The two service members killed during a mission to eliminate an ISIS stronghold in a mountainous region of north-central Iraq have been identified as members of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command.
Gunnery Sgt. Diego D. Pongo, 34, of Simi Valley, California, and Capt. Moises A. Navas, 34, of Germantown, Maryland, died Sunday while on a mission with Iraqi forces in the Makhmur Mountains, south of Erbil.
Following their deaths, more troops were sent into the region on a recovery mission that became a brutal fight, according to information released by Operation Inherent Resolve.
"The forces trekked through mountainous terrain and eliminated four hostile ISIS fighters who were barricaded in the caves. The recovery took approximately six hours," Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a spokesman for the OIR coalition, said in a statement.
Ultimately, some 15-19 ISIS fighters were killed, officials said.
Pongo and Navas were both assigned to 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, Marine Forces Special Operations Command, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.
"The hearts of the entire Marine Raider community are with the Pongo and Navas families as we mourn this tremendous loss," Col. John Lynch, the commander of Marine Raider Regiment, said in a statement. "In times like these we come together and rely on each other, sharing our burdens and providing strength to those that need it. We will do everything we can to lift up and support our grieving families in order to and honor the incredible lives and the ultimate sacrifices of Gunnery Sgt. Pongo and Capt. Navas.”
According to information released by MARSOC, Pongo enlisted in the Marines in 2004, deploying as a rifleman with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit and later deploying to Afghanistan with 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment as a sniper team leader. He joined MARSOC in December 2011, completing deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pongo, said Lynch, had a "larger-than-life personality."
"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. He was [an] advanced sniper, a foreign weapons instructor, a combat marksmanship leader, and he was fluent in multiple languages."
Pongo's awards include a Bronze Star with combat valor device, earned in 2013; and a Purple Heart, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and two Combat Action Ribbons.
He is survived by his daughter and mother.
Navas began as an enlisted Marine, joining the Corps in 2004 as an administrative clerk and rising to the rank of sergeant before earning a commission through the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program in 2010, according to MARSOC officials. He earned his special operations officer military occupational specialty in 2016, and deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve prior to the current deployment.
Lynch said most knew Navas as "Mo," and added that he was born in Panama. He had recently been selected for promotion to major, he added.
"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.
Navas had earned the Purple Heart, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and Combat Action Ribbon. He is survived by his wife, daughter, and three sons.
Pongo and Navas are the first U.S. troops to die in the fight against ISIS since another Marine Raider, Gunnery Sgt Scott Koppenhafer, was killed Aug. 10, 2019 in Iraq.
The deaths of the Marines remain under investigation. New York Times reported Monday that officials are now reviewing U.S. military operations in Iraq and how U.S. forces advise local troops in the wake of the casualties.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.