Skip to main content

Veterans' remains transferred from unidentified mass grave to military cemetery

Email share

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — A work shed full of tractors and landscaping equipment rests in the back of the Elmwood Cemetery in Fruita. Next to the shed is an unremarkable 20-square-foot patch of grass. But beneath that grass is a vault containing countless memories and decades of history.

According to Mike Shults, the Colorado state coordinator for the Missing in America Project, the vault holds unclaimed remains, including those of U.S. Military veterans.

On June 6 of this year, the 78th anniversary of D-Day, the remains of 26 veterans and military spouses were given a proper burial at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado in Grand Junction.

“When they went to war, most of them hadn't seen their 20th birthday,” Shults said. “They were children expected to be adults. They were veterans of World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.”

Colorado Voices

Grand Junction veterans memorial

Volunteers with the Missing in American Project located the unclaimed remains in Fruita and organized the military funeral.

“No veteran should be unclaimed, even if they don't have family, even if they're homeless,” Shults said. “It's surprising — some of our vets are well-known people that had big families and just got left by mistake … It's hard to understand. You think everybody gets a place, everybody gets buried, everybody gets taken care of, but a lot of them don't.”

“One thing every one of us [veterans] was promised was a dignified, honorable military burial,” a speaker at the ceremony said. “Sitting on the shelf, they are not receiving it. All we are doing is fulfilling that obligation.”

One of the people who attended the memorial was Len Ladue, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Marine Corps and is the current District 11 commander for VFW Colorado.

“Whenever we see a veteran that's not honored, it is a blemish not only on the community,” Ladue said, “but on all the veterans, and they take it to heart.”

Ladue added that it is “appropriate that we remember and honor all of our veterans as they pass away. It's one of the promises that the country made to them. And it's important that we honor that.”

A majority of the veterans given the proper burial served in the Army during World War II. One of the veterans, Emerson Lee Rickstrew, served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Ladue said he often wonders what the veterans’ last moments were like “if they passed away alone.”

For Shults, giving these veterans and their families a proper burial is “the most important thing.”

“They have full military honors,” he said. “They have beautiful urns … and they're respected. And the main thing is they're never going to be forgotten because they're going to be out here. They get flags put on their graves.”

Brian Willie is the content production manager at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at

Kyle Cooke is the digital media manager at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at

Related Story

Spotlight Newsletter

Community stories from across Colorado and updates on your favorite PBS programs, in your inbox every Tuesday.

Sign up here!