The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thousands of veterans’ remains have gone unclaimed. An ineffective VA system is to blame, inspector general finds.

A 2019 service at Roseburg National Cemetery for military veterans whose cremated remains went unclaimed for years. The remains were among 28 found in a Roseburg, Ore., funeral home attic. (Dana Foley)
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In the small Pacific Northwest town that prides itself as the “timber capital of the nation,” the discovery of more than two dozen unclaimed veterans’ cremated remains was shocking.

Stored in boxes and urns in a Roseburg, Ore., funeral home attic, some of the remains had been forgotten for 44 years before they were finally given a dignified interment in 2019.

“It floored us,” said GiGi Shannon, a proud Navy vet. She and a friend located the long-neglected remains after weeks of searching mortuary records. “We were just absolutely astonished.”

Carol Hunt, who worked with Shannon in the dusty attic, still feels the pain. “My heart hurt,” said Hunt — a founder of the Douglas County Wings of Love, which works with vets — the distress evident in her voice years later.

Even more hurtful: The Roseburg experience is not isolated.

The remains of thousands of those willing to risk their lives for their country, only to be disregarded in death, have gone unclaimed — part of a broad national problem fueled by a confusing, insensitive Department of Veterans Affairs bureaucracy.

That’s the message from a recent VA Office of Inspector General’s report. It found a litany of problems contributing to thousands of veterans’ remains going unclaimed. The department cannot provide the number of unclaimed veterans’ remains or even a reasonable guess, beyond the broad range of 11,500 to 52,600 estimated in a 2018 report.

The department, and therefore the people it serves, suffer “significant … lapses concerning the management of benefits and services for deceased veterans whose remains are unclaimed,” said the inspector general’s recent report, which was prompted by a 2019 article in the News-Review about the Roseburg discovery.

“It was appalling,” said Mary Newman-Keyes, director of the Douglas County Veterans Service Office in Roseburg. “It was just appalling.” She was the designated next of kin for 28 veterans whose remains were found. That allowed her to take custody of them before services were arranged.

Larry Reinkemeyer, an assistant inspector general for audits and evaluation, summed up the discouraging state of VA’s management structure, saying it “does not provide reasonable assurance that the unclaimed remains of veterans receive a dignified burial.”

The unclaimed soldier: A final salute for the growing number of veterans who have no one to bury them

The problems fall into three areas where the inspector general found “VA governance … was not effective,” including:

• Poor outreach and collaboration with funeral homes and others that might have remains.

• Weak oversight of benefits and services for deceased veterans across the department and within its three main divisions.

• VA’s inability to perform “accounting and reconciliation of payments made on behalf of deceased veterans whose remains are unclaimed.”

A detailed list of bureaucratic obstacles revealed in the report makes VA’s website claim that it “takes special care to pay lasting tribute to the memory of Veterans who served and sacrificed and that of their families” ring hollow.

Without “substantive improvements in program governance,” the report concludes, “the number of deceased veterans whose remains are unclaimed will be unknown, and those unidentified as veterans will continue to be deprived of dignified burials.”

That happened when veterans in various locations “were in fact buried as part of the indigent population,” Reinkemeyer said in a telephone interview. Even an indigent veteran is entitled to more than a pauper’s burial in a mass grave. VA benefits generally provide for interment and a marker for the deceased, and an American flag and a Presidential Memorial Certificate for survivors. Spouses and dependent children also are eligible for burial benefits.

When the inspector general’s office contacted funeral homes and coroners’ offices, Reinkemeyer said “some of them told us that they didn’t even bother contacting VA because the eligibility and benefits process was just too burdensome … so they chose to bury the deceased … in an unmarked grave instead.”

The unclaimed number is unknown, says a VA statement, and “given that there is a wide variance in how state and local jurisdictions handle unclaimed remains, it is extremely difficult to make estimates of how many unclaimed Veteran remains are still out there.”

In 2020, 1,752 unclaimed veterans’ remains were interred in the 150 VA cemeteries, The Washington Post reported in November.

Reinkemeyer’s office made 11 recommendations to help VA provide the special care it advertises. The first and overarching suggestion is for the department “to designate a senior accountable official or program office with responsibilities for the full scope of VA benefits and services for deceased veterans whose remains are unclaimed.” He also said the department should have a central phone number that mortuaries and local officials can call to verify veteran status. That’s the case when a bank needs confirmation that a customer seeking a home loan is a veteran.

There is no “single office or executive responsible for overseeing its approximately 27 offices” that deal with unclaimed remains, according to the report.

A joint response included in the report from six high-level VA officials said the department “recognizes the need to better coordinate across the enterprise to deliver the benefits and services that Veterans have earned and deserve, most especially for our most vulnerable populations, to include those Veterans whose remains are unclaimed.”

By email, press secretary Terrence Hayes added, “We remain committed to ensuring the remains of unclaimed Veterans and other eligible decedents also receive the honor, respect and dignity they deserve.”

Those words might mean more to people who haven’t directly confronted the dishonor, disrespect and indignity of unclaimed veterans’ remains as those in Roseburg have.

“I can’t call it anything other than horrendous,” said Jim Little, a retired Navy chief warrant officer and a minister who officiated the services for the previously unclaimed Roseburg veterans. “It was just a horrible shock to us.”

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