Procession escorts ‘unclaimed’ Utah veterans to final rest with military honors

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A movement of red, white and blue drove down State Street on Saturday morning toward Bluffdale.

Salt Lake City Police Department officers and veterans from every military branch joined the Missing in America Project ride.

The group escorted 18 unclaimed military veterans’ remains, meaning those who died honorably without family or a dignified funeral, to Veterans Memorial Park to be laid to rest.

“It’s sad, it’s really sad,” said Don Mickey, a veteran who served with the U.S. Navy.

Navy veteran and Patriot Guard Rider Don Mickey couldn’t stand the idea that his brothers died without the ceremonial honors they deserve.

“I found out there were unclaimed bodies, remains, I thought, 'Oh man, that's sad,'" Mickey said. '"Someone has to come here and represent them.'"

Mickey did more than represent them, he was asked to stand in for a Navy family on behalf of one of the veterans laid to rest Saturday.

“What an honor that was,” he said.

It meant a current Navy man folded one of the veteran's flags, and asked Don to accept it on behalf of the United States Navy.

“To die with no one there, and to have no one care for you, for the service they did for our country, to not have the family be there to honor him for what he did," Mickey said.

Retired Marine Master Sgt. Don Wardle also represented a family. He said the unclaimed veterans' remains tore at his heart during the ceremony.

“To me it’s disgraceful, and a ceremony like this is necessary in every state, and it’s time veterans united one way or another, become one family again,” Wardle said.

The Missing in America Project finds those unclaimed veterans' remains and tries to re-unite them with families, but ultimately not a lot of families come forward.

“I feel like a lot of them don’t have family,” said Roger Graves, the Utah state coordinator for the project. “A lot of them don’t have one friend that would step up and say, ‘I know this soldier, I know this Marine, and I will stand up for him and make sure he gets his honors due.’ To not have one friend, one family come up, one person to say ‘I know him, I know her,’ is incredibly sad, incredibly emotional. We are just trying to right the wrong.”

All of these 18 veterans were from Utah funeral homes.

To learn more about the Missing in America Project or to donate to their cause, click here.