America at War: Life at the Army's Joint Personal Effects Depot

On Sept. 12, 2001, the Army Human Resources Command “stood up” the Joint Personal Effects Depot (JPED). This was a significant step. As Lt. Col. Deborah Skillman, former JPED commander, explained, “This is a wartime operation. We are not here during peacetime.”

It was, of course, the day after al Qaeda terrorists, in one of several acts of war, commandeered and slammed that American Airlines Boeing 757—Flight #77—into the Pentagon. JPED was conveniently located at historic Fort Myer.

A year after the Depot began operating, Congress debated whether or not to authorize the President to take military action against Iraq. The subsequent vote authorizing war (Senate: 77-23; House: 296-133) occurred just before the 2002 midterm elections and was largely supported by Democrats. Not coincidentally the public also overwhelmingly supported the military option as a way to deal decisively with jihadists—starting with Operation Enduring Freedom to root out the al Qaeda-sponsoring Taliban in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11.

But now, four years later—as the 2006 midterm elections approach—Operation Iraqi Freedom has, of course, become very unpopular, and many of the very same Democrats who voted to authorize the war now seek to ride the popular anti-war sentiment to victory in November.

Like Captain Renault in Casablanca—“shocked to find gambling going on in Casablanca”—no one can seriously be shocked to find born-again anti-war Democrats politicizing the very war they authorized in 2002. Yet, there is something deeply disquieting in this. The “loyal opposition” after all had it in their power—and, indeed, was morally obliged—to vote “no” in 2002 if they seriously thought, as they would now have us believe, that the President’s strategy was flawed.

If you peer through the eyes of our soldiers—as those at JPED do every day—what you discover is an intense desire to win the war and preserve our freedoms—while at the same time ensuring that all the blood spilled and sacrifice rendered in Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom—sometimes lasting a lifetime—will not have been in vain.

Far different from just winning an election and saving your political hide.

In March 2003, the Joint Personnel Effects Depot was transferred to Aberdeen Proving Ground, about 30 miles north of Baltimore. I toured JPED in March 2006, about which I write in last month’s VFW Magazine in an article titled “With Great Reverence & Respect.”

There, each day, 120 military, civilian and contract personnel quietly go about a somber routine of handling all the personal effects of the killed in action and wounded in action. The goal is to receive inventory (removing inappropriate items, e.g., bloodied or broken beyond repair), photograph (i.e., each and every item), thoroughly clean (and repair, if need be), package and then return the personal effects to the family “as quickly as possible”—a process that now takes half the 45 days the Army allows.

The mortuary affairs specialists, who work there, come from four military units (two active; two reserve). As Skillman explained, they “all come together” in mass casualty situations requiring personnel trained in “search and recovery”—whether it is for Hurricane Katrina or 9/11.

At the time of my tour, both reserve units—the 311th and 246th Quartermasters—along with the 54th Quartermaster, were serving at the Depot. The 111th Quartermaster, based along with the 54th at Fort Lee near Richmond, was about to be called up. Not coincidentally, an additional bank of washers and dryers was also being installed in the warehouse dedicated to the “killed in action.”

In the same warehouse, at the very end of the line, where the summary court martial officer signs off on the official inventory of the deceased’s personal effects, four “salt of the earth” personnel repackage everything—now restored to near perfect condition. They work to ensure that nothing will break and that special items, such as the deceased’s desert camouflage uniform, American flag, and family photos, are presented with great care and dignity.

During my visit, they also sought to ensure that Americans understand how important it is to “support the troops.”

Staff Sgt. Mark Brown—who served, and whose son now serves, in Iraq—with a hint of gripping emotion evident in his voice, spoke of the need for America to “come together” to support the war effort and said “to all the families (and) people… that don’t have a family member (in Iraq or Afghanistan)—find someone to support.”

Bill Petty, a “previous service” contractor, said he was “saddened” that Americans “protest” these brave soldiers, now deceased, “who are fighting and dying to preserve our freedoms”—taking a hero’s place alongside their fellow soldiers in the long sweep of American history, who have died young so we might live free.

The Greatest Generation thrived in an era that, as the song goes, would “accentuate the positive.”

The latest, Greatest Generation tries to survive in an era that, more and more, seems to “accentuate the negative.”

But, ponder this reminiscence offered by JPED executive officer Major David Jones: The terrorist attack on the Pentagon struck the sole portion of the building that had only recently been structurally reinforced to withstand attack—so recently that they were still moving people back into the partially empty wing on 9/11.

Surely, this gives hope that the epic war in which we are currently engaged is winnable—and will not have been in vain.

Soldiers’ Effects—Miniature Flag; Desert CamouflageUniform

Photos courtesy of U.S. Army Human Resources Command (Mandi Kurek)