Cremated remains left near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial will now be laid to rest alongside their comrades with full military honors.
The Missing in America Project, a nonprofit that made an agreement with the National Parks Service, will accept the remains of servicemembers left at the memorial. The organization will process about 80 sets of cremains found at the wall since 1989, as well as those left there in the future.
“They deserve to be buried with their peers,” said retired Army Maj. Fred Salanti, national executive director and president of the California chapter who served in Vietnam. “We feel it's important to step forward and claim them and be their next-of-kin to honor them at a funeral service. Every veteran and their dependent needs to have someone stand with them when we honor their service and their life.”
The remains will be inurned in an in-ground vault at a private cemetery in Masassas, Virginia, according to the National Parks Service.
“We are grateful to Missing in America Project for their assistance in securing a final resting place for these veterans,” said Patricia Trap, acting superintendent of National Mall and Memorial Parks. “This agreement provides a dignified solution that ensures the respectful, perpetual care for cremains left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.”
Since its dedicated in 1982, visitors have left more than 400,000 items at the Vietnam Memorial wall, including medals, dog tags, coins, and other personal items. Those are taken to the Museum Resource Center in Landover, Maryland.
But rangers from the National Parks Service were also finding containers and other items that held ashes left at the wall, which the agency does not have the capacity to handle. A sign was erected prohibiting visitors from leaving human remains there or any other location on the National Mall.
Human remains are not added to the museum collection, according to the National Parks Service. That's when the Missing in America Project stepped in.
The organization was formed after Salanti attended a service for 33 homeless or unclaimed veterans. He had been working for the VA cemetery when he attended a funeral with just a chaplain and a cemetery representative - no family members were present.
“I looked at these 33 people being interred and there was nobody to say goodbye to them,” Salanti said. “It hit me that we needed more veterans to support these veterans.”
Salanti called veterans organizations on the West Coast and found out that a group in Idaho had already started taking unclaimed veteran remains. That group expanded to operate nationwide and went on to do its work, largely under the radar, for about 12 years.
Last year, Salanti read a news story about the challenges faced by the National Parks Service when people leave human remains at the Vietnam Memorial. The organization's Virginia chapter, led by Brigitte Corbin, mobilized to find a solution.
“When people went to Vietnam, you formed a camaraderie with the people next to you," Salanti said. "I think everybody that was a veteran in Vietnam on the ground in combat had friends that got killed. The question you have as a survivor back here is, 'Why wasn't it me?' Some have a different guilt complex - the fact that we survived and those on the Wall didn't."
It's easy for his group to understand why people leave veterans' remains at the wall, he added.
"Those veterans wanted to be with their buddies, their comrades,” he said.
Amanda Dolasinski is MOAA's staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMOAA.