Most people are familiar with how the military handles war casualties and the dignity, respect and military efficiency they receive.
But few know that the property of fallen soldiers is handled in a similar manner.
The U.S. Military Property Mortuary is a term that most people are not used to hearing, but the phrase became very real to Norman and Hester Pender of Midlothian following a soldier’s reunion this spring.
“We were attending my 41 year Army reunion at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, the home of the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and School.” Norman said. “The Garrison Commander was our guest speaker at our banquet and he told us that he had made arrangements for us to tour the Property Mortuary. He told us that we would be among the first civilians to actually tour the facility.”
The Penders learned that a property mortuary is where personal items belonging to military personnel that were killed in action are processed for final shipment to families and loved ones. Also, personal items are processed for personnel wounded in combat and sent to them or their families.
Sounds like a pretty routine program, doesn’t it? But the Penders found that it certainly was not.
“The facility only processes personal items for those killed in action or wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, and in all branches of the military, except the Air Force, which handles its own,” said Hester Pender. “The grounds are secured by a razor-wire fence and entry requires the use of a keypad communicator.”
Those entering are greeted by a sign stating “This is a no hat, no salute area.”
“Hats are not allowed out of respect to the fallen and salutes were prohibited,” said Norman Pender, “so that no one was recognized as being more important than those who had given a great sacrifice for their country.”
The Penders said rigid security measures were evident throughout the visit. The building that houses the operation has no windows and the front and rear doors are watched by armed personnel.
“A Lt. Colonel gave an orientation talk and turned the visiting group over to a Major for the full tour,” said Norman. “We veterans found the building drab and intended only for the job at hand.”
The items of between twenty and forty people are processed everyday.
“The first thing they have to do is separate the items into groups by clothing, cell phones, cameras, computers, letters and correspondence, and miscellaneous personal items,” Norman said.
It was the simple things that touched the Penders.
“It was moving to see the rows of washers and dryers where clothing was washed, pressed and folded to be sent to families,” said Hester.
And the Property Mortuary was not without its military ways.
All electronic equipment is researched in great detail to see if anything that may be classified by the military is eliminated. Also, material that could be troublesome to families, such as graphic battle scenes, must be removed. In rare cases, personal information about the fallen is removed, out of concern for a family’s feelings.
“The Major that led the tour has the sole authority to make these decisions,” Norman Pender said. “She was given this order by the U.S. Army Chief-of-Staff, during his visit to that facility.”
The Major explained that computers used by the Army at the facility to record information were all “stand alone” and not connected to the internet.
“This is for information that must be kept confidential,” Hester said.
After items are processed, they are packed for final shipping to families.
“I was moved when I noticed a guitar case among the items to be shipped,” said Norman. “We used to like to play a guitar and sing, when I was in the army.
“It really hit home,” he added.
The staff of the facility have a somber job and it is often difficult to keep spirits up. The Major said they deal with this problem by having “casual dress days” and group dinners and social events for the staff.
“The Major added that she and most of the staff have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and will probably have to return,” said Pender. “She said she will be glad when this conflict is over.”
The Garrison Commander said he arranged the tour by the veterans and their spouses because the Army is now ready to let the public know how the military cares for its own. Knowing the property mortuary process is important to the American people in better understanding the realities of military conflict.
“We were moved by this experience,” Norman said and Hester agreed. “Sometimes cold statistics do not reflect the enormous sacrifice of our military personnel and the trauma to the families of the fallen.
“Regardless of one’s opinion about our war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must always support those who answered the call to service,” said Norman. “God bless America.”