DOVER, Del. (June 4, 2013) -- At the two-year anniversary of the creation of the Joint Personal Effects Depot at Dover Air Force Base, the command continues to process fallen service members' personal belongings with unparalleled dignity and respect.
Exactly two years ago, workers at the Joint Personal Effects Depot, known as JPED, processed the first personal effects (personal property) in the facility's new home at Dover Air Force Base.
The JPED mission is to receive, safeguard, inventory, store, process and determine the final disposition of personal effects of not only those killed in action, but also those who are wounded or missing, from all branches of military service, including the Coast Guard, as well as forward-deployed Department of Defense civilians and contractors.
The mission of returning fallen service members personal effects to their loved ones is nothing new. 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 that was designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The JPED defines personal effects as privately owned, moveable, and personal property belonging to someone. These include what the person had on them at time their death, which are referred to as transfer items, as well as items left behind in their workspace and living quarters. 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 usually arrive at JPED within one or two weeks after the time of death.
It is within the walls of the JPED that the most personal of articles, such as clothing, cans of food, laptops, watches, jewelry and cell phones, are photographed, inventoried, cleaned, and prepared to be returned to their owners, or, in most cases, to their next of kin.
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 Maj. Darius Highsmith. 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. Before that, the command was located at Fort Myer, Va.
Lt. Col Harvey Baker, commander of the JPED, explained how because the Pentagon is military property, a military response was needed to process all the personal property of those killed during the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
"Given its proximity to the Pentagon, it made sense that this newly established JPED would be set up at Fort 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 the 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. The facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground was comprised of a series of 70-year-old World War II-era warehouse buildings that had been modified to conduct JPED operations. The standards have since changed, and the Aberdeen facility was no longer tenable.
Fallen service members, civilian employees, and contractors being brought back from combat are sent to Dover Air Force Base, where the dignified transfer of their remains occurs. Additionally, it is at Dover Air Force Base that both the Armed Forced Medical Examiner System and the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations facility are located.
In 2006, it was decided to consolidate the mortuary affairs and personal effects missions at Dover.
The concept of having a consolidated facility to process personal effects of all service members is relatively new. Prior to Sept. 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," explained Baker.
The JPED at Dover, which was 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, said 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 for 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, a 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.
"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," said Col. Kerk Brown, director of the JPED's higher headquarters, the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center. "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."
According to 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."
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."