(KSDK) -- Recently, volunteers in Missouri and a handful of other states discovered the cremated remains of war veterans inside small canisters and cardboard boxes.
Instead of receiving their promised military burial, these war heroes have been forgotten and left on mortuary and hospital shelves for decades.
A national effort is underway to give these veterans a proper and dignified burial.
On a cold January day, Missouri's Patriot Guard would form its customary flag line and another veteran would be laid to rest with honor and respect.
But not all veterans receive that dignified ceremony. At Oregon State Hospital, an estimated 1,000 unclaimed cremains of veterans are neatly stacked like cans on a grocery store shelf.
A series of gut wrenching photographs, taken by Rob Finch, were first published in the Oregonian in 2005. The photos of cremains inspired people like Linda Smith of Dixon, Missouri, to take action.
Smith said, "I was furious..storing cans like that, that were rusty and dented."
Smith and her husband Joe met while serving in the U.S. Navy 37 years ago. The couple was sickened by the photographs of twisted and corroded canisters.
Joe Smith explained, "They (veterans) wrote that check, that blank check payable to the people of America that no matter what happens they are going to serve their country...As a nation, we let them down."
Less then a year ago, the Smith's joined the Missing in America Project, MIAP.
The MIAP works with the Patriot Guard, the American Legion and Veterans Affairs, to identify the abandoned cremated remains of forgotten veterans. They work to ensure that veterans are properly laid to rest.
Linda Smith said, "We visited 100 funeral homes in Missouri. There have been a few that have admitted they have them, but they won't let us inventory them."
While Oregon represents the most glaring case, the Smith's believe the cremains of thousands of veterans remain warehoused in dusty basements, and closets and backrooms waiting for a proper burial.
Of the 100 Missouri funeral homes visited, only Gerber Chapel,in Webster Groves, agreed to go through the legal process, and release the first unclaimed veterans' remains to MIAP. Gerber also provided gold urns for the ceremony.
Six Missouri war heroes would finally be remembered at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis County.
Linda Smith read each of the veterans names as current soldiers brought their ashes to the front of the chapel
The first was Captain Paul Albert Pickel. During World War II CPT Pickel received the Bronze Star Medal and four Bronze Stars. His cremains sat on a shelf for 33 years.
Richard Franklin Beardsley also served in WWII as an Army Air Corp combat veteran.
He spent 28 years on a shelf.
It was 27 years for 2nd LT Edward Allan Rudulph.
1st SGT George Eugene Dierkes, SGT Arthur Rudolph Hirsch, and SGT Loren Seeber Leslie spent a combined 71 years on a shelf.
1st LT Kenneth Conklin led the prayer and said, "These veterans lay forgotten for so long, and now we have the chance to rectify they mistake."
The keynote speaker was Major General King E. Sidwell, the Adjutant General of the Missouri National Guard.
In a cracking voice, Major General King said, "We have an opportunity today to honor six souls who cried out..and I want to express my personal gratitude."
On a cold, January day, six Missouri war heroes arrived on hallowed ground. Their long journey home ended with dignity, honor and respect.
The cremains of five more St. Louis veterans will be interred this spring. Similar efforts are underway nationwide. MIAP estimates that there could be tens of thousands of unburied veterans who served in wars throughout the past century.
There are several reasons why funeral homes and even some hospitals hold on to the cremains for so many years. The most common reason is that the deceased had no family. Sometimes the family abandons the cremains. The funeral home gets stuck with them because directors can not simply dispose of the ashes whenever they want.
A bill will be proposed in Jefferson City this session to make it easier for funeral homes to release the cremains after a certain period of time to veterans' service organizations.
Volunteers with the Missing in America Project hope this bill encourages more funeral home directors to open up their doors and records.
Contact the Missouri Missing in America Project
Contact Illinois' Missing in America Project
You can watch the video here
You must watch this video...it is touching