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Missing no more

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Those who sign up to be in the armed forces are willing to sacrifice their lives for their country. More than a million didn’t make it home. Others came home, lived their lives and were essentially forgotten.

Nationally, funeral homes have given the Missing in America Project more than 2,400 names of abandoned veteran cremains. Those who were willing to give their lives for their country were left sitting on shelves or in storage rooms.

Two hundred of those names came from funeral homes across Nebraska. The Missing in America Project has been working to lay these men and women to rest and give them the honor they deserve. On Friday, two were interred at Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Maxwell.

John Patrick Perez was born in 1938. He served his country as part of the United States Air Force during the Cold War. He died in 2013. Michael Pegram was born in 1944. He served in the U.S. Navy in 1962 and the U.S. Army in 1962-65 in Vietnam.

“They, like many Americans, served our nation in uniform — at home and abroad — during times of both war and peace,” said Mark Polen, director of Fort McPherson, as he asked those in attendance to reflect on the freedoms we have because of individuals such as Perez and Pegram.

“Michael and John, unfortunately, are not unique. They were left behind,” said Polen. “They had no family to ensure they were provided military honors and a place of honor on the grounds of Fort McPherson or one of our other national cemeteries, which they, like all veterans richly deserve.”

“Isn’t it a shame, in a country as great as ours, that something like this happens?” said Gary Smith, who serves as chaplain for the Patriot Guard.

Veterans escorted the cremains into the cemetery all the way from Omaha. They were met in Lexington by Duane Deterding and Kevin Kennedy, both veterans, who escorted the group the rest of the way to Maxwell.

Kennedy said it was disturbing that these men couldn’t have been honored sooner, but as he looked at all the bikes in his rearview mirror, he could feel the love that had developed for them. Hundreds of people showed up to the cemetery to honor the two men who had long been forgotten.

“Your presence here today has meaning beyond a simple ceremony of appreciation,” said Polen. “By our words of gratitude to those who have passed into history, to our serving troops and to our living veterans, by our advocacy for them, we reinforce the covenant between America and the men and women who defend her.”

Perez and Pegram were given full military honors and interred in the columbarium, where they will finally have a resting place.

“They deserve to be here because they earned it,” said Polen.

Bill Henry, of the Missing in America Project, took time to address the audience. He told them that Nebraska was the final state in the continental U.S. to take part in the project, and that Nebraska recently passed a law that allowed funeral homes to work with veteran service organizations including MIA to locate, identify and inter unclaimed cremains of veterans and their dependents.

The law has made the process easier, but there are still hurdles for MIA to overcome before they can bury all 200 of those abandoned veterans. The organization is a nonprofit and occasionally runs short on cash. When that happens, board members and volunteers dig through their pockets and pay for the costs themselves with no expectations of being repaid, said Henry.

At the end of the ceremony, members of the Nebraska Cattlewomen presented Henry with a check for $5,000 to help cover future costs.

For more information about the Missing in America Project, visit miapneb.com.

Forgotten soldier's remains laid to rest

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