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Funeral honors unclaimed remains of Utah veterans

Published: Thursday, Oct. 3 2013 7:16 p.m. MDT

A Deseret Mortuary hearse carrying the cremains of eleven Utah veterans arrives at the Utah Veterans Memorial Park in Bluffdale on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. The Missing In America Project conducted its second mission in the State of Utah by honoring eleven veterans whose remains have been in the care of two area mortuaries, yet remained unclaimed.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

BLUFFDALE — The October wind whipped through the small gathering huddled around a hearse.

A mother and son stood waiting to honor 11 veterans at the Utah Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

The boy clutched his arms, cold despite his jacket. A stranger took off her coat and handed it to the boy.

For those at Thursday's funeral for unclaimed veteran remains, everyone was family.

Debbie Hurst, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, said she didn’t know the soldiers but wanted to attend the funeral to recognize them.

“It’s completely an honor to be able to stand for those who stood for us,” Hurst said.

Roger Graves, Utah coordinator for the Missing in America Project, said the group locates and identifies the unclaimed remains of veterans and does whatever possible to notify the next of kin. If the group is unable to find family members, it honors the veterans with a military funeral.

Graves said some families have a falling out, lose touch or move away.

Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, sponsored SB74 during the 2013 Legislature to allow funeral arrangements to be made for unclaimed remains by groups such as the Missing in America Project.

"We can't give enough to these people who have served our country and serve our country now," Vickers said at Thursday's funeral. "This is a wonderful thing that we do today. We're able to restore honor to a well-deserving person, to these 11 today."

Those honored Thursday were Army Spc. Robert Clifford Baird; Marine Corps Pvt. Wayne Monroe Butcher; Airman John Eaton Cox; Airman Dennis S. Fischer; Army Pfc. Howard William Gnadt; Army Staff Sgt. Ralph George Hartley; Army Pfc. George August Heitschmidt; Army Pfc. Irvin D. Nickisch; Army Pvt. Gary Andrew Savold; Marine Corps Pvt. Jimmie Wayne Tackitt; and Dexter Kent Wilson, who served in the Navy.

Most of the soldiers died between 2009 and 2012, aside from Heitschmidt, who died in 2003, and Wilson, who died in 1991.

Graves said he enjoys being able to honor the veterans, but the "icing on the cake" is the ability to reunite some families with their relatives.

"You can’t put a value on that,” he said.

Graves said the Missing in America Project two years ago reunited four families with their veterans. Thursday, the group saw its fifth reunion.

Maryann Edgeman, Hartley's sister, was not legally able to lay her brother to rest. She said the ceremony was something she and her family has wanted for years.

“Now he has the honors he deserves,” she said.

Edgeman became very emotional when she received the flag representing her brother's service from a member of the Utah National Guard Military Funeral Honors Team.

“Now we have a place to go,” she said. “We’ve never had a place to go before.”

Jean Miles, another sister of Hartley, said the ceremony meant everything to her.

“For me, it’s finally being able to have closure,” she said. “It’s been a struggle for all of us, and it's been quite an honor for them to do this for him today.”

Graves said the group has buried 27 Utah veterans. About 15 percent of the unclaimed bodies in the nation are veterans, he said.

Graves said the Missing in America Project goes to mortuaries and checks unclaimed remains files to see if there are any veterans. The group researches to find next of kin and puts ads in newspapers in hopes of notifying family.

Retired Army Maj. Fred Salanti, national executive director of the Missing in America Project, said when he attends such services he likes to ask the audience why they are there.

"We're here because our hearts told us to be here," Salanti said. "When you've been sitting for 100 years on a shelf as some of them have, isn't it time to give them some honor and respect? Isn't it time for us to step forward?"

Email: eeagar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: EmileeEagar

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