In 2012, the Vietnam Veterans of America Jersey Shore Area Chapter 12 created a Cremains Project committee, a group that set out to return deceased fellow veterans to their loved ones. New Jersey based producer and filmmaker Tom Phillips caught wind of the Veterans Cremains Project.
“My dad served, he died young and never told me a thing. There was no closure for me,” he said.
Phillips previously released the short film Vietnam Aftermathfeaturing interviews with Garden State veterans sharing their experiences during and after the war. He’s promoting a television pilot based off of the Cremains Project titled Unclaimed Remains.
“All I heard them say was people are being left in boxes, veterans,” Phillips said. “I couldn’t help but thing ‘if you can leave a vet in a box, what about the rest of us.’ I was shocked, and that includes infants. I took it upon myself to hopefully bring more public awareness to the country because it has to stop.”
Those working on the project say roughly twenty percent of unclaimed cremains in funeral homes across the country are veterans.
“We first get involved with the funeral director,” said Chapter 12 first vice-president Ernie Diorio. “They tell us ‘I have X amount of cremains here. I don’t know who the veterans are but if you would like, come in and do the inventory of it.’"
The chairman of the Cremains Project believes the real difficulty in doing the work is gaining trust from the funeral homes.
“We just need to get to the funeral parlors and explain to them that we do all of the work,” said Rich Gough, Cremains Project chairman and Airforce vet that served from 1963 through the Vietnam War. “We do everything. The first time they see us is when we knock on their door and we’re there to do an inventory of their cremains. All we need is a name and their death date. We take it from there. Next time we see them is when we come to pick up those that are veterans, put them in the urns that we’ve made and have them buried.”
A grant from Home Depot supplies lumber, and partnerships with local businesses, has allowed Gough and his fellow vets at Shore Area Chapter 12 to create oak urns for cremains.
“So that we now can take the temporary urn, which in some cases is just a cardboard box, and transfer them over to a decent urn,” Gough said. “We have a label that we place on that and have them buried in William C. Doyle Cemetery.”
The cemetery in Wrightstown is the first state-operated veterans’ burial ground in New Jersey. Gough says every veteran they discover gets a military funeral, even if no family members are found.
“It includes Taps, folding the flag, some prayers. That’s about it. It takes about twenty minutes,” he said.
Ernie Diorio with the Cremains Project says they’ve found roughly 70 veterans in funeral homes and returned 20 of them back to family members.
“Each box that we do has a story, each individual,” he said. “Richie goes above and beyond the call of duty. He just needs to go back to the next last of kin. But Richie goes further than that. Sometimes he goes looking for grandchildren. We just want to let them know that your grandparents, parents, that somebody is there.”
In the New Jersey Legislature, a bill has passed the state senate, and referred to the Assembly Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee that would expand the Cremains Projects’ work beyond unclaimed vets.
“This would allow us to also take eligible dependents and spouses of qualified veterans. It would also change the law that allows us to be included in the list of [people that can get a free death certificate from the state,” Gough said.
To the vets on the Cremains Projects’ frustration, the bill is yet to reach a committee vote in the Assembly. Unclaimed Remains director Tom Phillips has expanded his outreach on the issue to other states and countries, where those communities say they too have an unknown number of veterans’ cremains sitting on shelves in funeral homes.
“It’s a world problem. It’s not limited to the US. The thing is, if twenty percent are veterans, what about the other eighty percent. It’s not a military issue, it’s a human issue,” Phillips said.
The goal they hope for is a day when there’s no military veteran left unclaimed in a box.