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Marines change notification policy

Families of troops hurt or sick in war zones are promised more accurate and timely information about their loved ones.

December 29, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

The Marine Corps this week moved to improve its process of notifying families when Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan are wounded or become sick.

The shift comes in the wake of an internal report this year that found cases in which families received incomplete or inaccurate information, including an Alabama couple who were told their son had been wounded but survived, and then were told the next day that he had actually been killed.

An order issued Wednesday from Marine Corps headquarters calls for a stricter, more detailed reporting system from war zones and a centralized notification process in cases of injury or sickness. Changes already have been made in how families of those killed in action are notified.

Under the new order, notification of wounds or illness will no longer be left to individual commands, where the job often fell to junior enlisted personnel.

Instead, a central office in Quantico, Va., will assume responsibility for calling and updating family members on the medical status of their loved ones. Marine officials said more employees would be added to that office.

In addition, follow-up calls to families will be mandatory and a 24-hour hotline for families is being established.

The changes come as more than 11,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton prepare to return to Iraq, in deployments that began this week.

The notification changes underscore the risks to those serving in war zones. Even as violence in Iraq has decreased recently, Lt. Gen. Samuel T. Helland, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, has cautioned that more combat and more casualties could be in the offing. "We're warfighters," Helland told reporters recently.

The centralized approach to notifications is also intended to aid the Marine Corps to better track incidents of friendly fire.

The report by the Marine Corps inspector general found cases where families were told their Marines had been wounded by enemy fire but later had to correct that to say they were wounded by U.S. or coalition forces.

In August, members of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel scolded a Marine general for providing figures about friendly-fire casualties that proved to be inaccurate.

Gen. Robert Magnus, assistant commandant, apologized to the committee and promised better reporting of such figures and an improved family notification system.

"We don't want any Marine or family to feel that we are not going to take good care of them and to accurately and in a timely manner inform their families of the circumstances of their injury or their death," Magnus said.

Wednesday's order, signed by Maj. Gen. Timothy R. Larsen, director of the Marine Corps personal and family readiness division, said that families should be quickly notified of "the casualty circumstances, prognosis, diagnosis, location of the Marine (or) sailor, medevac plans, and any other information that is provided from the medical treatment facility or combat support hospital."

In changing its notification process, the Marine Corps is doing something it is often reluctant to do: follow the lead of the Army, which also uses a centralized approach.

Of 844 Marines killed in Iraq, 330 were from Camp Pendleton, 112 from the base at Twentynine Palms and 10 from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, according to the independent website www.icasualties.org.

Camp Pendleton is second only to the Army's Ft. Hood, which has had 425 troops killed in Iraq.

Camp Pendleton has also had about 3,000 Marines wounded in Iraq.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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