BLUFFDALE, Utah – It’s been four years since Randall Hester last heard from his older brother, Ron, a Navy veteran his family called a lone wolf.
He had no idea Ron had died in January 2009 until relatives saw the man’s name in a newspaper along with 15 other veterans whose bodies were unclaimed.
On Monday, Hester prepared for a final goodbye, gripping an urn containing his brother’s ashes and heading off to the Manti-La Sal National Forest.
“It will be our last elk hunt,” the 50-year-old Hester said with a great laugh, a bit like old times. He planned to scatter his brother’s ashes beneath an aspen tree.
Earlier Monday, Hester and his family were among those participating in a ceremony for more than a dozen Utah veterans whose remains had gone unclaimed after their deaths.
The service at Utah Veterans Cemetery & Memorial Park in Bluffdale was the first in the state organized by the Missing in America Project as part of a national initiative to locate unburied or unclaimed cremated remains of veterans and provide military burials.
For years, the remains of 16 had rested in a Salt Lake City funeral home closet.
In April, Missing in America Project officials obtained whatever identification documents the funeral home had and worked with the VA and other agencies to confirm their military service, whether through Social Security numbers, dates of birth or genealogy searches.
Some of the veterans were homeless or poor, while others simply led lonely lives with little contact with their families. In Ron Hester’s case, his family recently saw his name in a newspaper article about the planned memorial service. It was the first they had heard of his death.
“You can’t put it into words,” said Randall Hester, who served in the Army for 20 years and looked up to his big brother. “I’m nobody. I’m just an American who spent his time in the military. And each one of these soldiers, regardless of what their job was, put their butt on the line for us every stinking day.”
Fred Salanti, a retired Army major, started the Missing in America Project several years ago after seeing a funeral for 30 unclaimed veterans, no family or friends to mourn their passing.
“It wasn’t the right thing,” Salanti said. “That’s why we’re here today.”
It’s why Col. Craig V. Morgan, who works for the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs, spoke at Monday’s service.
“The folks here in this cemetery have given everything they have,” said Morgan, whose father is among those interred at the Utah Veterans Cemetery after serving in Normandy and at the Battle of the Bulge. “When I go out there to trim the grass around his headstone, I am honored to be his son … I commend everyone who is part of this program. I promise you will receive rewards for this.”
Since 2006, the project has arranged funerals for more than 1,200 unclaimed veterans after volunteers searched genealogy and military records to bridge the gap between funeral homes, local authorities and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Salanti said he thought they would find 15,000 unclaimed veterans. He expects the final tally will actually be closer to 250,000 after researching as many as 5 million names.
He said they have visited 1,500 funeral homes to date but there are 54,000 in the country.
Randall Hester figured his brother, who worked in a South Dakota gold mine after leaving the Navy in the 1970s, would have gotten a big kick out of all the attention, especially when police shut down Interstate 15 for the procession of 80 American flag-draped motorcycles with riders from the Patriot Guard Riders, POW/MIA Riders and Green Knights. The service included a 21-gun salute, bag pipes and a bugler playing Taps.
“He did his four years in the Navy and by golly he hated every second,” Hester said. “But he knew he had a job to do and he’s probably laughing right now, saying, ‘Wow, all this for me.'”