There is a place in Maryland, a morgue of sorts, where the personal effects of soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan are taken to be prepared for return to their families. Clothes are washed and folded, the seemingly eternal dust of the Middle-East is blown, vacuumed or wiped from personal electronics and from the scores of other items that constitute a soldier’s entire personal life while on active duty . . . items that are destined to break the hearts of the families that receive them are, in other words, made as presentable as possible

This military installation, temporarily being used as the next-to-final repository of our slain soldiers’ clothes, tools, toys and personal memories, is called the Joint Personal Effects Depot; it consists of two warehouses in the Aberdeen Proving Ground military installation in Aberdeen, Maryland. Aberdeen sits some 50 miles to the north-west of the Air Force base in Dover, Delaware where the soldiers’ mortal remains are processed. There is a grim irony in the fact that this base in Maryland, where most instruments of war undergo their initial testing, is one of the bases that also sees, first-hand, the harsh results of war.

“You’re seeing the pictures of their families, their wives, their children, and you know they have a lot of hurt. It can be very emotional. Not everyone can work here.” Marvin Scott, a civilian contractor at Aberdeen

The 138 people who staff the Joint Personal Effects Depot need to do their jobs efficiently, clinically and unemotionally but they are under a lot of stress. During the course of their daily jobs they get to ‘meet’ these slain warriors in an intimate way; they get to know them through their choice of reading material, video games and the style of their civvies (civilian clothes used, in some places, while off duty) and they get to meet their families and loved ones from snapshots and sometimes from large photo albums, while they are removing as much of the Iraqi and Afghan deserts as possible from these items.

It normally takes about one month from the time a soldier dies in the Middle-East until his or her personal effects are processed at Aberdeen and in the hands of the family he or she left behind. What’s left when a soldier dies however, the grief of those that loved him, is not subject to schedules or time limits. Picking Up the Pieces of Slain Troops’ Lives

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