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Megan Delzer, shipping lead coordinator, and Nelson Delgado, operations management specialist, both with the Joint Personal Effects Depot place shipping labels on personal effects footlockers June 29, 2012, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Delgado validates the shipping paperwork on every footlocker prior to them leaving the JPED facility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik)
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When 99 percent is not good enough

Posted 6/29/2012   Updated 6/29/2012 Email story   Print story


by Airman 1st Class Samuel Taylor
436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

6/29/2012 - DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- Several years ago outside their tent in the Middle East, two American service members were enjoying a cigarette. As one man turned and entered his tent - his half-finished cigarette in need of a re-light -, a hail of small-arms fire rained down behind him. His friend perished; he survived, by the grace of his cigarette - his "lucky cigarette."

Shortly thereafter, he once again found himself under fire. He escaped the battle alive, but injured and hospitalized. His possessions were sent stateside to the Joint Personal Effects Depot at Dover Air Force Base, Del. While he recovered, a team at JPED sifted through his belongings. Photographs, letters, and clothes: each item was inventoried. In a cargo pocket, they found a stale, half-finished cigarette - usual trash, properly disposed of. His effects were cleaned, packed, inspected, verified, sealed and sent home.

Weeks later, the team at JPED got word from that injured service member: his belongings were in perfect order, but he was missing a special item: his lucky cigarette. Scenarios like this are the source of a common saying at JPED: "if you do a job 99 percent correct, you fail."

The man who makes sure that each job gets done 100 percent correctly is Nelson Delgado, the operations management specialist at JPED. His responsibility is to manage the processing of personal effects, ensuring they travel from the battlefield to the arms of an awaiting recipient in a timely manner. For Delgado, a former Army first sergeant, the motivation is more than simply meeting a deadline.

"I have been where these [service members] have been; I have seen what they have gone through overseas. I see the man or woman behind every case we get," said Delgado. "I also know that their family is waiting to be reunited with a part of them; I do not tolerate making that family wait."

Delgado has managed the JPED operation before it was known as such. The facility evolved from an ad hoc effects-processing operation at Fort Myer, Va., into a dedicated warehouse at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., in 2003. Delgado joined the organization in 2004. Under his supervision, the timeliness in which personal effects are processed - initially encumbered by unfavorable facility layout and an unfamiliar mission - started to improve.

His team at JPED began experimenting with different storage cases and alternate physical layouts. What once encompassed three different buildings came under one roof. Processing lines were collocated near receiving areas, and manned by a staff whose on-the-job experience was continually increasing. Beside safety hazards, all items - including cigarette butts - were processed and sent home. The results reflected the effort.

"What would take maybe 45 days back in 2003 now takes us approximately three days," said Delgado. "We were writing the standard operating procedures for JPED only a few years ago. This is a mission that has no other model to follow worldwide; we are the first."

With timeliness mastered, Delgado focused his team on improving accountability and control. He set about ensuring that inventories could be verified definitively once, instead of the multiple times required in previous years. Superfluous man-hours fell as workload increased - Delgado's push for efficiency was paying off. After years of process-improvement, JPED annually processes approximately 1 million personal effects. Each outbound case transporting those effects requires Delgado's approval.

"I perform quality assurance on the people in charge of quality assurance," said Delgado, laughing.

But why the meticulous detail?

"I know I have to do right by each family, as if the case was being presented to my mother. When the effects of a deceased service member are presented to a family, there is no room for anything less than perfect."

Soon, members outside JPED began taking notice of Delgado's efforts. In March, the Army awarded him the Achievement Medal for Civilian Service in recognition of his selection as civilian employee of the quarter.

"To tell the truth, I didn't even know I was up for the award until I received it; and when I received it, I set it on my desk and went back to work," said Delgado. "In my opinion, it was my coworkers that earned that award."

Delgado said his humility should not be mistaken for lack of appreciation.

"I am grateful that I received it; I just don't come to work with any expectation others than to do the job right."

Yet at the end of the day, a job done right is still bittersweet, said Delgado. Every case that leaves JPED has a story behind it, and sometimes those stories hit JPED members close to home. Even after several years on the job, Delgado says he still battles with the implications of his work.

"Years ago, I used to take the job home with me. I would see the photographs and the letters - that got rough," said Delgado. "Any staff member here will tell you they've had to pause while dealing with a case; but we all push through it. We know every delay on our end is another moment the family is apart from their loved one. They deserve perfection."

Many have said that the character of a country is revealed by the manner in which it treats its fallen service members. Through his hard work, Delgado helps ensure JPED lives up to the standards set by those who serve.

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