Simi Valley Marine Diego Pongo Killed in Iraq Strike on ISIS Bastion

Gunnery Sgt. Diego D. Pongo
Gunnery Sgt. Diego D. Pongo, a critical skills operator from Simi Valley, suffered fatal wounds while accompanying Iraqi Security Forces during a mission to eliminate an ISIS stronghold in a mountainous area of north central Iraq. He was 34 years old and assigned to 2nd Marine Raider Battalion. (Photo: Marine Forces, Special Operation)

A highly decorated Simi Valley Marine known for his “larger-than-life” personality was killed during a mission against an Islamic State stronghold in north central Iraq, the Defense Department said Tuesday.

Gunnery Sgt. Diego D. Pongo, a critical-skills operator from Simi Valley, and Capt. Moises A. Navas, a special operations officer from Germantown, Maryland, suffered fatal wounds in the clash on Sunday.

Both were 34 years old and assigned to 2nd Marine Raider Battalion as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Marine Raider Regiment Commanding Officer Col. John Lynch remembered both men as “incredibly humble.”

“Gunnery Sgt. Pongo balanced that with his larger-than-life personality,” Lynch said in a statement.

“The command as a whole became witness to his dynamic personality, and love for family, when he brought his mom to this past year’s Marine Corps Birthday Ball ceremony and together they out-danced the rest of us on the dance floor,” Lynch said. “He also loved going on adventures with his daughter, hiking, camping, and woodworking.”

Pongo was an advanced sniper, a foreign weapons instructor and a combat marksmanship leader who was fluent in multiple languages, according to Lynch.

Pongo is survived by his daughter and parents. 

News of Pongo’s death was still making its way around his hometown Tuesday, with plans being set in place to honor him. 

Simi Valley Mayor Keith Mashburn said although he never met Pongo, he was a fellow Simi resident and because of that, “I feel like I already know him.” 

Mashburn said the death was a devastating blow to the community, and he has faith the city will come together to support Pongo’s family. 

“It’s just another tragedy. It’s a tear-jerker because we send these patriots over there to protect us and this great nation, and they give their lives for it,” Mashburn said. 

Pongo attended Valley View Middle School and graduated from Simi Valley High School in 2003, according to the Simi Valley Unified School District. In fall of 2003, he started taking classes at Moorpark College, where he studied anthropology, according to the Ventura County Community College District. 

“Our sincere and heartfelt condolences to his family,” college district officials said in an email to The Star. 

Pongo enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2004, the Defense Department said. He left Moorpark College in good academic standing on a military withdrawal in spring 2006, college district officials said. 

The college district’s board of trustees planned to adjourn its public board meeting Tuesday night in Pongo’s memory. At a minimum, a similar plan was made to honor Pongo at the Simi Valley City Council’s April 6 meeting, Mashburn said. 

“But I think we’ll say much more in this case,” Mashburn said. 

Recently, several other Ventura County residents have died while serving in the military. 

In 2019, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Adam Erickson, 29, of Ojai, was killed in a parachute training exercise. Patrick Vega, 21, of Oxnard, died while in boot camp trying to become a Marine in 2018. He was buried with full military honors. 

A fellow Marine, Staff Sgt. Brian Cox, was among 16 people killed in a military transport plane crash in Mississippi in 2017. Cox, 28, attended schools in Fillmore, Ventura and Thousand Oaks. Camarillo native and U.S. Air Force Capt. Jonathan Golden, 33, was also killed in a plane crash. He was piloting the C-130J in 2015 when it crashed at Jalalabad Airfield in Afghanistan. 

Pongo’s Military Career

Pongo spent his initial years in the Marines as a rifleman, deploying once with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit before completing the scout sniper basic course in 2008, the Defense Department said. He then deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan as a sniper team leader. Pongo then participated in a nine-month course to become a critical-skills operator and earned the Marine Special Operator Insignia in December 2011.

During his eight years as a Marine raider, Pongo completed deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star Medal with Combat Distinguishing Device for heroic actions against the enemy in 2013 while deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Other personal decorations also include a Purple Heart, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, two Combat Action Ribbons, the Army Valorous Unit Award, four Good Conduct Medals, two Humanitarian Service Medals, the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and four Sea Service Deployment Ribbons.

He and Navas were killed in a firefight with Islamic State militants in the mountainous northern Iraqi district of Makhmur. They were there to accompany and advise Iraqi security forces.

On Monday, Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service announced it had conducted a raid a day earlier on an Islamic State encampment in the Qarachogh mountain range, about 37 miles southwest of the city of Irbil.

The clashes involving U.S. troops and Iraqi forces took place in a cave complex where 25 Islamic State militants were killed and nine tunnels and a training camp were destroyed.

The Islamic State fighters quickly emerged from an entrance and killed Pongo and Navas, said an Iraqi officer who requested anonymity to be able to discuss operational matters. 

“They dragged their bodies into the cave complex,” he said.

U.S. forces then stormed the area to recover the lost men; four of their members were wounded.

“It was a big firefight, one of the most intense we’ve faced in this period,” he said.

Lynch mourned the loss of the men.

“Our most sincere condolences go out to the families of Gunnery Sgt. Pongo and Capt. Navas. The loss of these two incredible individuals is being felt across our organization, but it cannot compare to the loss that their families and teammates are experiencing,” Lynch said. “Both men epitomize what it means to be a Marine Raider. They were intelligent, courageous, and loyal. They were dedicated leaders, true professionals in their craft, and willing to go above and beyond for the mission and their team. They were not just leaders today, they were both on the path to be our organizations leaders in the future. They were also family men, adoring husbands and fathers …Capt. Navas to his wife, daughter, and three young sons, and Gunnery Sgt. Pongo to his little girl.”

From reports by staff writers Megan Diskin and Mike Harris, as well as Tribune Content Agency

Source: VC Star article from March 10, 2020