The months following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, would forever shape the way the military does business.
In an effort to provide some sense of comfort to the families of those who perished that September day, the US Army Human Resources Command established the Joint Personal Effects Depot at present day Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, in Arlington, Virginia.
Its close proximity to the Pentagon made Arlington the perfect area to account for and process personal items of fallen warriors, return them to the families, and help provide closure.
But as America’s resolve strengthened, the young men and women of this country took up arms to defend the freedoms of its citizens against an unconventional new enemy in a war against terror thousands of miles away.
With the possibility of a rising number of casualties stemming from this new war, America’s military was faced with a new challenge — how to care for its fallen?
As the war on terror intensified, the need for an expanded personal effects facility soon became evident and the JPED was relocated from Arlington to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
Working out of old and sometimes dilapidated World War II era warehouses, workers at the JPED ran an assembly line operation without heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer until 2005, when the decision was made to consolidate the Joint Personal Effects Depot, along with the services’ mortuary, to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
“I was assigned to the depot in Aberdeen as a mortuary affairs specialist with the Army Reserve and I can say it was less than ideal conditions to work in,” said Nelson Delgado, JPED operations management specialist and retired Army Reserve master sergeant.
“Back then, everything was moved from station to station,” he said. “It was cramped and there was too much room for mistakes. One day, General Schoomaker (retired Gen. Peter Schoomaker, 35th Chief of Staff of the US Army) showed up and asked us what we needed.
“That’s how we got to Dover.”
In March 2011, construction of the current 58,000 square-foot state-of-the art facility was finally completed by the Philadelphia District Corps of Engineers at a cost of $17.5 million. A few months later in May, the first personal effects processed there.
Staffed by a mix of active and Reserve component Soldiers, Airmen, and Marines, as well as a handful of Department of the Army Civilians and contractors, the JPED, along with the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations facility provides dignity, honor, and respect for the families left behind.
When Soldiers make the ultimate sacrifice in theater, their personal effects are inventoried, packed, and rushed to the JPED, usually within five days.
“If it comes through the front door, it has to be accounted for by us and sent to the family,” said Delgado. “We don’t throw anything away.”
“Sometimes, what might seem insignificant to you and me may, in fact, be very important to the families. We’ve actually had instances where families have called back asking for something like a gum wrapper that was given to the service member by a child,” he said.
As items arrive at the depot, they are carefully x-rayed and screened for unexploded ordnance in a blast-proof corridor before they are ever brought into the main facility.
From there, items are brought into an individual cage where they are inventoried and packed for shipment to the service member’s primary next of kin.
“All the preparations are done, from start to finish, in one single room,” Delgado said.
“We ensure there are two Soldiers present in the cage at all times in addition to a summary court martial officer. This gives us a system of checks and balances and also reduces the risk of cross contamination of items,” he added.
Each cage is equipped with photographic equipment, washers and dryers, and cleaning materials. As items are inventoried, they are carefully inspected and then individually photographed. Soldiers go through great pains to ensure each item is soil-free and presentable for the family members.
“We want to make sure everything that the individual service member had with them in theater is returned to the family,” Delgado said. “What we don’t want to do is make a difficult situation worse.”
“If an item is soiled or bloodstained, we will stay here as long as it takes to get it clean so it can be returned. Besides memories, this is all the families have of their loved ones,” he said.
After items are cleaned and inventoried, they are carefully packaged into individual plastic foot-lockers.
Each item is pressed and folded. They are placed neatly in the containers, and wrapped tightly with several layers of packaging paper and bubble wrap. Smaller items, such as rings, watches or identification tags, are placed into small decorative pouches, inscribed with the service member’s individual branch of service.
Items such as Bibles, flags, or family photos are placed at the top of the first box, so that they are the first things the families see upon opening it.
“We emphasize box one, because that is usually the box the families will open first. But that doesn’t mean we neglect box two, or box six, or even box 10,” Delgado said. “We treat each box the same way because we really want the families to know we care about their loved one.”
“That’s why we take our time and make sure items are neat and presentable, not just stuff thrown in a box.”
After the items are finally packaged and sent to the transit room, Soldiers scour the cage one last time and sweep the floor before exiting. Great attention to detail is given to make sure everything is accounted for and nothing is overlooked.
Soldiers at the JPED are meticulously screened for duty fitness by HRC’s Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Division before they are ever assigned there.
Assignments at the JPED can be emotionally taxing on the Soldiers working there.
Soldiers regularly attend resiliency training to help them cope with the tasks they are asked to perform. The JPED chaplain is as much there for them as he or she is for the grieving families attending dignified transfers.
“This is a job that not a lot of people want, or can do, but at the same time, this can be the most rewarding job you will ever do,” Delgado said.
“Taking care of the personal effects is the last part of the process. This is what helps bring some sense of closure to the families. The families don’t see what goes on here, but we get to know the service members and their loved ones by working here. We develop a closeness and connection with them,” he added.
For Delgado and others working at the JPED, that connection sometimes hits close to home.
“Sometimes you see kids as young as 19 years of age coming through here,” he said. “I have a 19-year-old kid at home. Sometimes it hits a little too close to home. I don’t know anyone working here that hasn’t cried at one time or another.
“I spent 23 of my 25-year Army Reserve career as mortuary affairs and I was blessed to get assigned to the JPED. This is our way of giving back to the families of the fallen. It’s an honor to do this.”