A 34-year-old Marine from Simi Valley who earned many recognitions during his service was killed in combat in Iraq, officials announced Tuesday.
Gunnery Sgt. Diego D. Pongo died Sunday along with Capt. Moises A. Navas from Maryland, also 34, in a joint Iraqi-U.S. helicopter assault on a suspected ISIS-occupied cave complex in the Makhmur Mountains of northern Iraq.
They were assigned to the Second Marine Raider Battalion.
"This was one of the most intense clashes with ISIS that coalition troops have participated in in several months," Col. Myles Caggins, the chief coalition spokesman, told CNN.
The mission began with several dozen Iraqi counterterrorism forces, along with approximately a dozen special forces Marines, traveling by helicopter to the area where intelligence showed 15 to 20 ISIS fighters had hidden.
The Marines were accompanying the Iraqis, so there was an expectation they could become involved in combat. As they got close to the target, they encountered stiff resistance from ISIS fighters largely equipped with small arms. The firefight that ensued was at "close range," according to Caggins. The two Marines were killed and three other Americans and one coalition member were wounded, essentially taking out the fighting capability of half the team led by the Marines.
After the initial firefight, a team of Army Delta Force special operations troops were sent to recover the bodies of the two Americans, according to a U.S. official. The coalition has not publicly acknowledged that Delta was involved.
Their effort became a six-hour mission in which the Delta troops encountered more opposition, killing four ISIS fighters.
"The forces trekked through mountainous terrain and eliminated four hostile ISIS fighters who were barricaded in the caves," Caggins said in a statement on Monday. "The recovery took approximately six hours."
Earlier this year, the Iraqi Parliament voted to end the presence of all foreign troops in Iraq. The vote represented a rebuke of the US over its targeted airstrike on Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander who was killed in January.
CNN reported in January that there were roughly 5,000 US troops stationed in Iraq. The Trump administration has said it does not intend to pull troops out of the country.
Pongo enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2004 and spent his early years as a rifleman, Maj. Kristin Tortorici said in a news release from the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. He was deployed with a Marine Expeditionary Unit before finishing the U.S. Marine Corps Scout Sniper basic course in 2008. Pongo was then deployed to Afghanistan as a sniper team leader.
Pongo served eight years as a Marine Raider, completing tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tortorici said. In 2013, he earned a Bronze Star Medal for "heroic actions against the enemy" during Operation Enduring Freedom.
He also earned a Purple Heart and two Navy and Marine Corps commendation medals, among many other awards, according to the U.S. Marines.
Pongo left behind a young daughter and his parents.
"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," Col. John Lynch said in a statement. "He also loved going on adventures with his daughter, hiking, camping, and woodworking."
Navas, who was born in Panama before moving to Maryland, also enlisted in 2004. He earned many awards as well, including the Purple Heart. He left behind a wife, daughter, three sons, a brother and his parents.
"In addition to being a phenomenal Marine officer and Raider, he truly was a family man, and cherished his time watching his children play sports," Lynch said.
Lynch commended Pongo and Navas' dedication to their team and mission, saying that they were both on the path to become leaders within the organization.