Mortuary Airman Cares for Personal Effects
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 11, 2010 Air Force Master Sgt. Tracy Bailey painstakingly cleans jewelry each day, putting the shine on cherished wedding bands and polishing gold and silver chains.
Air Force Master Sgt. Tracy Bailey cleans a dog tag at the personal effects section of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Feb. 25, 2010. It’s Bailey’s job to clean the personal belongings that arrive with a fallen servicemember’s remains. U.S. Air Force photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
She is meticulous in her work, buffing and polishing every inch of every item -- all while knowing this jewelry may never be worn again.
As noncommissioned officer in charge of the personal effects section of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center here, it’s Bailey’s job to clean the personal belongings that arrive with a servicemember’s remains.
“These items are going to be the last things the family will have of their loved one,” Bailey said. “We strive to do the best we can for them.”
Bailey’s job starts when fallen servicemember arrives at the port mortuary, where the remains of all U.S. servicemembers who died in support of a combat operation are prepared for final disposition. She or a member of her staff inventories every personal belonging, from rings and necklaces to the miscellaneous papers most wallets contain. These are the items the servicemember had been carrying or wearing at the time of death.
“Servicemembers can carry only a very limited amount of things with them in the field,” Bailey said. “So I’m getting a glimpse at what the most important items to them at the time were.”
Using an assortment of tools, Bailey and her staff meticulously clean every item, from polishing a wedding band or necklace to pounding out a bent dog tag. Their job is to restore the items to the best condition possible, Bailey said.
The sentimental items, such as wedding bands and dog tags, are placed in a velvet jewelry bag and handed over to the escort who will accompany the body home. The escort personally will turn the items over to the person authorized to receive the effects.
Other items are sent to the Joint Personal Effects Depot at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., where they are joined with other personal effects from the fallen servicemember’s living quarters. Ultimately, a summary courts officer will be appointed and charged with returning all of the personal effects to the family.
Bailey said she gains a snapshot of a servicemember’s life by piecing together the items she receives, whether it’s a tattered family photo tucked into a well-worn wallet, a young child’s drawing that had been kept close at hand in a parent’s uniform pocket, or a list of songs the servicemember had been planning to download.
It’s those types of items that get to her the most, she said.
“It affects you; you can’t say it doesn’t,” she acknowledged. “But you have to be a strong type of person to be here. You can’t let it impede your mission because of the importance for family members.”