The Unclaimed soldier

Thousands of veterans, especially from the Vietnam era, die alone every year

The Washington Post Democracy Dies in Darkness

By Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan


DES MOINES — Everyone on the third floor of South View Manor was accounted

for except James Dean Ryan in Room #301. A police officer, checking on a worrying smell, opened his door and found Ryan facedown on his living room floor, another Vietnam veteran who died alone.

Ryan’s son and other relatives were notified, but many wanted nothing to do with him, alive or dead. No one stepped forward to bury him after his death last November. So the 66-year-old with talents for disco dancing and repairing

furniture became yet another of America’s unclaimed dead.

There is no requirement for local governments — who are responsible for unclaimed bodies — to report them to any national authority, so there is no

official count. But tens of thousands of lives in the United States end this way each year, according to a Washington Post investigation that included more than

100 interviews over six months with medical examiners and local officials from Maine to California.

A striking number — thousands every year — served in the military, especially during the Vietnam War, according to funeral directors who directly handle their bodies.

“Vietnam vets got the rawest deal of anyone,” said Jim Mowrer, an Iraq War veteran who never met Ryan but volunteered to carry his urn at his Iowa funeral in June. “We have a lot of making up to do to Vietnam vets.”

While those who served in uniform after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are publicly thanked for their service, soldiers in the 1960s and 1970s were often jeered. Back then, the United States was fighting a long war against North Vietnam, a communist nation supported by the Soviet Union and China, that many felt was unwinnable. It caused massive civilian casualties in Southeast Asia 

“One of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam — most particularly, how we treated our troops,” President Barack Obama told Vietnam veterans in 2012, on the 50th anniversary of the start of the war. “You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start. . . . You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame.”

More than 8 million people served in uniform during Vietnam and those who are alive are typically in their 60s and 70s. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 530 Vietnam veterans die every day.

The overwhelming number are buried by family and friends. But a growing army of strangers are volunteering to wave flags and say prayers for the thousands who have no one.

“They’re estranged from their family. They die alone. They commit suicide,” said Linda Smith of the Missing in America Project, which helps arrange funerals for unclaimed veterans. “They don’t have anyone to mourn them — that’s what we do. The number is huge. It’s really sad.”

Last year, 1,752 unclaimed veterans were buried in the 150 veterans’ cemeteries run by the federal government, according to VA. An unknown number of others were buried in state-run cemeteries, like the Iowa Veterans Cemetery where Ryan was interred. Still more were buried in the thousands of private cemeteries all A troubled return home

Ryan was 20 and recently married when he joined the Army in 1974. His father had served during the Korean War, his grandfather fought in World War II andRyan felt it was his turn.

So the Iowa high school dropout with plans of opening a furniture-repair shop became an expert marksman with an M-16. The transition was rough.

He rarely spoke about what happened after he enlisted, but according to his exwife Linda Janes, “It did a job on him.”

He went to Fort Bragg, N.C., where his training included jumping out of planesand parachuting into mock Vietnamese villages built on the Army base. He was

never sent to Southeast Asia, nor were most of those who served during Vietnam. But Ryan was deeply disturbed by his training in survival behind enemy lines,

according to relatives. At the time, there were widely publicized accounts of the torture endured by American prisoners of war, including John McCain, a Naval officer who became a U.S. senator from Arizona. Two friends of Ryan’s were killed.

According to Ryan’s military records, he was honorably discharged, but only after being granted unexplained “excess leave.”

“He had a nervous breakdown,” said Janes, Ryan’s second wife, who married him two years after he left the Army.

One month after he returned home, his first wife, Pamela, divorced him. He seemed changed, according to those who knew him at the time, and could become

violent and angry. A judge signed a decree giving Pamela custody of their 2-yearold daughter and Ryan “his shotgun, tools and toolbox.”

A remarkable 38 percent of service members sent to Vietnam were divorced within six months of returning home, according to a study cited by VA.

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