BATTLE CREEK, Mich. –
While Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services has been known by various names over the decades, its mission remains essentially unchanged. In 2022, the organization that continues to responsibly manage disposal of most used and excess property across the Defense Department celebrates its 50th birthday.
From boots to barbells, rifles to robots, and tents to tubas, DLA’s disposal professionals have received it all. Operating across hundreds of support locations, through half a century, they’ve tended to the reverse logistics needs of U.S. warfighters and partner nation collaborators around the globe with steady professionalism and expertise. And while the methods, tools, and technologies used for property disposal have vastly improved over time, the organization’s core tenets of fiscal and environmental stewardship, along with strong accountability controls for controlled property, remain steadfast.
September officially marks the golden anniversary of the sub-command originally dubbed Defense Property Disposal Service, headquartered in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1972. The DPDS establishment consolidated responsibility for hundreds of military surplus locations previously managed by a slew of commissions, divisions, and agencies. To better understand why the entity was created, it’s helpful to look even further back, into the World War II era.
The U.S. entered conflict reluctantly in late 1941 following the sneak attack by Japanese naval forces on Pearl Harbor. At the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, industrial production had already grown significantly from pre-war levels to meet massive orders for planes, ships and equipment desperately needed by Allied combatants. Once the U.S. fully engaged in war, domestic production expanded even more dramatically.
By the epic struggle’s end, U.S. industry had produced more than 300,000 planes, nearly 2.5 million military trucks, 124,000 ships, boats, and subs, and 100,000 tanks – ultimately building an estimated half of the entire world’s war-related material.
“We won because we smothered the enemy in an avalanche of production, the like of which he had never seen, nor dreamed possible,” said former General Motors President William Knudsen, who was directly commissioned as a lieutenant general in 1942 and appointed director of production for the War Department.
As global conflict waned, vast amounts of excess supplies clogged U.S. seaports and military installations. Hundreds of acres were covered by thousands of vehicles of all kinds and row after row of warehouses filled with unused goods and equipment. How would the nation responsibly find end uses for an estimated $50 billion or more in unneeded items?
The Surplus Property Act of 1944 allowed for, among other things, the disbursement of unneeded goods and equipment to “a State, political subdivision of a State, or tax-supported organization.” A patchwork of agencies and regional authorities emerged to help distribute the largesse entrusted to the newly created Foreign Liquidation Commission and War Assets Administration. Items of all types were sold piecemeal or in large lots, and veterans often received preference for big-ticket units like small airplanes, tractors, and generators at massive public auction events. Field jackets, watches, aviator sunglasses, flamethrowers (marketed as a useful solution for farm weed control), diesel engines, pickup trucks … it was all up for grabs, and mom-and-pop surplus shops sought out the deals to stock items in hometown retail storefronts.
Over time, complaints arose that disbursal of excess war property wasn’t fair. Everyone had sacrificed. Everyone had contributed. Why should a citizen who lives close to a major base or equipment storehouse have an advantage over an entrepreneurial person who must travel hundreds of miles or more to attend a government auction?
Partly in response to those types of concerns, Congress repealed many of the provisions contained in the Surplus Property Act with the passage of the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949. The new law delegated surplus property authority to executive agencies, giving DOD the autonomy to control the flow of its own surplus. Subsequently, each military service was tasked to develop a surplus program, and the act remains the basic law defining the modern-day mission of DLA Disposition Services.
For roughly the next decade, DOD began to consolidate administration of the services’ individual logistics needs, including property disposal. The centralization of effort seemed inevitable, as some major inefficiencies had been revealed by war. Each service could not continue to maintain separate supply systems, each with a unique catalog of items, with no comprehensive way to check compatibility or whether major redundancies or material deficits existed across the department.
In 1958, the Armed Forces Supply Support Center was established to maintain a Federal Catalog System standardizing names and data on the millions of items used by the military. When the Defense Supply Agency (now the Defense Logistics Agency) was created in 1961, AFSSC was assigned to it. Under DSA leadership, AFSSC was soon renamed Defense Logistics Services Center and relocated from Washington, D.C., to Michigan in 1963. While DLSC’s original mission was developing and maintaining the Federal Catalog System, it was also assigned a role in the management of DOD surplus sales, property reuse, and recycling, taking over for an entity called the Interservice Material Utilization Agency.
Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan chaired congressional sub-committee hearings in 1972 that reviewed the performance of DOD’s surplus property mission. The document that emerged from the hearings – nicknamed the "McClellan Report" – recommended tighter centralization of military property disposal for better accountability to ensure dangerous or technologically advanced material couldn’t make its way into the hands of adversaries and bad actors. The document cited numerous “deficiencies or weaknesses in the inventory and accountability of our wholesale military supply systems,” especially relating to the sale of military surplus property. It directed “centralization of management controls and visibility of DOD property at all worldwide locations.”
In response to those recommendations, the Defense Property Disposal Service was born in September 1972 and inherited the surplus sales and property reuse missions from DLSC. DPDS grew to encompass a workforce of nearly 6,000 and quickly assumed management of a mix of more than 300 former Army, Navy, Air Force, and combined property disposal sites located at or near installations for renaming as Defense Property Disposal Offices. In the following years, DPDS absorbed other important reverse logistics services like precious metals recovery, hazardous waste disposal and recycling sales.
In 1985, the organization’s name changed to Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service, or DRMS, and field locations became Defense Reutilization and Marketing Offices, or DRMOs. Of all the historical names for the command’s field sites, DRMO – popularly pronounced “Der-moe” – most firmly lodged itself in the minds of warfighters. Even today, more than a decade after the discontinuation of the DRMS and DRMO acronyms, many servicemembers still use the term when searching for or referring to DLA’s reverse logistics abilities in general.
During the organization’s 25 years as DRMS, it was considered a DLA “primary-level field activity” and continued providing the military with services for the disposal of material no longer needed for national defense. Its specialists complied with legislative and regulatory requirements, protected the public from the potential loss or release of dangerous defense items, and pursued the maximum return on tax dollars.
Government auctioneers held local sales at DRMOs through bid or live auction, with items often sold in smaller quantities that might appeal to local buyers. Fixed price retail sales were offered at some DRMOs, aimed at customers interested in buying inexpensive items for personal use. DRMS also offered a sales service for military customers who had direct sales authority. For a modest percentage of the proceeds, DRMS would perform all merchandizing, advertising, and contracting functions on a command’s behalf, providing the DOD property holder with assurance and confidence that all laws and regulations were followed.
As the pace of technological change accelerated in the 90s, the end strength of the organization began to recede, coinciding with post-Cold War drawdowns and Base Realignment and Closure orders. Property receipt systems started going online and new automated tools and increased computing power allowed specialists to accomplish more. A national toll-free number helped pass auction and sales information to the public. As an early adopter of the World Wide Web, DRMS laid a strong foundation for greater customer reach with the creation of a searchable online property database that eventually morphed into its Reutilization, Transfer and Donation and Sales web pages and allowed for online bidding.
In about a decade’s time, from the aftermath of the Gulf War until the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, DRMS was essentially halved. Its physical infrastructure shrank from more than 200 field sites to about 100, and manpower contracted from nearly 4,000 full-time employees to less than 2,000. Reductions took place even as the remaining workforce continued to process millions of customer turn-ins originally worth tens of billions each year and ensure that controlled property was dealt with responsibly.
More major demands followed in the new millennium. Lengthy conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan brought heavy deployment responsibilities for expeditionary personnel. Overall direction for DRMS fell to a Senior Executive Service civilian for the first time. Private contract firms began executing the agency’s public sales. A higher demand for transfers and donations arose from customers in law enforcement, firefighting, state and municipal government and humanitarian and disaster relief organizations who looked more and more frequently to DLA’s available surplus stock to meet emergency needs and cover local budget shortfalls. In 2010, DRMS became DLA Disposition Services and labeled as a major sub-command of DLA.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that steady change became something of a theme for the organization – not in the professionalism of its specialists and the services it provides, but in the various methods used to get the job done. Luckily, a purposeful focus on preparing its civilians and reserve military unit augmentees for expeditionary support in the past decade has created the knowledge base, the creativity, and the actual physical toolkits to quickly meet the needs of warfighters essentially anywhere they might be. Collective lessons learned from hundreds of deployments have shaped a workforce that now has a keen sense of how to operate far away from the traditional office while still helping military and whole-of-government customers consider their disposal needs well in advance.
Looking forward, it’s difficult to predict what disasters, humanitarian crises, or geopolitical conflicts might next require DLA Disposition Services to flex and continually adapt to its traditionally dynamic mission. But if its first 50 years have revealed anything, its that the future will continue to demand that the organization remains resilient and adapts to more potentially rapid change.
“I see us continuing to leverage technology to better support the warfighter,” said DLA Disposition Services Director Michael Cannon. “Scanning and item recognition technology, mobile computing/receiving/processing, new methods of disposing of hazardous waste, and even de-manufacturing additively manufactured items to break them down into reusable components are all very likely for our future.”
In recent years, the organization simultaneously embraced technology while DOD budget pressures prompted further restructuring needs. To best align its personnel with the geographic changes in where DOD customers have clustered, the command executed a series of refinement projects, including Network Optimization, a headquarters streamlining, and Field Office Realignment. The resulting physical footprint of the organization is now leaner than it has ever been. But connectivity improvements, an ever-increasing reliance on the “Receipt In Place” concept, and more efficient transportation and workflow models with less touch points are allowing a smaller but more knowledgeable workforce to better match effort and resources to the locations and sources of highest demand for assistance.
“I see two things that won’t change,” Cannon said. “First, is our dedication to support the warfighter wherever and whenever they need us. How we do that might change, but that core mission will remain a constant. And second is our reliance on a dedicated and professional workforce – civilians, active military, reservists, local nationals, and contractors – to execute that mission.
DLA Disposition Services is celebrating its 50th Anniversary by reflecting on the mission, culture and its workforce. Visit the historical page to learn more about the MSC, its history, and to view additional stories.