Picking Up the Pieces of Slain Troops' Lives

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Spread across several tables in a vast warehouse here are the pieces of one soldier's life.

There is the photo album with images of graduations and family gatherings, tanks and smiling military buddies. There are piles of brown T-shirts and socks, a jumble of sneakers and boots, a plastic bag filled with handwritten letters. A knife. A stack of video games.

Nearby, surrounded by walls of metal mesh, are rows of dusty black footlockers that have just returned from war. Inside each are the artifacts of other lives cut short.

This is the Joint Personal Effects Depot, a pair of warehouses on this base northeast of Baltimore that serve as the military's main repository for the possessions of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within days of troops' deaths in action, their clothes, pictures and books and everything else that defined their lives on the battlefield wind up here.

It is then the job of 138 people to inventory, photograph, clean and pack all of the items so they can be sent home to grieving families, the last remnants of the ones they loved.

There are ghosts here, whispers of these people who sacrificed their lives to serve their country. In a recent tour of the facility, the names and identifying information of the dead were concealed to protect their families, but the presence of the dead was still strong.

"There's a lot of each individual in those lockers," said Lt. Col. L. Scott Kilmon Jr., who commands the depot. Working with the materials day after day can be an emotional strain, he said. "It takes a toll on you."

The workload has gotten steadily heavier over the past few years, as nearly 3,000 U.S. troops have died in the Middle East and thousands more have been injured. The seriously wounded who are evacuated from the fighting also have their things shipped to Aberdeen now. Kilmon said the depot is bracing for the fall and winter, when there have been higher levels of U.S. casualties in Iraq.

And because the fighting seems likely to continue, the Defense Department is working to establish the depot as a more permanent operation. Kilmon said there are plans underway to move the temporary, wartime facility to Dover Air Force Base by 2009, which would put it at the same facility where the troops' remains are processed. Now, the items are flown to Dover and are loaded on semitrailers for the 90-minute drive to this makeshift operation in Maryland, where the effects are organized.

The warehouse feels a bit like a morgue. The rows of mesh cages are chilly, and somber employees meticulously sift through the items.

"Five brown T-shirts," called out Pfc. Alisha Ricketts, sitting in one cage cataloguing the contents of eight footlockers that belonged to a noncommissioned officer recently killed in Baghdad. "One white washcloth."

A photograph of two young children peeked out of a plastic bag in front of Ricketts. Spec. Tyrone Wheatley placed woodworking magazines into a footlocker and glanced at a clipboard. Dirty socks, Fruit of the Loom underwear, shirts and shorts were streaked with desert dust and grime, the pile giving off the scent of the soldier's sweat, fresh from the Iraqi summer heat. A little bit of Baghdad.

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