Small bags for the personal belongings of military casualties sits on a shelf April 14 at the new Joint Personal Effects Depot at Dover Air Force Base, Del. The facility processes the personal belongings of wounded or killed service members who are serving overseas in support of contingency operations. (Steve Ruark / The Associated Press)
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DOVER, Del. — The contents of a fallen warrior's foot locker tell a story that can be wrenching for those cataloging the items to ship to grieving families.
Chief Warrant Officer William Couch recalled a poem he found among the belongings of a slain service member. It was penned by the man's wife or girlfriend in the voice of their baby daughter — a child he would never meet.
"It's at those points in time, where, I don't care who you are, human nature kicks in," Couch said. "I shed a few tears, backed up, gained my composure, went back and did the case because it was the right thing to do for the family."
Such moments come so often for workers at the military's Joint Personal Effects Depot that the unit has two staff counselors to help them stay focused on their sad but noble mission of sorting, photographing, cleaning and shipping the belongings of service members killed overseas.
"This team we have is a very special group that provides this service to the families with the utmost dignity, integrity and respect because we know these items mean so much to the families," said their commander, Lt. Col. Kelly Kyburz. She led reporters on a tour Thursday of the unit's new, permanent home at Dover Air Force Base.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony was planned Friday.
The center will move by the end of June from Aberdeen Proving Ground, where it has occupied three World War II-era warehouses since 2003. The unit was created in 2001 to recover the belongings of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
The new, $17.5 million building stands beside the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations center at Dover, the U.S. entry point for the remains of all service members killed overseas. Its linear layout is designed to allow staff to more efficiently handle personal effects and shorten the 30-day timeline for returning the items to families, Kyburz said.
Most steps in the process, from opening incoming foot lockers to repacking them for shipment, are done in one, gray-walled room. Kyburz said this saves time compared with Aberdeen, where items are shuttled from room to room or building to building.
It will also save money, although officials said they don't know how much. The military says the new unit is authorized for 148 workers, down from 190. Most of them are civilian employees of contractor Serco Inc., of Reston, Va.
Worker requirements, according to a recent Serco job posting, include the "ability to remain calm during highly emotional or crisis situations."
Some families long for even the scent of their lost loved one — and they can have it. Couch said families can place a "do not wash" request to have clothing returned dirty but still smelling of the fallen service member.
Jeff Davis, a retired railroad worker in Cumberland, Md., said he was pleased with the center's handling of his son's belongings after Army Pfc. Brandon Lee Davis was killed by an explosion near Fallujah, Iraq, in March 2004.
Davis said he especially treasures the photographs of his son that were on a returned camera. The camera also contained some video of an Iraqi shop that Brandon shot and narrated before the soldiers were abruptly ordered to move out, Davis said.
"He said, ‘Gotta go get in a car going across the bridge. We could be blown up,'" Davis said. "To hear him say that, and then later on that's how he dies ...." Davis' voice trailed off.
It's still painful to hear his son's voice, Davis said, "but it's something to have, you know