Claudia Buck

Claudia Buck: California hunts for veterans with unclaimed cash, mementos

Call it a bit of monetary patriotism for California’s military veterans.

Since May, California officials have been trying to locate more than 95,000 military veterans who have more than $36 million in cash and unclaimed property sitting in state coffers. The unclaimed property includes dozens of pieces of wartime memorabilia, such as Purple Heart and POW medals, letters written from Pearl Harbor survivors, U.S. Army caps and other mementos.

In a first-ever collaboration, the California Department of Veterans Affairs and the state Controller’s Office recently merged their massive databases and were able to identify more than 95,300 veterans or their survivors, primarily from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, who have monies waiting.

The cash amounts average $300 each, but some are only 8 cents, according to CalVet officials.

Since announcing the program in May, state officials have upped their efforts to reunite these mementos with their owners, turning up at military veterans’ events and sending out email blasts to veterans’ groups. “We’re doing what we can to get the word out,” said Garin Casaleggio, spokesman for the Controller’s Office.

The effort is part of the state controller’s unclaimed property program, which acts as California’s financial “lost-and-found” department. By law, financial institutions or companies must turn over to the state for safekeeping any accounts that have sat untouched for more than three years. That includes uncashed paychecks, utility refunds, life-insurance payments, and proceeds from stocks and bonds. It also applies to forgotten safe deposit boxes.

The state is sitting on $7.1 billion in unclaimed property, including the amounts identified as belonging to military veterans.

Aside from millions of dollars in cash, there’s also a trove of wartime memorabilia: aluminum dog tags; a sobering lineup of prisoner-of-war medals; a parade of Purple Heart medals, given to soldiers who suffered injuries in combat, and Silver Star medals; a drab-green U.S. Army cap from World War I, neatly trimmed with a dozen ribboned medals.

There’s also written correspondence, including a 1944 typed letter from Walt Disney Productions accompanying a color illustration of a swaying Hawaiian hula dancer. Created for “the men of the Aircraft Rescue Service,” the dancer’s image was intended to appear on military uniform patches or be painted onto the nose of aircraft. Some of the lost-and-found items are poignant: a “Dear Mom” letter by a USS California sailor, written in 1942 to his mother in Los Angeles, describing some of the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack.

At a recent AMVETS convention in Rancho Cordova, the state Controller’s Office set up a temporary office and “a significant amount of people” found money via a computer search, said Pete Conaty, a Sacramento lobbyist who represents various veterans groups. About 13 individuals located 27 “lost” accounts totaling about $5,300, according to the Controller’s Office.

“To have a campaign like this for veterans is extraordinary,” said Lorraine Plass, a U.S. Army veteran who’s currently legislative director of AMVETS in California. The Healdsburg resident and her husband, also a U.S. Army veteran, moved continually during their military service, so she knows how easy it can be for military families to overlook or leave behind savings accounts, refund checks or other financial accounts.

Last month, another military veteran, former Air Force Staff Sgt. Reid Milburn, was thrilled to discover more than $2,700 in long-lost accounts that belonged to her father, a retired Air Force staff sergeant who served in Vietnam.

Under the state’s unclaimed-property program, those who locate accounts in their name – or that of a family member – can file a paper claim form or use the state’s electronic claims process. (See box for details.)

Earlier this year, the Controller’s Office instituted a new e-claim process through which accounts of less than $500 with a sole owner can be claimed online, without requiring a paper form. Since the advent of the e-claim system in January, Casaleggio said claims for 80,000 accounts worth $6.2 million have been paid out.

The state has about 2,000 military items from safe deposit boxes. Among them is a congressional medal awarded to a Navajo “code talker,” one of a group of American Indians who helped transmit U.S. military secrets in the Navajo language during World War II. Casaleggio said the Navajo Times, an Arizona-based newspaper, recently contacted the state, offering to help track down heirs of the medal recipient.

Although state officials had expected to start mailing letters to the identified 95,000 military veterans in May, there were delays in getting clearance through the state printing office. The letters will start going out July 30, “at a rate of 10,000 a week,” said Carolyn Ballou, spokeswoman with the California Department of Veterans Affairs.

In the meantime, anyone – military veteran or not – can easily call or look online for unclaimed property in California or in any state across the country.

In announcing the effort for military veterans in May, Controller John Chiang urged veterans or their heirs to search the state’s unclaimed-property database. “The last place a (military) medal should be,” he said, “is in a vault in the state of California.”