University of Denver.
This column was updated on May 30 at 12:06 p.m. to correct the spelling of the name of Jim Topkoff of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1071.
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