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'Every Marine Is A Brother Or Sister'

Marine assigned to escort Cpl. Christopher Monahan to New Jersey watches over his family like it's her own

As the two Marines walked soundlessly, single file, to the front of the room, a hush fell over those gathered. Heel to toe, heel to toe, without so much as a creak of a glistening shoe.

Only the ticking of a clock broke the silence.

At the front of the room, they paused, then turned to face the casket where Cpl. Christopher M. Monahan Jr. was lying in his dress uniform, and slowly saluted him, then turned and went in opposite directions to face the two Marines standing guard over Monahan's body. The four men simultaneously saluted each other, then with an efficiency of movement, the new guards replaced the old.

Nearby, US Marine Staff Sgt. Pamela Torres stood by, keeping an eye on the proceedings. It is her responsibility to ensure Monahan's final return is as uneventful as possible. It is a duty she takes very seriously.

"Every Marine anywhere is a brother or a sister. They are family," Torres said, as she paused for a few minutes to talk during the viewing for Monahan, held Wednesday at Anderson & Campbell Funeral Home in Toms River. "I always think about it as if it were my mother."

Monahan, 25, was killed on Nov. 26 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, when the truck he was riding in struck an improvised explosive device, according to the Department of Defense.

Monahan, who was born in Toms River but grew up in Ocean Gate and more recently lived in Island Heights, leaves behind his wife, three children, his parents, and many more extended family members, who gathered  to console each other and receive dozens of friends who came to the viewing to pay their respects.

Among those who attended the viewing were members of American Legion Post 129 of Toms River and its ladies auxiliary; members of Leatherneck Nation, a group of Marines who are motorcycle enthusiasts, and many more. A group of Gold Star Mothers -- whose sons and daughters have been killed in military action -- presented Monahan's wife and parents with a packet of items recognizing his service and death. The Order of the Purple Heart presented his wife, Sarah, with a Bible with an inscription to honor his sacrifice.

Photo collages of Monahan showing him as a son and as a father, a friend and a brother, were displayed around the room, and a few feet away from Monahan's casket, a heart-shaped arrangement of white roses with a jagged line of red roses through the middle of the heart provided a backdrop to Monahan's parents and siblings.

All the while, Torres kept watch.

"They become your family," the 28-year-old from Wyoming said.

Torres, who serves in the 6th Motor Transport Battalion out of Red Bank, is a casualty assistance calls officer. It is her duty to assist the family of a Marine killed in action, from notifying the family of the Marine's death to being the family's point of contact for any issues that come up in the early days.

Monahan was assigned to Combat Logistics Battalion 2, Combat Logistics Regiment 2, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C., and was on his third tour of duty; he had served two tours of duty in Iraq before he was sent to Afghanistan. Torres' unit was selected for escort duty for Monahan because it is the unit closest to his family's home, and Torres' name was next on the list.

"When you get that call, it is the worst feeling," Torres said. "You dream of trying to change people's lives, but this isn't the way you want to do it."

Notification starts with carefully verifying that they've reached the right family, then meeting in person with the family member designated by the Marine to deliver the news, making sure that person is not alone to receive the news.

The escort remains with the family member, whether it's for 10 minutes or several hours, until there are other family members or friends there to provide support.

"We never leave them alone," said Torres, who also served as the escort for Cpl. Kevin Reinhard of Woodbridge, who was killed in January 2012 along with four other Marines when their helicopter crashed in Helmand Province. "We stay as long as we're needed."

After they have notified the family, the escort reports to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where they personally travel with the body of the fallen Marine to the final resting place. And much like Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, whose journey escorting the body of Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps from Dover to Wyoming was memorialized in the HBO Film "Taking Chance," starring Kevin Bacon, Torres said the kindnesses and respect shown all along the way as a Marine is being transported home are overwhelming.

"You can try to explain it to the family, but it's difficult to put into words the amount of support," she said.

Once the Marine has been buried, Torres said, the escorts are supposed to turn over responsibility for the family to a long-term specialist, "but you become possessive," she said.

"They become your family," Torres said, noting that Reinhard's mother attended Monahan's wake to show her support for both his family and for Torres.

While those assigned to the escort duty list receive training in the details of their responsibilities -- the procedures that must be followed and the paperwork that must be maintained -- "nobody can prepare you for this," she said, referring to the emotional demands of the duty.

"It's hard not to be mad at yourself," she said, referring to having to be the one to deliver the news that is every military family's worst nightmare.

"It's just not something you ever want to do," she said.

While her defined responsibilities to Monahan's family end soon after he is laid to rest at Brig. General William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Wrightstown, Torres said the bond with his family will remain.

"I'll be with them the rest of their lives," she said.

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