Cedar City couple helps give a proper burial for homeless veterans

Sailors from the United States Navy honorably conduct the 13-fold flag folding ceremony during Utah's 2018 Missing in America Project burial service. Bluffdale, Utah, 2018 | Photo courtesy Roger Graves, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A Cedar City couple is working tirelessly to make sure every homeless Utah veteran who dies on the streets has a decent burial with full military honors.

Cedar City residents Crystal and Roger Graves, Utah coordinators for the Missing in America Project, work to help bury homeless veterans who have been warehoused in mortuaries – some for years. Mount Rushmore, S.D., date undefined | Photo courtesy Roger Graves, St. George News

For Roger Graves and his wife Crystal, its a bit of an uphill battle determining if the remains of a homeless indigent, often found with no identification, had served in the military. But the journey of discovery is well worth the effort.

Since 2008, Graves, assisted by his wife, has interred 142 homeless Utah vets under the umbrella of a national non-profit organization, the Missing in America Project, a Veteran Recovery Program.

On Aug. 22, services will be conducted for 13 more veterans at the Utah Veterans Cemetery & Memorial Park.

This will bring the number buried in Utah to 155 since the program began operations in the Beehive State.

The Graves are state coordinator and assistant state coordinator for Utah.

“Virtually every mortuary you will ever drive by has, had, will have or knows another who stores cremated remains of someone that doesn’t have family or friends who will step up to burry them,” Graves said. “This is happening all over the nation including in our veteran community.”

When numbers of unclaimed remains grow too large, Graves added, mass burials are not uncommon.

“There are little or no investigations to see if the dead are veterans and if they are — the nation has made a promise to them when they raised their right hand and swore an oath to defend the Constitution. They are guaranteed certain things in return. One of them I feel strongly about is an honorable veteran’s burial.”

Through Utah’s Missing in America Project, each veteran receives the “full nine yards” when laid to rest, including the 13-fold flag ceremony and a 30-mile motorcycle escort to the cemetery.

As part of Utah’s Missing in America Project’s sendoff, deceased homeless veterans receive the honor of a 30-mile “Last Ride” on their way for internment. Location undefined, Utah, 2016| Photo courtesy Roger Graves, St. George News

“We will take the extra step to make sure they get what we promised as a country,” Graves said. “People need to stand up and say we are going to make sure that these vets are not going to be forgotten.”

The national project started in 2006 in Idaho.

Linda Smith, CEO and national director of the project, said the organization is in 32 states.

They have found more than 21,000 cremated remains housed in mortuaries and honorably buried nearly 4,600 homeless vets in cemeteries across the country.

“When we receive the ashes we make sure they are put in beautiful erns and buried with military honors,” Smith said. “The vets who don’t get a proper burial is sad but we are doing something about it the best way we can.”

The “disgrace” in the burial process begins in the crematorium and is aggravated by some mortuaries.

Ogden resident Vince Smith, a woodworker and retired military takes great care crafting specially made urns for the Missing in America Project. Location unspecified, Utah, 2019 | Photo courtesy Roger Graves, Video and attached story courtesy CBS 2, KUTV, St. George News

“There is nothing you can do about the crematoriums who receive the bodies and because no one claims them their remains get packed away in a cardboard box, pale, plastic bucket or a ziplock bag before getting put on a shelf and forgotten,” Smith added. “That’s the facts of life and death for some of our veterans.”

In Southern Utah, mortuaries are obliged to keep unclaimed remains for 90 days; however, many will store them for up to one year.

If not claimed, because of a longstanding moral ethic, local mortuaries and others throughout Utah – along with the “majority” of mortuaries across the United States – have afforded the homeless, whether veteran or not, a “decent” burial, said one St. George operator.

In fact, a local mortuary goes as far as spreading the ashes of all deceased homeless individuals on a ranch along the Arizona Strip overlooking the north rim of the Grand Canyon, arguably one of the most “beautiful spots” on Earth, the owner of the ranch said.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are more than 124,000 veterans who are considered homeless based on those who stayed in emergency shelters or transitional housing at some point during the year. This number equals more than the combined seating capacity of cadet football stadiums for the Army, Navy-Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard combined.

On any given night, there are more than 40,000 veterans living on the streets with more than 14,000 living unsheltered.

Homeless veterans can be found in nearly every city in America. It is a growing problem as the older vets, as well as younger ones, find themselves on the fringes of society. Location and date undefined | Photo courtesy CCO Public domain, St. George News

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, nearly 1.5 million veterans are considered at risk of becoming homeless because of “poverty, lack of support networks and poor living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.”

Another major contributing factor to homelessness is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Many vets that suffer from PTSD dissociate from their family and often die alone,” Graves said. “The sad part is that after they die, not one person will stand up and say they knew them. Then I’ll have to go pick them up to bury them. It’s very sad.”

One of the fastest-growing segments of homeless vets comes from military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to a recent survey, homeless veterans are younger on average than the total veteran population. Approximately 9% are 30 years of age or younger and 41% between the ages of 31-50. Conversely, 5% of all other veterans are 30 years and younger, and less than 23% are 31-50 years old.

“When I first got involved with this, it was more World War II and Korea War vets,” Graves said. “It was rare to see someone who served in Vietnam. Now it is more Vietnam era being the majority, but we are seeing more who served in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. It’s sad to see.”

Crystal Graves recalls the parents of a modern-day Marine who had been looking for their son high and low.

“In 2016, we were contacted by a father who had learned from searching online that his son had passed away in Utah in 1994,” Crystal Graves said. “His son was a Marine who through time had disassociated from his family. This father asked if there was any way we could locate his son. After eight months of searching cemeteries and funeral homes, we were able to find the cremated remains of his son who had died, indigent, of a drug overdose.”

In 2017, family and friends traveled from Denver to attend Missing in America Project’s annual burial service for unclaimed veterans. The father received his son’s flag and his son is now interred at the Utah Veterans Cemetery & Memorial Park after waiting in a crypt for 23 years.

The majority of United States veterans receive honorable burials at Arlington National Cemetary. These are the lucky ones. More than 124,000 homeless vets may end up cremated and their ashes shelved in mortuaries across the country. Arlington, Va., 2018 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

It is the identification of the veteran that is the biggest challenge Roger Graves added.

“As you can imagine if they are found on a railroad track dead, you’re not going to get much information to work with,” he said. “We have genealogists that study these people as the best they can to identify the family.”

If discovered, the project sends letters to the last known address of the last of kin.

“Sometimes we get called, sometimes we don’t,” Graves said. “Sometimes they will pick up their loved one and sometimes they just want to attend our service. If they can’t attend the service, we will do whatever we can do to help ease the pain like sending the folded flag that touches the urn.”

There are other challenges, Graves added.

“We also get the dysfunctional families who say they will be attending the service so we save a seat for them,” he said. “Then they don’t show, don’t call and we end up having a seat filler fill in for them. This is normally not a problem because 200-300 people usually attend our service. But, this is the level of dysfunction that probably got this guy homeless in the first place. Basically, it is this type of family who says they just don’t care.”

Still, Graves said, there are volunteers across the country who dedicate their time and effort in support of the Missing in America Project to show they do care and will not let deceased homeless veterans become forgotten.

COVID-19 restrictions will be enforced during the projet’s service with no more than 50 people allowed to attend, no entry into the chapel, office or restrooms.

For more information on the annual service, click here.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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