Shuster bill would provide for burial of veterans' unclaimed remains
November 11, 2015 12:00 AM
Members of an honor guard refold an American flag that was presented to Carole Scagline of Elizabeth, the niece of World War II veteran Michael Myor. His remains were brought to the Cemetery of the Alleghenies on May 15, 2014, for a burial ceremony with 27 other veterans. According to Ms. Scagline, her uncle was from Elrama in Washington County.
By Tracie Mauriello / Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON – They served their country in Normandy, in Saigon, on Okinawa and in Jalalabad, but after they died their remains wound up in closets, on shelves, in basements and even in garages.
Thousands of veterans who died homeless or who outlived their next of kin never received the proper military funerals they were entitled to – or, for that matter, any funeral at all.
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Blair, is hoping to change that. He’s taken the first step by introducing legislation calling for a $1 million study of the problem. The bill could get a vote in the coming weeks.
It isn’t much, supporters acknowledge, but it’s a step.
“It is unacceptable to have thousands of veterans’ remains sitting on shelves across the country. These men and women are heroes – and Congress needs to take action,” Mr. Shuster said.
His legislation was inspired by constituents including Lanny Golden, a Fayette County veteran who took up the cause six years ago when he read an e-mail message from Vietnam Veterans of America: Unclaimed cremated remains were being stored at funeral homes and medical examiners’ offices.
An effort already was underway in several states where volunteer veterans formed chapters of the Missing in America Project. Their aim was to find unclaimed remains and search for next of kin. If none could be found, the volunteers would work to get them the government-paid burial with military honors for which all honorably discharged service members are eligible.
“I decided right then and there to join them. I figured it would be a slam dunk, that I could go and help them,” said Mr. Golden, a former Army sergeant who served in Vietnam.
It wasn’t so easy.
Funeral homes were reluctant to turn over the remains. Some were concerned about violating privacy laws. Others were worried about liability if relatives turn up.
“The funeral homes want to ensure a dignified funeral and burial for these unclaimed remains but they’ve got these legal barriers in place that can make it difficult,” said Bob Arrington, president of the National Funeral Directors Association.
“It would help if there was a way I could send the VA whatever information I’ve got and they could plug it into some database and say if the guy is a veteran or possibly a veteran,” said Mr. Arrington, who owns Arrington Funeral Directors in Tennessee. Privacy laws prevent that.
John Fabry, owner of Goldsboro-Fabry Funeral Home in Fairchance, is doing everything he can to help, including serving as Pennsylvania coordinator of the Missing in America Project.
He and Mr. Golden pressed for passage of a state law that now relieves funeral directors of legal liability if they release unclaimed remains for proper burial after 120 days. Sponsored by former state Rep. Deborah Kula, D-Fayette, it went into effect in July 2012.
A month later, Missing in America held a mass burial for unclaimed remains of 15 local veterans and one spouse.
The law helps in Pennsylvania, Mr. Golden said, but not in other states where there may be as many as 47,000 other sets of unclaimed remains, he said. That’s why it’s important for Mr. Shuster’s bill to pass and, for Mr. Golden’s sake, soon.
In March, Mr. Golden was diagnosed with terminal cancer believed to be related to Agent Orange exposure during his service in Vietnam.
“It’s critical to me to see this get done. I don’t know how long I’m going to be here,” he said. “As long as I’m alive I’m going to do what I can to help.”
Uniontown resident Ron Metros has joined the effort, too. As the nephew of a service-disabled veteran, he has been a longtime activist on veterans’ issues.
“It’s very upsetting to think that these are people that were in the military and served in one capacity or another … and their remains are just stored on a shelf,” Mr. Metros said.
He said some of the veterans outlived their families, while others died estranged and homeless.
“It’s very sad, but if we can perform a burial with full military honors, we’re happy to be able to do that.”
That’s why he worked with Mr. Shuster’s office as they crafted federal legislation. Co-sponsors include Reps. Matt Cartwright, D-Lackawanna, and Glenn Thompson, R-Centre. U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., is sponsoring a companion bill in the Senate.
The cost of the study would be offset by funds that had been set aside for Veterans Affairs bonuses. The bonus program was suspended after numerous problems surfaced at VA facilities across the country where employees were falsifying records, ignoring claims and preventing veterans from receiving timely treatment.
Some say the money would be better spent on fixing the problems than studying them.
“I am 100 percent in favor of trying to do whatever we can for the veterans, but I think we could do more with $1 million than a study,” Mr. Fabry said. “I already know – and many other people do – what the problems are. The question for me is how do we resolve them.”
Mr. Shuster said he wants a fuller understanding of the problem so Congress can better work to address it. He expects a vote in the coming weeks.
“Without clearly knowing what the hurdles are that keep the VA and other stakeholders from promptly and appropriately handling these remains, we can run the risk of failing to fully address the problem,” he said. “That’s important.”
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org; 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.
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