Surprise memorial parade held to honor local fallen Marine

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Marshall Toomy, Katheryne Steffen, Andreas Pongo and Levi Pongo, 7, listen as the Marine Corps League sing the first verse of the Marine's Hymn on April 26, 2020 to honor Diego Pongo who was killed in Iraq in March. Photo credit: Justin Downes

By Justin Downes

On April 26, the community of Simi Valley held an in-car memorial parade from 10:00 a.m. to 12:15 p.m to honor Gunnery Sergeant Diego Pongo, who was killed in action last month in Iraq.

Those participating in the parade included Simi Valley firetrucks, police cruisers from five local agencies, SWAT vehicles, members of the Marine Corps, the California Patriot Guard, several local veterans, community members and a fly-over from a Los Angeles police helicopter.

Police cars and civilians line up for a parade on Katherine Ave. in Simi Valley on April 26, 2020 which honored Marine Gunnery Sergeant Diego Pongo who was killed last month in Irag. Due to COVID-19, the family is not able to hold an official burial.
Police cars and civilians line up for a parade on Katherine Ave. in Simi Valley on April 26, 2020 which honored Marine Gunnery Sergeant Diego Pongo who was killed last month in Irag. Due to COVID-19, the family is not able to hold an official burial. Photo credit: Justin Downes

Lilliana Camacho, Diego Pongo’s mother-in-law, explained that the family planned for a burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, but due to COVID-19 safety restrictions the service was postponed. Through the parade, they were able to bring a memorial to the Pongos’ home.

“This is a forever memory. It melts my heart to see the support and love, especially during these times,” Camacho said.

Andreas Pongo and his mother Katheryine Steffen embrace after Andreas's father Carlos Pongo received a flag given by the military support group Honor Our Fallen on  April 26, 2020, during a memorial for Diego Pongo who was killed last month in Iraq.
Andreas Pongo and his mother Katheryine Steffen embrace after Andreas's father Carlos Pongo received a flag given by the military support group Honor Our Fallen on April 26, 2020, during a memorial for Diego Pongo who was killed last month in Iraq. Photo credit: Justin Downes

Andrea Pongo, Diego Pongo’s sister-in-law, arranged the event only three days prior. Andrea Pongo explained that Diego Pongo’s father, Carlos Pongo, is in poor health, and that there was fear that Carlos Pongo would miss the actual burial due to national cemeteries being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Andrea Pongo called the Simi Police Dept. and they quickly agreed to help.

“I was completely blown away,” Andrea Pongo said. “I thought we’d have maybe 500 vehicles, but we estimate about 1,200 showed up.”

The event was kept a surprise to the immediate family until the last minute. Andrea’s husband, Andreas Pongo, only found out about it the day before.

“It was like layers of an onion. She kept certain things from me, then finally revealed the plan,” Andreas Pongo said.

Andreas Pongo, the youngest of the three brothers, said he looked up to his older brother Diego Pongo.

“He wanted to use his athleticism and creative mind to serve his country. I have so many memories spending time with him. He had respect for me, and being his younger brother, that spoke to me that he cared so much,” Andreas Pongo expressed.

Andrea Pongo, her husband Andreas Pongo and their daughter Noelle Pongo, 5, are overwhelmed with emotion on April 26, 2020, during a parade honoring Andreas's brother Diego Pongo, a Marine who was killed in Iraq in March.
Andrea Pongo, her husband Andreas Pongo and their daughter Noelle Pongo, 5, are overwhelmed with emotion on April 26, 2020, during a parade honoring Andreas's brother Diego Pongo, a Marine who was killed in Iraq in March. Photo credit: Justin Downes

Diego Pongo attended Moorpark College after high school, then joined the Marines in 2004.

Diego Pongo served as a sniper team leader in the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Afghanistan. In 2011, he joined Marine Forces Special Operations Command in the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, deploying in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Staff Sergeant Elaina Rojas met Diego Pongo while training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in 2015. Both became friends and were deployed in the same company to the Middle East as part of a campaign called Inherent Resolve. Rojas described Diego Pongo as strong-willed individual and mentor.

“Diego was the epitome of a Marine Raider. I remember when I first saw him, I’m like, that guy is the coolest looking dude on the block,” Rojas said.

Laura Herzog, a director of Honor Our Fallen, helped to coordinate most of Sunday’s event. The group, which helps families of fallen soldiers, presented a flag to the Simi Valley Police Dept. Honor Guard who performed the flag-folding ceremony, who then handed it to Rojas to present to the family.

“The flag was our way to honor Diego. He’ll receive a Marine flag once his official graveyard ceremony takes place,” Herzog said.

Andreas Pongo, Carlos Pongo and Katheryne Steffen watch as Simi Valley Police Dept. Honor Guard OFC Joe Pesce performs the flag-folding ceremony at the Pongo home in Simi Valley as members of the U.S. Marine Corps stand watch on April 26, 2020. The flag was presented to Carlos Pongo, father of Diego Pongo who was killed in action in Iraq.
Andreas Pongo, Carlos Pongo and Katheryne Steffen watch as Simi Valley Police Dept. Honor Guard OFC Joe Pesce performs the flag-folding ceremony at the Pongo home in Simi Valley as members of the U.S. Marine Corps stand watch on April 26, 2020. The flag was presented to Carlos Pongo, father of Diego Pongo who was killed in action in Iraq. Photo credit: Justin Downes

Diego Pongo, a highly decorated marine who received both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart medal.

Jessica Koizumi, a childhood friend of Diego Pongo in Simi Valley was in attendance. The two were able to reconnect for the first time in 15 years the last time he was on leave. Koizumi reflected on Diego Pongo’s character.

“He was an amazing person, always so confident in the way he carried himself, and extremely caring with his daughter. Diego was easy to love,” Koizumi said.

At the parade’s end, veteran members of the Marine Corps League gathered in formation in front of the Pongo home and played taps, then sang the first verse of the Marine’s Hymn.

Diego Pongo is survived by his daughter Avery, his parents Carlos and Katheryne, and brothers Jorge and Andreas.