Editor’s note: This is the last of three parts.
A couple times a year, John Condello finds himself at a military funeral accompanied by nothing more than members of a uniformed honor guard and the ashes of a dead homeless veteran as a bugler plays “Taps” into the muggy island air.
Occasionally, there’s a 21-gun salute.
Condello works as a coordinator for the Hawaii Department of Defense’s Office of Veterans Services. One of his duties is to make sure servicemen and women — alive and dead — receive the benefits they’ve earned.
“We serve the veteran from the day they get out of the military to the day they pass away,” Condello said. “We also serve the survivors.”
Honolulu’s homeless don’t usually die with dignity. Not only do they pass away at much younger ages than the rest of the population, but their demise is often the result of substance abuse, poor health or violence.
Condello finds peace in the fact that he can bury homeless veterans with others who served their country, even if the bodies are not claimed.
Most often their ashes are interred in a columbarium at Oahu Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe, but they can also go to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.
In either case their remains are placed in individual niches where they might rest beside others who died homeless — or beside a war hero from the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
“I’m not saying death is a beautiful thing,” Condello said. “But at least the remains can rest here with dignity. That’s something.”
It’s often more than can be said for the remains of other people who die without any known friends or family to claim their body for burial.
In those cases, officials at hospitals, nursing homes and medical examiners’ offices must take it upon themselves to dispose of the remains.
States and counties across the country typically rely on public assistance to help bury unclaimed and indigent bodies. Hawaii’s program is run through the Med-QUEST Division of the Department of Human Services.
The agency will help pay for funeral expenses of up to $255 for someone who was receiving financial or medical assistance from the state when he or she died, but only if that amount doesn’t come through the Social Security Administration, which also provides a funeral benefit.
For unclaimed bodies, the state will pay up to $800 for cremation and burial, although extra paperwork is needed to prove that efforts were made to get someone to take the body.
Once Med-QUEST approves the invoice, the unclaimed body is sent to a mortuary that will then make the ultimate decision on where to inter the remains.
“We claim these people as brothers and sisters. They are received with love and treated the same as everyone.” — John Condello, Hawaii Office of Veterans Services
This can mean cremation and an unceremonious goodbye in which the remains are stored on a mortuary shelf in a cardboard box or in a crypt at a local cemetery.
But it’s rare that a body goes unclaimed at the city morgue. The Honolulu Medical Examiner Department reports only a handful of cases a year, and even fewer are classified as homeless.
“We’re actually pretty lucky,” Chief Investigator Pam Cadiente said. “We get a lot of people from the mainland who come over here, so we’re rather lucky that we don’t have more.”
Investigators use any evidence they can to try to locate family or friends to claim a body. Sometimes it’s as simple as entering a name in Google, but they can also access the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Cadiente says her department will occasionally fail, particularly if it is trying to find someone who has a common name, such as John Smith. Too many leads, she said, can be just as crippling as too few.
Identifying a dead person as a veteran can be trickier. It’s not always obvious that someone is eligible for a military funeral, especially if that person was homeless or without family or friends to verify their past.
County coroners and medical examiners don’t always track down someone’s veteran status if no one comes forward to claim the body. Cadiente admits her office doesn’t have the staff to do so.
In 2003, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issued a report that found that 75 percent of those agencies throughout the country did not make an attempt to verify someone’s prior military status before burying or cremating their unclaimed remains.
“We’ve actually made them go out to dig veterans up to bury them in a veterans cemetery.” — Fred Salanti, Missing in America Project
The report was spurred by an incident in Chicago in which the bodies of unclaimed veterans were found in a paupers grave because local authorities had not contacted the VA to see if they had served in the military.
A congressional inquiry was also launched to see if the veteran identification process could be improved.
There’s a lot that needs to be done, according to Fred Salanti, president of the Missing in America Project, which seeks out unclaimed veterans across the country to give them proper burials.
Since the nonprofit was formed in 2007, it has located and identified the remains of 2,412 veterans and interred 2,184.
Sometimes veterans’ remains are found in county morgues. Other times their bodies are buried in civilian cemeteries along with others who went unclaimed or whose families couldn’t afford a funeral.
“We’ve actually made them go out to dig veterans up to bury them in a veterans cemetery,” said Salanti, a retired Army major and Vietnam War vet.
“The problem is there’s no law on the books that says the county, the state or a private funeral home has an obligation to check with the VA to find out if someone is a veteran. And that’s where the problem comes in.”
Condello says he can’t be certain that some unclaimed veterans haven’t slipped through in the past.
But he said most mortuaries know that veterans are supposed to be interred at either the Oahu Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe or at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.
He also works closely with the Honolulu Medical Examiner Department, which notifies him when a suspected veteran’s body goes unclaimed so he can verify through the VA that the person is indeed a veteran.
“It’s a fairly decent process,” Condello said. “For the most part veterans are known to the VA at one point or another.”
A recent U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report counted 593 homeless veterans in Hawaii, with 385 of them living on Oahu.
That’s a small percentage of Hawaii’s overall homeless population in 2014, which according to HUD was 6,918.
It’s unknown how many of the city’s 417 documented cases of homeless deaths in the last eight years involved veterans.
All Condello knows is they have a home once they die.
“We claim these people as brothers and sisters,” Condello said. “They are received with love and treated the same as everyone.”