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One Marine's story example of casualty notification process

16 Sep 2004 | 1st Lt. Eric M. Knapp

She had just got home from a long day at work and was sifting through the mail when the phone rang.

Elizabeth Avellino picked up the phone when she saw the words 'US Government' displayed on the caller ID. She had never seen those words displayed before, and like many families who have gotten a similar call, never wants to see them again.

"When I answered the phone, Lt. Col. Mike Melillo identified himself and said he was from Camp Pendleton," said Elizabeth, 54, and the mother of two. "He told me Paul had been injured in Iraq by a rocket attack. At that point, I didn't hear anything after that."

Captain Paul Avellino had been walking to the showers from his barracks room here May 29 when a rocket smashed into a wall near his head.

"I heard the explosion, but it didn't quite register right away what it was," said Avellino, a 28-year-old intelligence officer by trade.  "It felt like someone poured a bunch of water on my head. I got some shrapnel in the head and chest."

Avellino was rushed to the base battalion aid station by an Army soldier who had been walking nearby.

"They put me down on a stretcher. Everyone kept talking to me to make sure I was conscious," explained Avellino.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Robert L. Spencer, the senior corpsman on the scene, kept talking to Avellino for two reasons: one, to make sure his mental functions were not damaged by the blast; two, to get the necessary information to report him as a casualty.

"We treated his wounds, bandaged him up, put some dressings on him, and wrote out a casualty tag, which has all the patient's information," said Spencer, 41, of Marietta, Ga. "As people would come in, the adjutant would jot down their information and made sure she had all the accurate information: name, rank, social security number, type of injury and unit they were attached to."

Obtaining all of that information is necessary so the unit can report the casualty to their higher headquarters, but more importantly, so they can track the casualty and notify the family.

"The adjutant should be actively engaged by the first responder that provided care for the Marine to find out the extent of the injuries," explained Gunnery Sgt. Marco A. Rico, who tracks casualties for the 1st Marine Division. "She would prepare the official Personal Casualty Report that is sent in to us here. At the same time her section would be gathering his personal information to relay to the rear so his next of kin can be notified."

That duty fell to Melillo, the executive officer of 11th Marine Regiment, Avellino's parent command.

"He was very supportive," Elizabeth said. "I was running around the house screaming and crying. He tried to calm me down by talking about Paul and said he knew Paul would heal quickly and he would pray for him."

After Melillo gave her all the information he had on her son, he answered Elizabeth's questions and offered her any support she needed.

"I felt that if there was anything I needed I could call him," Elizabeth said. "I felt I had the support of the entire Marine Corps if I needed it."

The Avellinos' story is not uncommon, and neither is the care that was provided to each of them throughout the casualty notification process. However, notification for very seriously injured Marines, and those that are killed, has additional steps.

For serious injuries and death, the PCR is forwarded up the chain of command to the headquarters of the Marine Corps. A PCR contains a Marine's personal information: name, rank, social security number, unit, time and date of incident, extent of injuries, and where he is being treated at.

There is a balance, though, in including too little or too much information in the PCR the family receives.

"Our general's intent is not to provide information where the enemy can retrieve it and get an accurate assessment of the force they are inflicting on us," Rico said. "When we do our PCR everything is in general terms."

Understandably, some families want to know exactly when, where, why and how their son or daughter was injured.

"That is where the unit comes into play," Rico explained. "The battalion commander, company commander or platoon commander will write a letter and explain exactly what happened to their son or daughter."

The Marine Corps has another crucial element to providing information to families and giving them comfort in their time of need, though.

"In cases of very serious injury or death, the (Marine Corps) will assign a CACO - a casualty assistance officer - to make notification to the family," Rico said.

"Many families do not know what's involved with getting a Marine home, getting therapies, or getting through medical facilities before he's discharged," Rico added. "Or they're not aware of how a deceased Marine is processed within the Marine Corps. That's where the CACO comes in."

The CACOs are Marines who are hand-picked from the Inspector Instructor staff stationed across the US, whose primary job is to train and instruct reservists. The CACOs are assigned to a family the minute the PCR is received and often stay in close contact until the family buries their loved one or is rehabilitated, as in the case of a severe injury.

CACOs can be sent out alone, in pairs or be a whole team. Chaplains often accompany them on the visits.

"They have refined the process to an art form," said Rico, who has served as a CACO. "Every single I&I staff knows we're out here and have their procedures in place and their designated CACOs. There's always gas in a van ready to go. Their Dress Blues are hanging up in their office ready to go. It's just amazing."

Fortunately, Elizabeth did not get a knock on the door by a CACO that day. A half an hour after Melillo gave her the bad news, her son called her from a hospital in Iraq.

"I remember she started crying," Avellino said. "I was just trying to reassure my mom everything was alright."

Avellino's mother didn't know what to think when she heard his voice.

"I asked him 'are you okay?' and he said yes," Elizabeth said. "I asked him if he's coming home and he said no. I thought to myself 'if he's not coming home, he must not be injured serious enough to be sent home.'"

Avellino recovered from his injuries quickly and returned to duty. He will be heading home soon after a seven-month deployment to visit his mother in Brimfield, Ohio.

"First thing I'm going to do when he gets home is look over every inch of his head like those apes on the Discovery Channel," said Elizabeth. "I want to make sure his head's alright."