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Detective work pays off in quest to honor forgotten vets


Rich Cesler, director of the Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake, looks at a niche wall at the cemetery, where the cremated remains of veterans are stored, Monday. Cesler is part of a drive to find and honor the remains of military veterans. (Jesse Tinsley)
Rich Cesler, director of the Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake, looks at a niche wall at the cemetery, where the cremated remains of veterans are stored, Monday. Cesler is part of a drive to find and honor the remains of military veterans. (Jesse Tinsley)

When Lyndon A. Atwood died in Clarkston six years ago, no one noticed for days.

He was broke. No next of kin. The county eventually cremated him, and an acquaintance apparently picked up the remains and placed them in the trunk of his car. Where they sat, it appears, until six weeks ago. That’s when workers at an auto-detailing shop in Lewiston opened that trunk and found the remains of Lyndon A. Atwood and an American flag.

Lyndon A. Atwood – alone, abandoned, unknown – had once been Army Spc. Lyndon A. Atwood.

The shop workers contacted the local VFW hall, and the remains eventually made their way to Rich Cesler, the director of the Washington State Veterans Cemetery and a crusader for finding and honoring forgotten veterans. Within three days, Cesler had Atwood’s remains placed at the cemetery – another veteran unforgotten, though Cesler knows there are many more out there.

He wants to find them, and his efforts to do so have helped spark a nationwide effort that has found and interred more than 1,000 forgotten veterans.

“For us to just say, ‘Well, they died …’ ” – he pantomimes a shrug of indifference – “and not take care of them is absurd.”

Cesler has been on a six-year campaign – contacting funeral homes and nursing homes, coroners and medical examiners for unclaimed remains, and then researching them to see if they served in the military. If they did, he works to see they are buried with full honors.

The brand-new cemetery outside Medical Lake has interred 13 such veterans, with another 10 and two spouses ready to be placed. The veterans cemetery in Boise, where Cesler began his campaign in 2005, has interred 46 veterans.

The remains are interred as they are received, and Cesler organizes formal services on a regular basis.

And that is just a start. Cesler says there are some 6,000 cremations to be checked for veteran status in Eastern Washington; typically, 1 in 8 would be a veteran. Clark County recently sent him a list of 256 indigent people who have died there in recent years. “Fifty-four of them were, in fact, veterans,” he said.

A Kellogg funeral home recently turned over the cremated remains of 12 veterans to Cesler, including two men who served in World War I. A veteran and his wife’s remains were found not long ago in a storage locker in Meridian, Idaho.

“We’re recovering our veterans,” Cesler said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Cesler’s work inspired the national Missing in America Project. The project is now active in 30 states, and more than 1,000 veterans’ remains have been found and given a proper burial.

Cesler, a Vietnam veteran, had not really considered the plight of unclaimed veterans when he was named director of the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery in 2005. At one meeting early in his tenure, a woman asked him a question.

“She said, ‘Rich, what are you doing about finding veterans who are abandoned in funeral homes around our state?” he said. “I was kind of dumbfounded. I said, ‘I can’t answer that question, but let me do some research.’ ”

Within two weeks, he said, he’d found the remains of 17 veterans at funeral homes in Idaho. He began working with lawmakers and government officials to start changing the laws to allow funeral homes and others to release remains to veterans cemeteries, and to eliminate the two-year deadline for veterans to claim burial benefits. In 2007, he was named the director of the effort to establish a new veterans cemetery outside Medical Lake, which opened last year on Memorial Day.

Meanwhile, he’s been steadily at it, enlisting veterans groups to help and visiting funeral homes, nursing homes and coroners. Once potential veterans are found, there is daunting detective work to be done. In the Atwood case, it was a relatively quick matter because he had a case history with the VA after serving in the Army from 1956 to 1959, and his remains included a birth certificate. But in other cases, running down the verification that someone served in the military can be a challenge – and Cesler has a staffer who is doing the bulk of the work.

“It’s extremely hard,” said Cesler. “There is a lot of research that goes into it.”

Fred Salanti, the executive director of the Missing in America Project, said that he’s been astounded at the numbers of veterans whose remains have not been given a proper burial across the country. When he formed his organization – using the name and the spark provided by Cesler – he thought he might find 10,000 to 15,000 veterans.

“Now I think we’re going to bury 150,000 veterans by the time we’re done – or even more,” he said. “I think it’s mind-boggling.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

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