Decades After Death, Unclaimed Veterans Finally Given Due Honors In Grand Junction

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<p>Stina Sieg/CPR News</p>
<p>Members of the Western Slope Patriot Guard Riders stand guard over the ceremony at Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado in Grand Junction.</p>
Photo: GJ Unclaimed Vets 1 | Patriot Guard Riders - SSieg
Members of the Western Slope Patriot Guard Riders stand guard over the ceremony at Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado in Grand Junction.

One of the promises of military service is that those who risk their lives will be honored in their deaths. But all across America, thousands of veterans eligible for a military funeral don’t receive them because their remains are unclaimed.

On a Thursday morning at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado in Grand Junction, a ceremony aimed to set right that wrong for more than two dozen veterans. The group was laid to rest with full military honors.

“Today, we welcome them home, to spend eternity with their comrades-in-arms,” Sgt. Maj. Bill Woods of the Colorado National Guard told the several hundred gathered for the service. “Rest easy, our heroes. We have the watch from here.”

The deceased served in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard, and fought in battles from World War I to Vietnam. All shared another thing in common: when they died, their ashes went into storage, instead of hallowed ground.

Photo: GJ Unclaimed Vets 2 | Patriot Guard Rider Salute - SSieg
Western Slope Patriot Guard Riders pay respect to soldiers whose remains went unclaimed. Some of these veterans were born in the late 1800s and many died decades ago, their cremated remains ending up in temporary boxes on a shelf.

“I’ve been asked several different times, how this could have happened,” said Richard Lewis, with Grand Junction’s Martin Mortuary, which arranged the ceremony. “How could these heroes and spouses be forgotten?”

The circumstances that left 26 veterans, and two of their wives, unburied vary. In some cases, it was lack of family. In others, family dramas or miscommunications were to blame.

To resolve situations like these, the nonprofit Missing in America Project combs through records to piece together the documents needed to secure veterans funerals with honors. The group said helped identify and secure burials for the cremated remains of nearly 4,000 veterans to date.

Nintey-two-year-old Betsy Biggs-Zollner came to pay respects to her father Clyde Hunter Biggs, a World War I veteran. He died in 1952 but his cremains were never interred because of a mix-up. Biggs-Zollner called the service “tremendous.”

Photo: GJ Unclaimed Vets 3 | Roy Shults - SSieg
World War II vet Roy Shults, 93, salutes the soon-to-be interred soldiers from his wheelchair.

World War II veteran Roy Shults didn’t know any of the dead, but he came to the ceremony out deference and understanding. His son Mike Shults is the Missing in America volunteer who helped make the morning possible.

“It’s grand, it’s glorious,” the elder Shults said, after the service. The 93-year-old said these veterans went through hell to protect this country, so when it comes to their final send-off, “you can’t put enough glory on it.”