A duty of bringing comfort

Belongings: At Aberdeen depot, respect for the dead and their families is a priority.

September 06, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Army Spc. Yamil Santiago, Delicately, reverently, Army Spc. Yamil Santiago inventories the vestiges of lives lost at war.

He is a 92M, or "ninety-two-mike" in military speak, a mortuary affairs specialist. And he is one of the 65 soldiers and Marines at the Joint Personal Effects Depot who process the belongings of Americans killed in Iraq, Afghanistan or other trouble spots. They then ship the possessions to grieving next of kin - carrying out their duties in two nondescript warehouse buildings at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Dressed in camouflage fatigues and wearing surgical gloves, they carefully unload, arrange and make a record of the personal effects. On a recent day, long paper-covered tables held boots, a deck of cards, three green match packs bearing pictures of Saddam Hussein, uniforms, a football, stacks of letters and a seemingly endless supply of socks.

"It's not an easy job," said Santiago, 21. "Each case you open, you immediately become involved in people's lives. You can't help identifying with the dead soldiers, especially with the photographs. But that's what keeps you striving to help the families."

The items that arrive at the Joint Personal Effects Depot belonged to men and women from America's cities, farms and suburbs who died in an ambush, in a firefight or by accident. After processing, those possessions might travel around the world to a next of kin or, like a knife given to a 10-year-old boy who grew up to be a helicopter pilot, home to a father on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Lt. Col. Andrew Williams, commander of JPED, as the depot is known, says everything handled there is "precious in our eyes."

"Whether it's a child's teddy bear sent to her father overseas or a poem written by an infantryman - the families want them because they were the last things their loved ones carried, last touched," he said.

For Williams, who was retired from the Army and working as a deputy sheriff in Polk County, Fla., until his callback after the Sept. 11 attacks, respect for the dead and their families is a priority.

"And that's what is so powerful about the soldiers and Marines who work here," he said. "As difficult as it can get, they never lose sight of maintaining the dignity."

There are essentially two ways next of kin receive personal effects. At times, the dead service member's unit will box up and send belongings to survivors they have come to know through the technology of cell phones and laptop computers.

But in most cases, the military system of collecting personal possessions will take over. Items recovered from the body, such as rings, watches and wallets, are placed in a velveteen bag that is attached to the wrist for transport to Dover Air Force Base, Del.

There, at the sprawling Defense Department mortuary, the body will be prepared for the trip home. Meanwhile, possessions at the combat base are collected and sent to JPED. Property from a stateside post is also shipped to Aberdeen.

Once the depot receives the belongings in a cardboard box, footlocker, rucksack or duffel bag, each item goes through a painstaking process that begins with the documentation on long tables.

All clothing and other washable items go to a laundry area. "Each soldier gets his own washer-dryer. We don't mix them," Williams said.

Items are photographed, and a second inventory is taken and logged on computer records. An officer makes a third check of all items. The box of belongings is then shipped to parents, spouse or a friend.

The depot has shipped out 30,000 boxes of belongings since the unit was set up at Aberdeen after the Sept. 11 attacks, Williams said.

If the mortuary affairs work becomes emotionally overwhelming, the "ninety-two-mikes" can request an immediate transfer to another assignment, Williams said.

Despite work that is "extremely solemn, demanding, stressful," the military personnel assigned to the depot cope "heroically," said Dr. Brett T. Litz, a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and associate director of the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at the VA Boston Healthcare System. Litz said they perform an important function in ensuring the return of personal possessions to family.

Such items might evoke in the recipients "feelings so powerful, produce such intense anguish," he said. "But these symbols, these tokens of their dead loved ones will remain keepsakes, reminders and connections."

Two Eastern Shore families draw comfort from the personal belongings returned to them from Iraq.

Beverly Fabri's son, Pfc. Bryan "Nick" Spry, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, was in Iraq a little more than a month when the Humvee he was driving slipped off a makeshift bridge and overturned into a canal. The Chestertown woman learned of her 19-year- old son's death on Valentine's Day this year.

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