This summer, dozens of Canadians will walk up and down the stone-lined avenues of cemeteries across the country, searching for veterans’ unmarked graves.
The Last Post Fund hopes these first patrols of the new Lost Veterans Initiative will grow into an army of volunteers.
“Our pledge is that no veteran shall go without a headstone,” said retired Colonel Randy Brooks, the fund’s vice president for Western Canada, and lead of the program.
In the past 25 years, the graves of more than 6,000 veterans have been provided with a headstone or foot marker under the Unmarked Grave Program, funded by Veterans Affairs Canada and administered by the Last Post Fund.
But there could be tens of thousands of lost veterans yet to be identified. Brooks estimates there could be as many as 2,000 in Saskatchewan alone.
“There must be thousands and thousands of lost veterans.”
Many families could not afford a permanent grave marker when the veteran died, so they inscribed names on wooden crosses. Some crosses have disappeared or disintegrated over the years.
Sometimes these graves can be identified by a gap in a row of stones; other times just a depression in the ground marks a veteran’s final resting place.
Sometimes veterans were buried in towns that were abandoned or relocated, their graveyards lost and forgotten. There are thousands of these cemeteries across the country. If each one has just one unmarked veteran’s grave, “there must be thousands and thousands of lost veterans,” said Brooks.
The fund has processed about 200 requests annually for grave markers in recent years; last year it received more than 500 applications.
Some were from families, but most were from volunteers who have been responsible for identifying hundreds of unmarked graves. Some are volunteers from branches of The Royal Canadian Legion who are dedicated to commemoration.
“Some volunteers have made dozens of applications,” said Brooks. One volunteer in Alberta has filed more than 400 applications over the past five years.
The Lost Veterans Initiative was launched in March to support the volunteers who dedicate many hours in summer identifying unmarked graves that may contain veterans and more hours during the winter gathering the required documentation and submitting an application for a grave marker.
Applications require lots of documentation. Researchers have to find out whose remains are in unmarked graves, and if that person was a veteran. If so, they must provide proof of military service, rank and military unit. Dates of birth and death must be verified by a death certificate, an obituary or cemetery interment record. In addition, it must be shown that the grave has been without a permanent marker for at least five years. Markers for Indigenous veterans may include traditional names and culturally relevant symbols.
The Lost Veterans Initiative is designed to help researchers find all that information—instructions on where to root it out, various registries to comb through, and tips on mastering the intricacies of wading through official government records.
“Our goal is to surpass 500 applications this coming year,” said Brooks. With enough volunteers, hundreds of veterans’ unmarked graves could be identified, year after year, until every one of them has a grave marker.
And even then, predicts Brooks, “someone will come forward to say, ‘I’ve found another.’”