Tucked away on a sliver of land at Aberdeen Proving Grounds 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.
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. Sentimental items, which include things such as wedding bands, religious medallions and bibles, normally are sent directly from the theater to the family.
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 theater belongings, along with bodies of the deceased, are sent from overseas to Dover Air Force Base, Del. Bodies are escorted directly to the families, while belongings are brought here.
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.