Supporting Combat Operations: Words of a Casualty Notice?

Recently, I was researching a topic for an upcoming Military Officer magazine feature. While delving into the brief history of military females’ work with all-male combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan, I found:

Women killed while performing the hazardous duty for which they volunteered were listed as “supporting combat operations.” However, a male killed in the same incident could be listed as “conducting combat operations.”

This seemed worth a closer look.

Flashback to an al Anbar Province checkpoint, Feb. 7, 2007. Marine Cpl. Jennifer M. Parcell, a Lioness volunteer, was searching an Iraqi woman when she (the Iraqi) detonated an explosive vest. Parcell was killed along with Sgt. Maj. Joseph Ellis. It was reported an interpreter and two Iraqi police were also killed.

The Defense Department normally releases casualty information as provided by the services. Parcell’s read:

Cpl. Jennifer M. Parcell, 20, of Bel Air, Md., died Feb. 7 while supporting combat operations in Al Anbar province, Iraq. Parcell was assigned to Combat Logistics Regiment 3, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, III Marine Expeditionary Force, Okinawa, Japan.

Ellis’ read:

Sgt. Maj. Joseph J. Ellis, 40, of Ashland, Ohio, died Feb. 7 while conducting combat operations in Al Anbar province, Iraq. Ellis was assigned to Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Why the difference? Discussions with a Defense Department representative as well as Headquarters Marine Corps Public Affairs failed to reveal an answer. Was the delineation made by unit? MOS? They had no idea, and this seemed forgotten history by Pentagon standards.

The releases in question were written by Headquarters Marine Corps, but it is unclear if the “supporting” vs. ”conducting” choice was made by the unit or by Washington. The implication was this information came from theater. We’re not so sure.

Ellis was the enlisted leader of a combat unit; Parcell was a support Marine in a support unit who volunteered for a dangerous duty that combat and non-combat personnel also perform. While her checkpoint work was rare, though not unique, the characterization of the two deaths under the same circumstances is curious.

Regardless of past practices, it appears the Marine Corps dropped “conducting combat operations” in favor of “supporting” in mid-2008. “Everyone is in support of the 0311,” noted the Headquarters Marine Corps Marine rep. As far as we can tell, unless it is a non-hostile death, everyone is listed as “supporting” combat operations, even the 0311.

Why the distinction in the first place? Why the change? No one could provide answers. Did someone else notice the number of mostly male Marines who were “supporting” and not “conducting” and question the distinction? Was it a family member? The Corps commandant? A member of Congress?

The other services don’t seem to make this distinction.

This incident and others raise the question about defining combat operations in today’s operating environment. Though some may see this as beating the clichéd dead horse, there have been meaningful few answers. We have asked some of our favorite war heroes for their input. Those answers in a later post.


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