Not much is known about Paul Albert Pickel.
Born July 9, 1905, he served as a captain in the U.S. Army during World War II. He received the Bronze Star Medal with four Bronze Stars. He died March 1, 1975.
Only last year, Pickel was finally laid to rest at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. For three decades, his cremated remains (cremains) went unclaimed, denied the military burial he'd earned.
Such tragedies happen more than people think. Most times, the deceased veteran has no family, or the family abandons the cremains. Unwilling to simply discard them, funeral homes and even some hospitals are left with canisters of ashes - 3,500 in the case of Oregon State Hospital in Salem, of which 1,000 may contain veterans' remains.
In May 2007, The American Legion's National Executive Committee passed Resolution 24, formally endorsing the Missing in America Project (MIAP), a growing network of volunteers who want to see these veterans properly laid to rest. Across the country, they're asking mortuaries for access to their records, in hope of taking custody of abandoned veterans' cremains and providing them with military funerals.
Not all funeral directors want to share their information.
"Some are appreciative and open their doors wide," says Fred Salanti, MIAP's national executive director. "Others, especially the big chains, absolutely forbid their people to help us. That's where The American Legion is a tremendous asset. As a veterans service organization authorized by Congress and the nation, it commands a different level of respect. We're two years old. That's the difference."
Salanti is a retired Army major and disabled Vietnam War veteran. He heard about veterans' abandoned cremains in 2006, while organizing honor guards for homeless and indigent veterans' ceremonies at VA cemeteries. Living in Oregon at the time, Salanti began calling neighboring states to find out how many such veterans they were burying.
He learned that, in Nevada, funeral homes had just turned over 34 veterans' cremated remains for burial. In Meridian, Idaho, the cremains of Richard Trueman, a Korean War and Vietnam War veteran with two Purple Hearts, and his wife, Martha, were found in a storage shed that had been auctioned off. That discovery inspired a statewide search called "Missing in America" that recovered the cremains of 20 more veterans, and entombed them all with full military honors at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery.
"I realized veterans' cremains are out there just sitting on shelves," says Salanti, a member of American Legion Post 1000. "This is a real problem."
He made more calls, this time to recruit volunteers to visit every funeral home in the country - volunteers who wouldn't rest until every last forgotten veteran had been identified, interred and given the honors they deserve.
The Missing in America Project was born.
Building Trust. Of the hundreds of thousands of unclaimed cremains in funeral homes nationwide, Salanti estimates that between 10,000 and 15,000 are veterans.
Finding them isn't easy. Some directors are understandably reluctant to grant access to their facilities, for fear of how they might appear to outsiders. Not all cremains are kept in urns; some are inside cardboard boxes or plastic bags, and stored in basements, closets and file cabinets.
Then there are the records. A 2003 Veterans Benefits Administration survey concluded that 75 percent of medical examiners and coroners do not check for veteran status. Thus, background checks, genealogy and VA verification all play a role in MIAP's work, and are time-consuming.
Volunteers won't get anywhere barging into funeral homes and asking how many veterans are there, Salanti says. He instructs them to make an appointment with a funeral director and, using an information handout and a DVD showing a couple of interment ceremonies, explain MIAP's mission. Then, ask for the total number of cremated remains, and clarify that MIAP specifically wants to verify those of veterans, their spouses and their dependents - typically between 10 and 30 percent of cremains.
"We establish our credentials and make the funeral director comfortable that we're going to honor our commitment to him - that he's still in charge," Salanti says. "We're simply assisting him."
The first funeral home that agreed to work with MIAP was Allen & Dahl of Redding, Calif. In the 18 months since owner Jim Allen allowed volunteers inside, MIAP has identified 25 veterans and five veterans' spouses among 99 cremains.
"In California, you pay $20 to the state and $10 to the county to move a body from a funeral home," Salanti says. "This man paid every penny to bury these veterans with honor. Jim Allen provided his coach and his people to take them to the cemetery, and he has three other funeral homes he let us into. That's how it starts: one guy helps us, let's us know it's a real problem - it's not in our heads."
If a mortuary bars entry to volunteers, MIAP won't push, says Linda Smith, national operations coordinator: "We don't want to alienate anybody."
Instead, volunteers in nearly every state are proposing laws that would recognize MIAP, and establish greater cooperation between veterans service organizations, VA, state and federal agencies, funeral homes and crematoriums. They've succeeded in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and lawmakers in six other states are considering such bills, Smith says.
MIAP's recommendations include a national database for state agencies to enter unidentified or unverified cremains, to be checked by veterans service officers or VA volunteers, and screening for veteran status by funeral homes when a cremation order is signed. In addition, funeral homes would request disposition instructions from next of kin six months after a cremation order is signed. If there is no response within 30 days, arrangements would be made to inter the cremains at a national or VA cemetery. No veteran's cremains would remain at a funeral home longer than five years.
Right Thing to Do. With every interment ceremony, or "mission," MIAP attracts media attention and - almost always - new volunteers. Ron Simpson of Wichita Falls, Texas, says he's indebted to the project; MIAP helped him find his biological father, Robert Hughes Kincaid, a World War II and Korean War Navy veteran.
Looking online for any information about the dad he never knew, Simpson found an article about how, a week before, MIAP had conducted a military funeral for a man of the same name. Later confirmed to be Simpson's father, Kincaid had died in California in 2003, and his cremains had sat on a shelf since then.
"I was a truck driver for 16 years," Simpson says. "Many times I'd been within 100 miles of him without even knowing it. I told the Missing in America Project I'll do anything I can to help out. I finally have closure on what was a missing part of my life."
Ron Eppich, a member of American Legion Post 27 in Apache Junction, Ariz., is MIAP's regional coordinator for 10 Western states. His son, Army Sgt. Robert Eppich, died in a car accident three days after returning from Iraq. When Eppich founded the Old Guard Riders in his memory to assist veterans, he chose MIAP as one of its first projects.
"I saw a video circulating on the Internet about the Missouri mission, and said, ‘This needs to be done,'" Eppich says.
He's assisted in the discovery of eight unclaimed veterans' cremains, including Maj. Shirl Terry, a World War II and Korean War Bronze Star recipient, and Sgt. Jerry Lane, a Korean War Purple Heart recipient.
"All they needed was somebody to find them, identify them, verify their eligibility and move them to a national cemetery," he says. "It's the only right thing to do."
Matt Grills is associate editor of The American Legion Magazine.