75 cents

Today, I spent 75 cents on a paper.  Not because of valuable coupons, but because of one article.

Dover Air Force Base: Caring for what the dead last carried with them

They arrive in bulky crates and pass onto a grim assembly line, thousands of bits of military lives, torn away from their owners by war or mishap, packed up and shipped to Dover Air Force Base for return to the wounded or delivery to next of kin.Each bit will become a mission of its own at Dover’s new $14 million Joint Personal Effects Depot, from scraps of notepaper to wedding rings, from personal photos to clothing, from souvenirs to battered helmets and body armor.

Scheduled for a brief, formal opening ceremony today, the custom-built, 58,000-square-foot center reflects what local officials say is a national commitment to honor the sacrifices of the wounded and dead, in part, by carefully preparing and quickly returning what they last carried with them.

“These items mean so much to these families, in different ways, because it’s oftentimes the last tangible thing that they might have,” Lt. Col. Kelly Kyburz, the depot commander, said Thursday. “They want to know what the last items are that their loved ones had with them, or to try to smell them in their clothes.”

Army mortuary specialists organized what would become the depot to support recovery efforts at the Pentagon shortly after the terrorist jetliner attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. By 2003, as America’s military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan expanded, the personal effects operation was moved to converted, World War II-vintage warehouse space at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

Expanding role

In 2007, Congress approved funding for a modern and vastly more efficient processing complex at Dover Air Force Base, part of a $30 million base realignment authorization that also provided money to open a new Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s center at Dover.

Both went up near the Defense Department’s recently expanded Mortuary Affairs complex on Purple Heart Drive, cementing Dover’s role as an important stop on the road home for nearly all the military’s war dead.

About 190 jobs came to Dover with the new operation, including 156 civilian contractors and 34 Army and Marine representatives.

“This team that we have is a very special group,” Kyburz said, adding that the depot has a goal of getting belongings through the process in 30 days. “We know these items mean so much to the families.”

David R. Segal, a University of Maryland sociology professor who has studied the military extensively, said that efforts like the one at Dover are crucial both to families and to the nation.

“This is something we have to do when we’re at war, when we have military personnel in action,” Segal said. “When it’s not done efficiently and things are drawn out over time, families go through multiple trauma, having a body returned and then at some later date having personal effects returned, and then later a footlocker.”

Segal noted that First Lady Michele Obama and Jill Biden, Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, began leading a national effort this week to assure support and attention for military families.

Thousands of cases

At the personal effects depot, a million or more items pass through each year, part of the price of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and military operations around the globe.

Fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan since March 19, 2003, alone has left 44,036 men and women wounded in action as of Thursday, and 4,490 killed in action. Another 1,283 died in what the Pentagon described as non-hostile-fire losses.

Officials on Thursday were unable to provide an exact accounting of casualty effects handled at the depot since 2003, although Kyburz estimated the total number of cases at about 30,000, with the largest number arriving in 2007 during the military’s surge in Iraq.

Military officials expect to complete the transfer from Aberdeen by June.

Everything arriving at the depot is photographed and inventoried, with details entered into a computer before it is cleaned, inventoried again and folded or stored in footlockers. Those footlockers are checked by a military legal specialist and then returned to the wounded or relayed with all available information to the next of kin.

“It is our responsibility to make sure, as we go through a case, to get to know not only the service member, but how the service member interacted with their family” said Chief Warrant Officer William R. Couch. “Each case tells a story, so what we do is we try to migrate anything we might think is sentimental in that particular case to the first footlocker, so that will be one of the first things that the family sees.”

To the extent possible, all the personal effects owned by the soldier are cleaned up and then sent home, even to a battered watch that might have come straight from the battlefield. The Dover operation’s design gives workers a smooth flow during tracking and cleaning, however, cutting days off the time needed for work at the scattered work centers in Aberdeen.

“We have been able to design a process so the initial inventory and final inventory and the wash can all be in one location, so we don’t have to keep packing it back up,” Kyburz said. “We actually have been able to chop days off the time that it takes to get the personal effects back in the hands of the families.”

‘Right thing to do’

Sometimes, though, everything stops abruptly for those working through a case.

Couch said that he found himself in one of those moments after finding a plaque among the possessions of a soldier killed in action. The plaque was inscribed with a poem and bore the palmprints of a child on either side.

“I read the poem and I realized that the Mom had actually written a poem to the father for the baby, as if she was the baby, and she was alluding to the fact that she couldn’t wait to see her father,” Couch said. “As I read the poem, I realized that the daughter was never going to be able to meet the father.”

Couch said he had to step away from the job for a few minutes, then regained his composure and “went back and did the case, because it was the right thing to do for the family.”

The University of Maryland’s Segal said that efforts like those at Dover reflect a national need and obligation.

“Given the mobilization of reserve components of the military, it’s hard to think of a jurisdiction in the United States that hasn’t been involved in the war,” Segal said. “This is the responsibility of not simply the Department of Defense and not simply the government, but of the nation.”

Written by
JEFF MONTGOMERY
The News Journal

My heart broke for the widows/widowers who would be receiving the last possessions that their spouse had with them.

I remembered two memories.

One was being in Annapolis when John was very sick.  I was asked if I wanted to clean out John’s locker.  It was the rational thing.  The odds of him getting well were slim.  And if he did get better, well, he could get a new locker.  Rationally it was the logical thing to do.  But cleaning out a locker isn’t always logical.  It’s about saying goodbye… moving on… packing up memories… leaving.  I couldn’t do it.

The other was when the contents of his locker were delivered after his death.  I remember sitting on the floor going through the stuff.

Some things made me smile.

Some made me cry.

Some I just didn’t get and nobody ever bothered to tell me the stories.  I guess I’ll always have to wonder what in the world was up with the slingshot frog.  It looks sort of like the frog in a blender- which I think maybe you have to be male to find funny.  John showed it to me & I failed to see the humor.  Had I gotten John’s locker contents while he was alive I could have asked him, but I didn’t.  Dead people don’t tell stories.

He had the photo magnets of Nathaniel that I’d made for him.  I’m glad he had actually taken them to work with him.  John wasn’t the most sentimental person.  There were no photos of me, but that didn’t surprise me.  He would have said… “What do I need a picture of you for… I get to see you all the time.”

He did however have the little fan that I’d gotten him.  He wanted something small & quiet for the bunk room.  I had gotten one for my desk at work and suggested it.  He was game to try it.  He wasn’t often game for my suggestions, so I’m glad he used it and it met his needs.

He also had a container of Rio Vista Hoof Manicure.  John most definitely wasn’t a hand lotion sort of guy, but his hands would get dry.  I don’t remember if the Hoof Manicure discovery involved the equines or not, but somehow we discovered that it is AWESOME hand cream.  John went on line and searched and found the best price and ordered some refills.  Now, if I could just remember to use it myself maybe my hands wouldn’t be chapped and bleeding every fall and winter.  But it just doesn’t seem to matter that much anymore… nobody to worry about having pretty hands for.

He also had some plans and manuals for firefighting.  John was a visionary when it came to the fire service.  He wasn’t somebody who showed up for a job and collected a paycheck.  He was always thinking, planning, learning, and teaching.  He’d get frustrated at the volunteer company because they never had an overall plan for the future.  He’d explain to me that they should budget out how to most effectively use their funds to purchase equipment so that they could space out payments and never get hit with having to purchase two or more expensive pieces of apparatus at the same time.  He loved laying out compartments.  Testing tools.  Researching with vendors for the best SCBA, rescue tools, & more.  So, seeing those firefighting manuals and plans was exactly what I expected.

I wished that the military didn’t have to build a facility like the one in the article.  I wished that no spouse had to open a box of last belongings.  But, I’m glad the military cares enough to provide the service to families.

And, I’m glad I spent the 75 cents, today.

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About Mary K. Smith

I was widowed in July 2009, when I lost my beloved husband, John, to melanoma. Cancer SUCKS. We have a young son who was just a year old when his father died. I live on a small farm in Maryland which is home to horses, cats, and a dog. I started this blog as a way for me to heal, a way to remember my husband, and eventually I'd like to share it with our son so he can see the love that his father had for him, the love that we had for each other, what a great person his father was, and how hard his father fought to live.
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