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The interior of a computer looks like a tiny cityscape. There’s the green lawn of the circuit board, winding paths of copper traces, rainbow rivers of twisted cables, the high-rise blocks of heat sinks. So intricate — and now, obsolete.

A few deft turns of a screwdriver, and it comes apart. In three minutes, Army veteran Melvin Whitfield has disemboweled an old desktop computer and sorted its components. “It’s clockwork. It’s muscle memory,” he says. Whitfield, now the operations manager for Tech for Troops, served as a special electronic device technician in the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea. He became an expert at “pluck and chuck”: cannibalizing parts to fix other machines.

Here, in a crowded warehouse off Staples Mill Road, Whitfield and the Tech for Troops team give old computers one last chance to serve.

Any donated laptop with a working hard drive and an Intel i5 or better processor can be imaged, which means wiping clean the hard drive and installing new software. It may not be as fast as a brand-new machine, but it can serve a veteran dependably for another few years. Last year, the nonprofit donated more than 750 computers to veterans locally and in other states. Recipients also get free lifetime tech support.

For security, Tech for Troops uses a three-step process to erase the data from hard drives. A demagnetizing machine called a degausser destroys malfunctioning drives. (Or they’re given a few whacks with a hammer.)

The nonprofit also teaches former servicemen and -women how to use their tech. Many of the veterans it serves are in transition — they’re leaving a homeless shelter or the VA hospital and hoping to rejoin the workforce. Without owning a computer, or even knowing how to use one, they get stuck. You can’t create a resume on a smartphone, and basic computer skills are a prerequisite for many jobs.

On Tuesdays, Tech for Troops instructors teach homeless veterans the parts of a computer, how to use the Internet and how to write a resume. Some are 70-year-old Vietnam veterans; others are young men living in their cars because they’ve fallen on hard times. 

“You can tell they get something out of it,” Whitfield says. Last week, one student mentioned he once had been a member of an R&B group called The Dealers. When Whitfield showed him how to Google the group, the veteran saw his own face — and heard himself sing. “Teared up and everything,” Whitfield says.

Obsolete or nonworking electronics are dismantled and sold for the metals they contain. Motherboards are melted down for silver, gold, platinum and tungsten. CPUs, the tiny, square brains of the computer, are chopped up for copper and gold.

RAM sticks are sorted by type and size and sold to people who need more memory for their machines. Heat sinks, which resemble tiny, finned radiators, contain copper and aluminum. Less valuable pieces, made of plastic or steel, are recycled. One veteran makes jewelry out of tiny components, while others craft clocks or whimsical artwork.

In three years, Tech for Troops has recycled close to 150 tons of electronics. An endless tide of plastic flows in: silent phones, dusty laptop docks, blank monitors. A few artifacts are ancient, by digital standards. There’s a car phone, complete with carrying case, and a 1982 laptop with two floppy drives that weighs 28 pounds.

“It’s junk — but it’s not junk,” says Executive Director Mark Casper. In the tons of detritus, he sees only the promise of helping vets, as well as diverting e-waste from landfills. The scraps that are actually thrown in the trash add up to just “ounces per month,” he says. To protect its volunteers and the environment, Tech for Troops does not accept items like CRT monitors, which contain lead and other hazardous materials. The recycling companies to which the nonprofit sends materials are R2-certified, meaning they use responsible practices, Casper says, and they do not send e-waste overseas.

Casper, a former Marine himself, believes Tech for Troops’ mission will expand far beyond Richmond in the years to come. The program of computer/IT training, coupled with electronics recycling, could be duplicated in any city with a substantial veteran population. “There’s far too much need out there for what we do,” he says.

Tech for Troops accepts many kinds of electronics, including laptops, desktops, tablets and cell phones. Items that are not accepted: CRT monitors, scanners, printers and cracked monitors. Volunteers are welcome to help dismantle computers from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday nights. For more information, visit techfortroopsproject.org.


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