How Fallen Service Members’ Personal Effects Are Returned to Family > U.S. Department of Defense > Story

When you walk into the Joint Personal Effects Depot at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, the first thing you see is a row of glass cases filled with watches, lighters, jewelry, outdated cellphones and other items that are broken, cracked and even melted. All remain unclaimed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack at the Pentagon. 

The depot is neither a museum nor a scene of remembrance, per se, but a place born out of that tragedy to fulfill a larger mission.  

When 9/11 happened, two Army quartermaster companies — the 54th out of Fort Lee, Virginia, and the 311th out of Ramey Base, Puerto Rico — were activated to respond to the Pentagon attacks and recover the remains and personal effects of the Fallen. Initial operations were set up at Fort Myer, Virginia, but as the mission continued and more items were amassed, it was moved in 2003 to a small World War II-era warehouse at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland.  

Over the years, JPED’s mission has expanded to receive, inventory and safeguard the personal effects of fallen service members who die overseas during a named contingency operation in support of a theater of operation, as well as other casualties that the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System has directed for processing at Dover. The Aberdeen location eventually became inefficient for all of the work, so that led to the creation of the JPED at Dover, a 58,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2011. It remains the only organization of its kind in the Defense Department. 

With Dignity and Honor  

From start to finish, the entire process is carried out by civilians, contractors and Army summary court martial officers, who are assigned to the Army Human Resources Command Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Division, based at Dover. Those officers are chosen for the role through an extensive interview and validation process.  

Army Capt. Rajan Dulamal, who has worked at JPED for two years, is one of those officers. He said the facility’s motto is to honor the fallen and care for their loved ones.  

“One of my old co-workers said it best in that you don’t often get an opportunity to work in a place of honor, and that is all we do here,” Dulamal said. “We’re supporting a family in what could potentially be one of the hardest moments of their lives. So, whatever we can do here to help them come to closure, we take pride in that.” 

The process itself is pretty straight-forward. First, at the location where the fallen service member was last stationed, a summary court martial officer will inventory that service member’s belongings. He or she then sends the items in large cardboard boxes designed for military shipments to JPED. Most of the items are clothing, gaming systems, books and other mementos. 

All the boxes are packed with the utmost care, and we’re very cognizant of the fact that this is a very dignified process. We want to make sure that our work represents the sacrifice that service member made for the nation.”

Army Capt. Rajan Dulamal, Joint Personal Effects Depot

Once the items arrive at Dover, summary court martial officers validate the box’s seals to make sure chain of custody wasn’t broken. They then screen the box through an X-ray machine for unexploded ordnance or other possible hazards.  

From there, the JPED folks work with a liaison from the fallen’s service branch, who coordinates all messaging with the family members from Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, a facility that’s next-door to JPED. AFMAO is the only port mortuary in the continental U.S. and is in charge of all dignified transfers of the military fallen who die in service to our country while overseas.  

These liaisons make sure the appropriate loved one is notified of the shipment and gives that family member the option of having their fallen service member’s personal effects washed. After that choice has been made, the summary court martial officers will take the personal effects into one of JPED’s 16 processing units to inventory the items.  

“We’ll take the … inventory that the theater summary court martial officer prepared, and we’ll go line by line as we remove things from the box,” Dulamal said. “This is where we’ll note any discrepancies or any inaccuracies in their listings. Once we’ve done that, all the items that come through here and that we have inventoried, will be photographed and uploaded into our personal effects tracking system.” 

From there, they can wash any items the family wished to be cleaned before separating the effects into categories, such as sentimental items and media devices, as well as categories that would likely be removed or destroyed, such as perishable foods and medications. They also screen out government-owned information and equipment, such as helmets, so that only personal effects are being returned to the family.  

Dulamal said the officers will also inventory and categorize what they call “transfer items,” which may include items the fallen service member was wearing at the time of death. Dulamal said those items, such as glasses or watches, usually come to JPED faster and are run through the process more quickly than the rest of the items in case the fallen’s family wants them for the funeral services.  

There are several quality assurance checks throughout the inventory and categorization process. Once they’re all validated, Dulamal said they’ll start packing the personal effects into heavy-duty black-top containers, then seal them with a unique identifier to make sure the chain of custody isn’t broken before the boxes get to the fallen’s family. 

“All the boxes are packed with the utmost care, and we’re very cognizant of the fact that this is a very dignified process,” Dulamal said. “We want to make sure that our work represents the sacrifice that service member made for the nation.” 

The liaison then coordinates the shipping of the items to their final destination.  

For the Army summary court martial officers who do this job, it’s not one they ever take lightly. Dulamal said it’s an assignment that, for him, has been a life-changing honor. 

“Being able to support the families of the fallen was never in my career path until the Dover Port Mortuary reached out to me and ask me if I wanted to work here,” Dulamal said. “Having lost friends overseas, this has been one of the most meaningful assignments to me.” 

Besides the Pentagon 9/11 artifacts, shown in the display at the entrance to the building, all personal effects that arrive at the building are eventually returned to the families of the fallen. Dulamal said only one item from the 9/11 display case has left the building since JPED was set up — a set of flight attendant wings from one of the hijacked aircraft. They were returned to American Airlines to be displayed in a museum.  

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