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Fallen Troops' Belongings Handled With Care at Maryland Depot

By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md., March 17, 2006 – Tucked away on a sliver of land at this Army facility in Maryland is a cluster of ordinary-looking, tan-colored buildings encircled by a chain link fence. What goes on inside these buildings, however, is anything but ordinary.

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A soldier at the Joint Personal Effects Depot cleans a wounded soldier's footlocker, March 16. Photo by Steven Donald Smith
  

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The buildings are home to the Joint Personal Effects Depot, where all the personal belongings of servicemembers killed and wounded during the war on terrorism are meticulously processed before being returned to their families.

"We see a snapshot of their personal life," Army Lt. Col. Deborah Skillman, commander of the depot, said. "We're seeing their family photos, what they liked to read, and what movies they liked to watch. It can be hard sometimes seeing the faces of these young servicemembers and their families and knowing that they've died."

The depot receives the personal effects of members from all military services including the Coast Guard, Defense Department civilians and contractors, as well as embedded members of the media, who have been killed or wounded or are missing. The depot has even received the belongings of foreign nationals who were killed while working as translators for the U.S. military. About 65 percent of the "cases" processed at the depot are Army soldiers, about 30 percent are Marines, and the remaining 5 percent constitute all others, Skillman said.

The processing takes place in two separate buildings -- one building specifically for the effects of deceased persons and the other for the wounded. The individuals who work at the depot are mortuary affairs specialists, referred to as "92-Mikes" in Army parlance. About 120 soldiers, Marines, DoD civilians and contractors work under Skillman.

Personal belongings are essentially divided into three categories. There are "sentimental" items, which include things such as wedding bands, religious medallions and bibles.

The other two types of belongings are categorized as "transfer" and "theater"- personal effects. Transfer belongings are items found on the body, such as wallets, cell phones and eyeglasses. Theater effects normally are comfort items such as televisions, CD players and refrigerators. The bulk of the belongings processed at the depot fall under the theater category, Skillman said.

Both transfer and sentimental belongings, as with the bodies of the deceased, are sent from overseas to Dover Air Force Base, Del. The bodies, along with the sentimental items are escorted directly to the families, while transfer belongings are brought here. Theater item are shipped directly from the theater to the depot.

Once at the depot, the items enter a pre-inventory phase, where they are checked against a list from the theater. "We check everything," Army Maj. David Jones said. "If there are any discrepancies between their list and our list, we note it. And 99 percent of the time there is a discrepancy."

Jones said discrepancies often occur because the JPED does a more thorough inspection. He added that discrepancies are normally related to very small items, such as a penny found in a pants pocket. "If you're in the unit you don't take the time to go through everything and write everything down, because it's not a fun job," he said. "This could be their buddy or they probably at least have eaten with them at one time or another. They want to get the job done as quickly as possible. And that's totally understandable."

Jones stressed that the depot's inventory procedures are exceedingly methodical. For instance, if a soldier's belongings include nine writing pens of various colors, the depot will specify the colors, as opposed to just noting nine pens.

Following the pre-inventory phase, items are sorted, photographed in the condition in which they arrived, and cleaned. Each servicemember's belongings are always kept separate from others, and all articles of clothing are washed. Valuables, such as money and jewelry, are placed in a safe. Even video clips found on digital music players are inventoried, and undeveloped film is processed for the family.

Mortuary work can be emotionally draining, so those working here have the option of being transferred whenever they choose. Jones said that workers at the depot perform as a team and look out for each other. Everyone takes lunch break at the same time because each section is interdependent on the other, and "it adds to the camaraderie," he said.

Army Master Sgt. Alfred Venham, who has run the archival operation at JPED since returning from Iraq in 2003, said everybody reacts differently to what goes on here. "There are times that I get emotional and upset, but you just have to keep moving forward and do your job," Venham said. "If you let it get to you too much, you're not being beneficial to your operation or the soldiers around you."

Military chaplains often visit the facility, and depot workers sometimes get together to socialize and blow off steam, Shari Lawrence, an Army public affairs officer, said. "Sometimes you have to laugh," she said.

During the photographing and cleaning phase, items are inventoried a second time before going to the final stage, where they are checked against a master list for a third and final time. The belongings are then packed for shipment via two-day delivery service.

Army 1st Lt. Robin Eskelson helps run the last phase in the process and has final say before personal effects get shipped to families. "It's the final check to make sure everything is up to standard," she said. "We don't want to send anything home that is not in proper order."

Certain items are not sent to families, including anything that would cause additional anguish, hazardous material, and government property. Items that could potentially harm other belongings during shipment also are withheld. These items might include things that are prone to leaking, such as an open bottle of shampoo, Jones said.

Marvon Scott, a personnel specialist who helps pack belongings for shipment, said it's important for items to be neatly packed before being sent to families. "We want the loved ones to receive the items in such a manner that they know that the person who packed them took time and care," he said.

The Joint Personal Effects Depot was stood up following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The depot is exclusively a wartime operation. It was originally housed at Fort Myer, Va., but was moved to Aberdeen in mid-2003. Some of the mortuary specialists working here were involved in collecting personal effects from the Sept. 11 victims at the Pentagon.

"I don't think there's a soldier here who is not proud of what they're doing and has the utmost respect for what goes on here." Venham said. "It's an honor to do what we're doing."

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Aberdeen Proving Ground

Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe front entrance of the Joint Personal Effects Depot in Aberdeen, Md. Photo by Steven Donald Smith  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA photographer takes pictures of a deceased servicemember's belongings at the Joint Personal Effects Depot, March 16. Photo by Steven Donald Smith  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe personal belongings of servicemembers killed and wounded during the war against terrorism are brought to the Joint Personal Effects Depot, which is located at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground. All of the belongings are carefully sorted and cleaned before being returned to the servicemember's family. Photo by Steven Donald Smith  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA soldier at the Joint Personal Effects Depot sorts and cleans the personal belongings of servicemembers killed during the war on terrorism. All of the belongings of those killed or wounded are brought to the depot, which is located at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground. Each item is carefully handled before being returned to the servicemember's family. Photo by Steven Donald Smith  
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