Missing in America Project gives remains of unclaimed veterans honorable burial

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Their bodies had been unclaimed and their ashes had sat on shelves for years. But on Thursday, the remains of 24 veterans were buried with military honors.

The Missing in America Project, a group that works with funeral homes and medical examiners to identify and bury deceased veterans, organized the procession of about 45 vehicles from the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in East Liberty to the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Cecil.

While a steady rain fell, soldiers carried the urns of cremated remains from the hearse to the columbarium, each soldier's memorial plaque inscribed, "You are not forgotten." Clergy delivered prayers, soldiers fired rifles in salute, and a bugler played taps. In lieu of family members, volunteers accepted the flags of the deceased.

John Fabry, the Pennsylvania coordinator of the project, said that more than 200 people attended the burial. Participants included 28 Army Reserve soldiers, Pennsylvania Institute of Mortuary Science student volunteers, and American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars members.

Carole Scagline of Elizabeth was one of the few relatives present to accept a flag for the deceased. Her uncle, Mike Myor, served in the Army during World War II. She said her uncle never married or had children, and when Myor, 91, died in 2005, Ms. Scagline and her mother had him cremated.

But burial costs were too expensive, and after her own mother died, Myor's remains stayed at the funeral home until Mr. Fabry's team learned that he had been a veteran.

"It was overwhelming to recognize that there are these volunteers doing this," Ms. Scagline said. "I know my mother would be quite happy knowing this took place."

Adam Renner, an Army Reserve captain with the 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command in Coraopolis, delivered one of the urns to its resting place and presented a flag.

"Anytime that we present a flag of a fallen soldier, it's an honor for us to do that," he said. "We take great pride in that."

Mr. Fabry, who also is a funeral director and instructor at Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, said that when the deceased has no surviving family or when survivors don't have money for a burial, a body sometimes will go unclaimed. In Allegheny County, those bodies often are embalmed by students at the institute. If they continue to be unclaimed, the bodies are cremated. After that, they sit in storage.

Fifteen percent of unclaimed remains in Allegheny county are veterans, Mr. Fabry said.

He is not a veteran, but his father was wounded crossing the Rhine River during World War II, leaving Mr. Fabry with a lasting connection to those who have served.

"My dad died when he was 38 from a service-connected injury, so it's always been there," he said.

He said not all veterans qualified for the burial: They had to have been honorably discharged, and they couldn't have any felonies. After identifying about 30 unburied veterans, Mr. Fabry's team was unable to bury seven or eight due to those disqualifications.

For those who do qualify, Mr. Fabry and his team intend to keep searching.

He said his team already works closely with the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office and a few local funeral homes. He hopes that in the future, more funeral homes will be willing to keep his group updated on unclaimed deceased so they can determine whether they qualify for military burial.

Brett Sholtis: bsholtis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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