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This 2013 photo was at the dedication of Columbarium 9 at Arlington National Cemetery, where the Missing in America Project brought cremains of six veterans.

When you hear about recovery missions for forgotten veterans, you may conjure images of the jungles of Vietnam or the sands of Afghanistan, but one organization focuses on locations closer to home – much closer.

The Missing in America Project exists because concerned citizens discovered that through numerous circumstances, veterans who qualify for military burial with honors have ended up…on a shelf, said John Tutunjian, the Virginia assistant state coordinator.

“I guess it goes back to the first recovery mission we had in Virginia,” Tutunjian told InsideNoVa. “I and two others became aware of the unclaimed cremated remains of a United States Army Air Corps pilot. He was a major and a Silver Star recipient. His daughter had his urn along with a bunch of his paperwork and a photo of him in his cockpit in a storage area.”

The daughter went to prison, and the contents of her storage unit were sold, and he learned about the urn, along with the paperwork for him to be interred in a cemetery in San Diego.

“As a result, we saw that he got buried where he wanted to be,” said Tutunjian.

With more than 45,000 funeral homes across the United State’s, it’s a daunting effort to visit each one and see whether any veteran cremains are on a shelf in a back room, according to Forrest Lingenfelter, Virginia state coordinator for the program.

He recalled one case from 2006 in which remains of a soldier and his wife were discovered on a funeral home shelf, where they had been sitting for 27 years.

Lingenfelter said he realized there are few laws regarding unclaimed remains. “Virginia had a law that said that after 90 days, they could be disposed of. They changed that, so that before disposal, they have to verify it is not a veteran or dependent of a veteran.”

In Virginia, Lingenfelter said 220 veterans or eligible dependents have been discovered. Of those, 132 were laid to rest, with honors, in Quantico National Cemetery, and 15 were reunited with family and taken home.

“We realize that a military burial is how our nation shows our gratitude for those who have defended our country. But some of these folks are just forgotten – whether homeless, outlived family, indigent, estranged from family or had withdrawn entirely,” Lingenfelter said.

On Sept. 22, the Missing In America Project will inter the unclaimed remains of two Navy and two Army veterans at Quantico Cemetery.

“We do it because it’s a debt that society owes to these individuals,” Tutunjian said. “We want to see to it they go where they should – a final resting place with their brothers and sisters in arms.”

Paul Lara covers the military beat. Reach him at plara@insidenova.com

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