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Herman: Honoring vets missing in America

By Ken Herman
May 1, 2014 at 10 p.m.


Sad is MIA, as in missing in action, as in missing military personnel being sought by their government, their friends and their families.

Sadder perhaps is MIA, as in missing in America, as in vets who lived to make it home but are somehow forgotten in death by their government, their friends and their families.

Sunday, the cremated remains of 12 of them, in storage for as long as 32 years, were taken to Camp Mabry for military honors. They were interred Monday at Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen.

You know of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. These are the tombs of the unclaimed soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. As you'll hear from a man involved in the Missing in America Project (MIAP), it's an effort that brings deeply mixed emotions.

For example, among the 12 is former Staff Sgt. John Sidney Clevlen, who served in the Army for two years in World War II. He died, age 59, on Feb. 14, 1982. His cremated remains, for reasons unknown, went unclaimed and were stored in the Austin area by a funeral home. That's exactly what project volunteers look for.

"They are cremated and put into temporary or sometimes permanent urns, and they're just left on a shelf somewhere, some for as long as 80 or 90 years," said Warren Wurzburger of Houston, a former police and fire department chaplain now serving in that capacity for MIAP.

Project volunteers use government records to see if unclaimed remains are those of vets. Since starting in 2007, the project has checked more than 1,500 funeral homes and interred more than 1,800 vets whose remains were found. A genealogist tries to piece together the life stories, but it is difficult. About all we know about these 12 is their military service.

"Funeral homes across the country are occasionally left with unclaimed cremated remains that the families do not claim for whatever reason. In those situations, we comply with state regulations by storing the cremated remains for the required amount of time. As a courtesy, we continue to store those cremated remains beyond the required specified periods," Jessica McDunn, spokeswoman for Dignity Memorial, a funeral services network working with the project, told me.

The Texas Legislature has helped, last year approving House Bill 3064, making it easier for funeral homes to give veterans' unclaimed remains to organizations such as this one.

How do vets wind up missing in America?

"I can imagine hundreds of possibilities, from them, for whatever reason, ending up homeless and having people lost track of them to some type of miscommunication," Wurzburger said. "We have a lot of talk these days about post-traumatic stress and all these things with military folks. That didn't just show up one day. It's been around for years, but it wasn't always diagnosed and treated."

"These people may have elected not to be around family because of issues they have," he said. "We just don't know."

I asked Wurzburger if working with forgotten people is depressing or rewarding.

"It is both," he said. "There are certain times, like this weekend, where it is very rewarding to see. And yes, it's very sad and a pity these people sat for so many years. But at least now they are being honored properly.

"They will be remembered, their names read and they will be interred properly as they should have been," he said. "It's very bittersweet."

The remains of the 12, whose death dates range from 1982 to 2006, were taken Sunday from Cook Walden/Capital Parks Funeral Home in Pflugerville to Camp Mabry in West Austin.

On Monday, they were properly placed at the vets' cemetery in Killeen, perhaps finally resting in peace with the honors due them for helping us live in peace.

"The veterans languishing on shelves need us," the project says on its website.

To see how you can support the project, go to miap.us.

<em>- Ken Herman writes for the Austin American-Statesman.</em>

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