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For months, the ashes of the former World War II dental assistant gathered dust at a funeral home around the corner from Omaha South High School.

Hazel Evelyn Wood had served in the Women's Army Corps during the Japanese occupation. The 96-year-old died alone in October 2013, leaving no children, no husband, no next of kin.

"She just outlived everybody ... and that happens a lot," said Bill Henry, a veteran himself.

And the ashes just sit there.

Each year in Nebraska, the ashes of hundreds of vets like Hazel Wood go unclaimed, as well as those of thousands of civilians, Henry estimated.

State law requires funeral homes to keep people's ashes for 60 days; after that and a "reasonable attempt" to contact family or friends, a funeral home can bury the remains, scatter them — even throw them out.

But there's another option, Henry says: Turn them over to him. 

Henry and his partner, 57-year-old ex-Marine Larry Schaber, buy urns 10 at a time.

The only two members of Missing in America Project's Nebraska chapter spent two years tracking down veterans' unclaimed ashes, locating next of kin when possible and paying for military funerals — sometimes out of their own pockets — when no family can be found. 

Henry has reached out to every funeral home in the state at least twice, trying to get the word out, he says. He works harder now than during his 28-year postal career that ended in downtown Omaha in 2012.

He has less to show for it than he'd like.

"We are at the mercy of the funeral homes," he said.

Only a handful of funeral homes have been willing to turn over unclaimed ashes, and only Good Shepherd allowed Henry to share its name.

The others are afraid of lawsuits, he said: either for disposing of ashes after 60 days — even though state law allows it — or for surrendering them to the Missing in America Project, which has affiliates in 48 states and is protected by a $1 million insurance policy.

State Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue, a Creighton University political science professor whose district includes Offutt Air Force Base, has introduced a bill that would create a legal framework for groups like Missing in America Project to handle veterans' ashes.

“The goal of the bill is to allow veterans' groups and funeral homes to work together to make sure that we treat veterans' remains with the respect that they deserve," Crawford said.

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Despite all of their work, Henry and Schaber have helped deliver just 29 veterans to a final resting place.

In September 2013, after services for three veterans at Good Shepherd, a convoy of 25 motorcycles swelled to more than a hundred as it drove 288 miles from Omaha to Fort McPherson National Cemetery near North Platte.

In 103-degree heat, the ashes of Robert Earl Woods and Dennis Lee Townsend, both Vietnam vets, and Korean War veteran John Henry McIntosh were interred in a columbarium.

The following May, five more received the same honor: Hazel Wood, Korea veteran Floyd Emil Johnson, and Vietnam vets Gary L. Hirschman, Charles Warner and Reginal Thomas Prim.

Henry and Schaber also worked with family to arrange a ninth burial at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

And when they can — 10 times so far — they connect the ashes with relatives, some far-flung in Florida, California or New Jersey, and others far-removed but living closer to home. 

The process involves a team 13 genealogists, members of the Greater Omaha Genealogical Society, who volunteer their time just like Henry and Schaber.

"It's very emotional," Henry said. "I am from a veterans' family. Both my parents served in World War II."

You sign a "blank check for your life" when you join the military, he said.

"The one thing the government has not taken away from a veteran ... is a military funeral."

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Crawford's bill (LB146) would allow funeral homes and crematoriums to work with VA-affiliated groups like the Missing in America Project to identify unclaimed ashes of veterans or spouses, then turn them over if they qualify for burial in a veterans' cemetery.

No one involved in the process could be held liable for burying veterans' remains "unless there is gross negligence or willful misconduct."

Groups like Henry's must try to contact survivors, and hold onto ashes for a full year before burying them or placing them in a tomb or mausoleum.

The ashes couldn't be scattered.

And funeral homes must keep a record of the remains — whom they belong to, which group took them — for five years.

A hearing on the bill, now before the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, is scheduled for Jan. 29 at the state Capitol. Other state senators have signed up to support it: Matt Hansen of Lincoln, Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins, and Tommy Garrett of Bellevue.

"I was absolutely aghast when I heard this story," said Garrett, one of a half-dozen veterans serving in the Legislature.

At first, he thought funeral homes were simply tossing the remains in the Dumpster. That isn't often the case.

Still, he said, "there are homeless veterans out there that when they pass, nobody claims their remains."

Back at Good Shepherd, ashes are "stashed everywhere" in the vault — maybe two dozen bags of ashes in separate cardboard boxes, said Dan Miller, who owns the 80-year-old funeral home with his wife and another couple.

"That's nothing compared to some people," he said. "I know a guy whose dad owned a funeral home, and he had ashes for 50 years."

Good Shepherd has been willing to do what most other funeral homes have not.

"I didn't even have to argue with them," Henry said. "They're just great people."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com. On Twitter @zachamiLJS.

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Assistant city editor

Zach Pluhacek is an assistant city editor.

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