GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Mike Shults never knew Howard Knowles.
But his passion for helping a fellow veteran 23 years after Knowles’ death has led to the war hero finally getting the military benefits he earned and helped his family know what happened to his remains.
Shults, who enlisted in the Navy and served from 1966 to 1970, felt a duty to help make things right when the owner of Snyder Grand Valley Memorials asked him for help.
Knowles’ cremains were discovered shortly after LaRee Foster purchased the business in September 2016. There had been a flood in the basement, and she was clearing out a closet. Knowles’ cremains were sitting there on a shelf.
She discovered that there was partial paperwork for a military marker meant for Knowles, but the paperwork was never submitted to the proper federal agency. Foster suspected Knowles was a veteran — often funeral homes and businesses that fabricate the gravestones will work together when a veteran dies, since they can receive military markers for headstones.
“I imagine that we had his cremains because we were going to place the cremains when we placed the stone,” Foster said. “It was basically a bunch of overlooked paperwork that created this situation.”
She attempted to find out more but wasn’t successful, as privacy laws protect personal information even after a veteran dies, and so she kept Knowles on her desk for safekeeping until an opportunity arose to get more help.
That help came in the form of Shults, who came to Snyder Memorials to purchase a headstone after his mother, Helen, died in January. Less than a month later, his son Shane died and he was back again, and Foster helped him make arrangements for another loss.
Through his own personal tragedies, Shults came to know Foster pretty well and they chatted about his time in the military. She asked him if he could help solve the mystery and he agreed to help.
“All veterans are promised two things — hospitalization and an honorable burial,” Shults said, and he didn’t want Knowles to be cheated out of the benefit he earned.
Little did he know, not only was Knowles a veteran, but he was also a Purple Heart recipient.
In the beginning, Shults had very little information to mine. Knowles’ cremains were in a plastic brown box with a paper label from Callahan-Edfast Mortuary, indicating he had been cremated before July 4, 1995. There were no dates of birth or death, no other identifying information.
Shults was able to find a death notice printed in the newspaper in the archives at the Mesa County Public Libraries, though it also had little information. But it revealed something important — it mentioned relatives’ names, that Knowles had received a Purple Heart medal with oak leaf clusters and that his services were handled by an officiate with the Mormon church.
His goal was twofold — to notify family members that Knowles’ cremains had been located and that he was pursuing interment in the veterans’ cemetery, if he could prove Knowles qualified for death benefits.
Though Shults sought out possible family members and wrote 15 letters, he received no responses. Staff at the veterans cemetery was able to confirm that Knowles qualified for interment, and he proceeded with making final arrangements.
Meanwhile, someone who attended church with Knowles responded to Shults’ requests and provided contact information for his only child, Kathryn Loucks, who had moved to Arkansas.
Loucks was shocked to hear from Shults, after giving up on ever finding her dad’s cremains again.
Loucks remembers being overwhelmed when her dad died, that they intended to have a headstone and his cremains placed in the Cedaredge cemetery beside her children’s graves. But somehow it never came together, the paperwork didn’t get filled out and when she returned to pick up her dad’s ashes, they were nowhere to be found.
Before she and her husband moved in 2015, she thought about her dad’s missing cremains again. “I didn’t know what else to do so we just went ahead and moved,” she said. “There was always a hole in my heart because I didn’t know what happened to him.”
Now she knows, and she’s happy that her dad will be interred at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado, which didn’t exist when he died.
There are more questions than answers about Knowles’ time in the service. He didn’t talk much to Loucks about his experiences in the Army during World War II, and she thinks maybe he didn’t because it was too awful and he didn’t want his little girl to know what he endured.
He once told her that he had both legs wounded during a battle and encountered German soldiers. “He took them by gunpoint and marched them to a river,” she said. “And then made them row him back across to the American side.”
She remembers that he had to wrap his legs with support bandages for the rest of his life so he could walk. And she remembers that he was awarded the Purple Heart medal with oak leaf cluster, indicating he received the medal for the first wound in a combat-related injury and later received the cluster for a subsequent injury. Each award represents a separate incident that caused a wound or injury, meaning Knowles was injured, recuperated, returned to fight and was wounded again in enemy combat.
Shults selected a medal for Knowles’ urn, which is inscribed with the words “man of valor.” While no one can say exactly what Knowles earned the Purple Heart medal for, Shults said he was obviously a brave man.
And though Loucks has never met Shults, she said he’s a good man and she feels like she’s known him forever.
“It feels like he’s a dear friend,” she said. “He took it upon himself to follow through with this and help my dad find a resting place and help me come to terms with finally having my dad’s remains and know that they’re going to be taken care of. He’s a remarkable man.”
In the end, Shults doesn’t blame anybody for what happened, especially the headstone company where Knowles’ remains were found.
“They were waiting for his DD-214,” he said, referencing the discharge papers the military issues, which prove someone served and earned veterans’ benefits. “And a month turns into a year and even longer and they just sit there.”
Helping Knowles and his family is just the beginning of a new hobby Shults has decided to enlist in. He’s joined the Missing in America project, which has a mission of locating and identifying the unclaimed cremated remains of veterans and securing a final resting place for them. To date, the nonprofit group and its volunteers have helped find more than 16,000 veterans’ cremains, identify more than 3,700 of those and arrange a final resting place for 3,425 veterans’ cremains, according to the organization’s website.
Shults is one of eight volunteers in Colorado with the project, and is working with funeral homes and mortuaries to inventory cremains that were not collected, determining if those cremains are from veterans who earned full benefits and making sure they meet their final resting place as promised.
“There are thousands of these out there,” Shults said.
Knowles’ interment with full military honors will take place at 1 p.m. April 17 at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado. The public is welcome to attend.
Information from: The Daily Sentinel, http://www.gjsentinel.com