Exactly two years ago workers at the Joint Personal Effects Depot processed the first Personal Effects (personal property) in the facility's new home at Dover Air Force Base, Dover, Del. The mission of the JPED is to receive, safeguard, inventory, store, process and determine the final disposition of personal effects of killed, injured or missing Department of Defense personnel serving in support of overseas contingency operations.
The mission of the JPED - a determination to do what is right, and to return fallen service members personal effects to their loved ones is nothing new to our military. And, since the facility's move to Dover Air Force Base this difficult, but honorable task has become more manageable, streamlined, and more efficient than ever before thanks to a state of the art facility designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
From the outside, the JPED facility looks no different from any other building one would see on a military installation. But this building, closed to the general public, is anything but ordinary.
The JPED processes the personal effects of not only those killed in action, but also those who are wounded or missing, from all military services including the Coast Guard, Department of Defense civilians as well as contractors. The JPED defines personal effects as privately owned, moveable, and personal property of a Soldier while in theater. This would include both what the service member had on them at time of death (referred to as transfer items) as well as what was left behind in their encampments. Unlike transfer items which come into the JPED at the same time the body arrives at Dover Air Force Base, the personal effects left behind in theater will return to the JPED usually within one to two weeks after the time of death.
It is within the walls of the JPED that the most personal of articles, clothing, cans of food, laptops, watches, jewelry, cell phones, anything that belonged to the service member while away from home are photographed, inventoried, cleaned, and prepared to be returned to their owners, or, in most cases, to their next of kin.
As the JPED commemorated its two-year anniversary since moving into its new home at Dover Air Force Base, I decided I would take a tour of the facility with members of the military who work there to get a better understanding of what goes on there. Most people will never fully understand or appreciate what these soldiers do here or why they volunteer to come back for multiple tours of duty.
"It is honorable work, I honestly cannot think of a better job in the military than to help bring some sense of closure to families torn apart by the unfortunate cost of war," said Army Maj. Darius Highsmith. Maj. Highsmith directs a team of more than a dozen active duty soldiers who are assigned to the JPED and neighboring mortuary. He explained how getting assigned to the mortuary or the JPED is not easy work, but it's honorable and "you know that you are making a profound difference in someone's life."
The job of processing the personal effects of fallen service members, sacred and honorable as it may be, was, for many years done in less than ideal facilities.
Prior to the move to Dover Air Force Base the JPED was located at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md, and before that, Fort Myer in Va. Lt. Col Harvey Baker, Commander of the JPED discussed with me the history of the facility, which was originally stood up by the Army Human Resources Command immediately following the events of September 11, 2001. Lt. Col Baker explained how because the Pentagon is military property, a military response was needed to process all the personal property of those lost on that horrific day.
"Given its proximity to the Pentagon, it made sense that this newly established JPED would be set up at Ft. Myer. And the facility at Myer was sufficient for dealing with the effects lost in the Pentagon on September 11th" said Baker. However, with the onset of military operations overseas, the modest facility at Fort Myer could no longer manage effectively the unfortunately ever increasing amount of personal effects that were coming in on a daily basis.
In 2003, two years after the JPED opened at Fort Myer the decision was made to relocate the JPED to a larger facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground. At Aberdeen, it would be able to better handle growing demand for processing personal effects more efficiently. The facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md was a series of 70-year-old World War II-era warehouse buildings that had been modified to conduct JPED operations. They no longer meet the minimum operating standards for this sort of mission.
Fallen service members being brought back from combat are sent to Dover Air Force Base, where the dignified transfer of fallen service members occurs. Additionally, it is at Dover Air Force Base that both the Armed Forced Medical Examiner System (AFMES) and the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations facility are located.
And so, in 2006 it was decided that consolidation of mortuary affairs and personal effects processing done together at Dover Air Force Base would significantly enhance operations, eliminate inefficiencies, and provide surviving families with the appropriate dignity, honor and respect that they deserve.
It would take multiple years and millions of dollars to construct, but the end result is a facility found nowhere else in the world. The concept of having one, consolidated facility to process personal effects of all service members is relatively new. Prior to September 11, 2001 personal effects were processed at individual installations, leading to families sometimes experiencing great differences in the return process.
"Consolidation of both mortuary affairs and personal effects processing at Dover Air Force Base has significantly enhanced operations, eliminated inefficiencies, and provided the appropriate dignity, honor and respect that is due to surviving families" stated Baker.
The JPED at Dover, built by the Philadelphia District of the Corps of Engineers is the only facility of its kind in the world. In fact, other countries have taken note and have expressed interest in visiting the facility. "We are forever grateful to the Army Corps for building such a magnificent building for us to work in. Team JPED thanks them, and the American people thank them," said Lt. Col Baker.
Army Reserve Col. Tom Lavender, the Philadelphia District project manager who oversaw construction of the new JPED at Dover Air Force Base stated that this is a facility that the Department of Defense and our nation should be proud of. "This building, with all its features, seen nowhere else in the world, stands as a testament to the lengths that the military goes to honor our nation's fallen heroes" said Lavender.
In recent years, the Philadelphia District has completed a number of projects in support of the base's mission of caring and honoring the fallen -- the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs; the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System Facility; and Joint Personnel Effects Depot.
Construction of this state-of-the-art, 58,000 square foot, $17.5 million facility was completed in March 2011. The first personal effects were processed in May 2011. In addition to the actual processing rooms, the new facility includes a large conference room, computer lab, class rooms, and offices. The JPED staff is comprised of 148 personnel, including Army, Air Force and Marine service members as well as civilians and contractors.
In discussing the new facility Col. Kerk Brown Director of the JPED's higher headquarters, the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center stated "The extraordinary efforts of the entire JPED staff are in keeping with the Army's unwavering commitment to Soldiers, Civilians, Families of our Fallen, and their loved ones. A staff of dedicated professionals, the JPED is a focal point in the Army's casualty and mortuary affairs effort, especially during the particularly traumatic period following initial notification. The attention to detail in preserving, protecting and transferring the personal effects from the battlefield to the Surviving Family members clearly demonstrates loyalty, honor, dignity, respect, care and compassion."
Across the military it's now agreed upon that bringing the JPED to Dover Air Force Base was a good move, and one that surviving families are directly benefiting from.
According to Lt. Col. Baker "having the JPED co-located next to the mortuary, medical examiner as well as the Center for the Families of the Fallen and the Fisher House allows for better coordination of each organization's efforts to service our nation's wounded and fallen service members."
At the end of the day, "it is all about the family. That is our main concern in all of this, comforting the family and bringing them as much closure as possible, in the shortest amount of time as possible" said Capt. William Wightman of the JPED.
Chief Warrant Officer William Couch, Chief of Operations at the JPED discussed the step by step process for how personal effects are received and processed.
"Once an In-Theatre casualty occurs, the unit commander will appoint a Summary Court Martial Officer to retrieve the Soldier's personal belongings. An inventory of the belongings must be conducted on site within 12 hours of the incident." After this takes place, the soldier's personal effects are packaged and sent to the JPED at Dover Air Force Base. "And that is where the dedicated employees at the JPED take over."
Wightman, a Summary Court Martial Officer himself, explained how now, with one consolidated facility for processing personal effects "every single surviving family will receive the same experience. That means that whether their loved one was a private enlisted, or a four star general, the results will be the same. Every family will be dealt with in the exact same way - that is with honor, dignity and respect."