CAMP WILLIAMS — Eleven veterans who somehow missed receiving honorable burial rites upon their death were finally laid to rest at the Utah Veterans Memorial Cemetery on Saturday.
The cremated remains of one man "had been on the shelf since 1976," said Roger Graves, the Utah coordinator for the nationwide Missing in America Project. Remains of all the men have been located and identified after having been stored for years at various mortuaries throughout the state.
"That's far too long," Graves said. "Far too long to have been forgotten."
The nonprofit organization, run entirely with donations, aims to locate, identify and inter unclaimed cremated remains of American veterans, of which there are believed to be up to 400,000 throughout the country.
"When you join the military, you take the oath of enlistment you promise to do what your leaders have you do, whatever that may be, in war time and in peace time. And you get certain benefits in return for signing that blank check, if you will. One of those, and perhaps the most important, is a military funeral, with all the rites that entails," Graves said. "As a grateful nation, we owe this to them."
The 11 buried in Utah on Saturday were each, at different times in history, reported missing in action, said retired United States Navy Capt. Ronald Lewis, who spoke at the service. He said the men were not unknown, but "simply, MIA — missing in America."
Another 13 men and women were also honored on Saturday, though their remains were not recovered.
Lewis, who revels in the memories he and former shipmates shared in good times and in bad, still mourns three men who remain unaccounted for. Their names are engraved on a silver bracelet Lewis wears to remind him of his and of the American government's commitment to never forget them.
"These brave American veterans must not be forgotten," Lewis said.
Dozens of Patriot Guard Riders accompanied the cremated remains to the cemetery on Saturday, with American flags waving on posts affixed to their bikes as part of the motorcade.
"It's what we do," said Keith Bennett, a U.S. Army veteran of West Valley and captain of the riders. He said he and others "refuse" to let soldiers come home without proper credit.
"It's just what we do and it is our honor to be there," Bennett said.
The riders stood around the perimeter of the room at the ceremony, holding American and Utah flags to honor the soldiers, sailors, the marine and a military spouse who were interred. Four American flags were folded, one by each branch of service to represent the men being honored.
One of the flags was ceremoniously presented to Utah Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley. He held back tears as he accepted the flag meant for the family of a man he never knew.
"I don't have to know a single thing about them. I don't ever have to meet them and I love them," Thatcher said. "They stand between my loved ones, my family and harm."
Recent advances in DNA-matching technology have allowed many of the millions of unclaimed remains to be identified more quickly and since the project began researching with the help of mortuaries, 2,071 veterans have been buried in American soil.
"These are not just plastic boxes with ashes in them," Graves said. "These men and women have a soul."
The Missing in America project has visited 1,628 funeral homes in America. All 11 cremated remains interred on Saturday were identified at five mortuaries in Utah.
"These 11 are no longer forgotten," Graves said.
To make a donation to the project, visit www.miap.us.