The drawdown of American combat forces in Iraq and the closing stages of combat missions in Afghanistan also has meant layoffs at the Joint Personal Effects Depot at Dover Air Force Base.
Charged with supporting the families of military personnel killed in overseas conflicts and returning the personal belongings of those killed and wounded, JPED has seen its staff reduced from a peak of almost 200 military personnel and civilian contractors, said JPED commander U.S. Army Lt. Col. Kim Chaney.
That was in 2007. As late as April 2011, a U.S. Army news article said the depot employed 155 civilian contractors, one Department of the Army civilian and 34 military personnel.
That number has steadily decreased as American forces moved to an advisory mission Iraq in August 2010 and began to draw down in Afghanistan. With fewer casualties and the workload decreasing, JPED’s civilian contractors began cutting back working hours for their employees and eventually began handing out termination notices.
Today, the staff includes about 40 people, half of who are active duty military or Department of Defense civilians; the remainder work for contractors.
Although it now employs one-fifth of the number it had during the height of its operations, Chaney said its wrong for anyone to think JPED’s mission is somehow diminished simply because there are fewer casualties.
“It’s like in the civilian sector, where you have a manufacturing plant that’s partially shut down,” Chaney said. “They still require a core of personnel to maintain the facility.”
The staff remains prepared in case of a new conflict or any event that means American military personnel are again in harm’s way, he said.
Today, JPED retains its two primary missions: although it no longer processes the personal effects of personnel wounded in Afghanistan -- that requirement was transferred to individual units in mid-2013 -- it still performs those duties for service members who are killed there. The staff also supports families of those casualties when their loved ones are returned to Dover AFB in a solemn ceremony where the remains are carried from a transport aircraft to the Charles C. Carson mortuary.
JPED traces its beginnings to the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when Army Reserve units in Puerto Rico and Virginia were mobilized to collect the personal belongings of those killed and wounded in the attack on the Pentagon.
Some of those belongings, items whose owners still have not been identified, now reside in a display case inside the JPED lobby at Dover AFB.
The Depot’s responsibilities expanded in October 2001 when the first American combat troops were deployed to Afghanistan.
By March 2003, JPED operations were moved from Fort Myer, Va., immediately adjacent to the Pentagon, to Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md., a move that came at the same time American forces began deploying in an effort to oust Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.
But facilities at Aberdeen were hardly ideal for the number of casualties JPED was required to handle. Working out of a pair of cramped, World War II-era warehouses, with processing rooms assembled out of chicken wire and two-by-fours, between 2003 and 2011 JPED processed and returned to their families the personal belongings of almost 5,300 fatalities from both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Unhappy with conditions following a 2007 visit to the Aberdeen facility, then-U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker ordered construction of the current facility at Dover Air Force Base. JPED moved its operations from Aberdeen into the new $17.5 million building beginning in April 2011. It now is adjacent to the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, where the remains of those killed are prepared and returned to their families and the offices of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner.
Plans in place
Operations peaked in 2007 when the military had almost 1,000 total deaths and about 6,900 wounded.
In all, 6,853 Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since September 2001, and another 49,897 were wounded. The personal belongings of every one of them has passed through the depot.
To maintain their readiness, JPED workers continue to train and improve their skills, said Nelson Delgado, a retired U.S. Army master sergeant who was among the first soldiers called to recover personal belongings at the Pentagon.
All contractors are now cross-trained so each can perform every task in the process of returning personal belongings to families, Delgado said.
“We’re working to make sure everyone knows everyone else’s job,” he said.
The standard for completing each case is 15 days, although most are finished in three, he said.
In addition, Army Reserve mortuary affairs specialists from around the country spend their active duty tours in training to keep their skills sharp.
“In case we have a surge, we can request these individuals be mobilized to come in,” Chaney said.
“We have all the plans in place to do that,” he said, adding the soldiers recently completed a training scenario involving a large number of military casualties.
In recent days, JPED handled the belongings of U.S. Army Master Sgt. Peter A. McKenna Jr., who died Aug. 8 in Afghanistan.
The Rhode Island native is one of only two soldiers killed in action since January; six more military personnel and one Department of Defense civilian have died in noncombat incidents since then.
Despite these low casualty numbers, the JPED’s mission as relevant today as it was during the height of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Chaney said: honoring the ultimate sacrifice of fallen military personnel and caring for their families.
“The Department of Defense has mandated the Army to staff and run the Joint Personal Effects Depot,” he said.
“Just like a non-deployed tank or infantry battalion or any other unit, the JPED must remain manned, trained and ready to perform its real-world mission on a moment’s notice,” Chaney said.