When 20-year-old Luis Mogollon returned home to Centreville after serving with the Marines in the war in Iraq, no one was happier to have him back again, safe and sound, than his family.
"It was the nicest feeling I'd ever had in my whole life — to see him home and in one piece," said his mother Barbara of Sully Station II. "Twelve people went to pick him up at the airport, and we had a big party with neighbors."
A 2001 Centreville High grad, Luis became a lance corporal with the First Marine Division, 11th Marine Regiment, Second Battalion. He deployed to Iraq on Feb. 1 and returned to the U.S. on May 31.
"I worried about him all the time he was gone," said Barbara Mogollon. "When he first went there, he was a teen-ager, and I thought he was too young to be over there. But he had a great attitude and was proud of what he was doing, and that gave me the strength to be strong."
ALSO PROUD of Luis were his father, Julio Mogollon Sr., sister Michelle, 13, and brother Julio Jr., 22. They were delighted when he got to spend a month with them, after returning stateside. He then reported back to his base at Camp Pendleton, Calif. But before leaving home, June 30, he spoke with Centre View about his experiences in Iraq.
He celebrated his 20th birthday overseas, but called it "just another day of work and providing security over there." His infantry unit was the 5th Marines, and he was a communications specialist with the infantry and artillery battery.
"The war started March 19," said Mogollon. "They woke us up at 11 that night and told us to pack our stuff — we were going to war," he said. "I wanted to get it done and do my job out there. We were really well-trained; I felt confident about the people I was gonna fight the war with."
His group's first mission was to secure the Ramalah oilfields bordering Iraq and Kuwait. The Marines then secured the Rashide airfield for their own protection. In mid-afternoon, March 20, Mogollon's artillery company, Fox Battery, fired the first shots of the war.
"We started shooting missiles at Iraqi units as we drove in, and they started surrendering," he said. "We handed them food and took them prisoner — 30-40 of them — on the main road to Baghdad. They were pretty friendly."
Later, in the middle of the war, said Mogollon, "Fox Battery encountered incoming [opposition] and a whole rack of soldiers tried to take us out. We were about 60 kilometers south of Baghdad."
He said Iraqi weapons weren't very accurate: "[Iraqi solders] point and pull the string on their cannon, but they're not sure they'll hit their target. We usually have a grid — an exact coordinate — and a scout giving us an update on what we're supposed to hit, like a tank or an infantry unit."
AFTER THE WAR, Mogollon mostly "did humanitarian things" with his infantry unit. But during the conflict, he stayed mainly with his artillery group. He carried an M16 rifle and, he said, "Anywhere I was, the weapon was with me."
When he first arrived there in February, the nights were pretty cold. But by the end of March, the weather had changed dramatically and it was hot, night and day. By May, said Mogollon, it was 105 degrees inside the Marine tents.
He also experienced three sandstorms. "One day at 11 a.m., the sky was orange," he said. "The sand would hurt your eyes. We weren't used to the climate, so we weren't sure if we were getting chemically attacked or if it was part of a sandstorm. By 2 p.m., it was pitch black and there was sand blowing everywhere. It was weird — you could barely see your hand."
Mogollon's group drove north and saw what U.S. artillery and helicopters had destroyed. "There were broken-down vehicles and tanks, houses on fire — and a lot of dead Iraqi soldiers. That was the first time I'd seen a dead body."
The biggest firefight his combat team received came when his infantry unit "took Saddam's palace, around the first week of April. I was there after it was secured," said Mogollon. "His palace was so big, it was unbelievable. It was his main palace, and there were pictures of him everywhere — on the walls, on money — and statues of him."
Mogollon's job was to make sure no enemy soldiers were hiding inside. "I just wanted to leave," he said. "We had snipers shooting at us. We'd be driving, being friendly with the people, and we'd hear a shot above. You weren't sure that someone you knew wasn't shot. And they're still doing the same thing. They attack from spots you wouldn't expect, and it's hard to defend yourself."
HE SAID MOST of the people there are "happy with what the Americans did. Iraqis who could speak English would come up and thank us. But some were upset and kept shooting from the tops of buildings, trying to hit [coalition] soldiers."
When he encountered an Iraqi, said Mogollon, "The first thing he'd ask me was, 'Do you come in peace?' I'd say, 'Yes, sir,' and put my weapon aside so he wouldn't feel threatened by me. But I kept it handy, just in case he tried anything. They taught us not to get complacent."
He said one Iraqi man told him, "My country's been suffering for 15 years, and now I don't have to worry about my kids growing up." Said Mogollon: "That made me feel really good."
Still, he and his fellow Marines always had to be alert for ambushes. "I was there when a Marine stepped on a grenade and lost all his toes," he said. "But you don't want to write home about it and worry your parents even more."
Actually, Mogollon said his combat team had the least amount of casualties and "didn't lose anyone." In fact, he said those in his unit might even get a Presidential Unit Citation because the whole, regimental combat team accomplished so much. His group racked up a whole slew of firsts.
"We were the first to cross into Iraq, the first to engage the enemy and the first to cross the Euphrates and Tigris River," he said. "We moved faster and covered more ground in the least amount of time than the other Marine combat teams. I told my brother in a letter that we didn't change history, but we made history because we did so well."
Mogollon said there was no time for play or relaxation until the war was over — troops always had to be on guard. "We'd have fire watch — making sure no one was walking around, acting like he was lost," he said. "The day we took incoming [resistance], a unit [of enemy soldiers] came off of a civilian bus, to throw us off. But we took that bus and blew it up. You could never trust anyone."
WITH ALL THE training the American Marines did for biological and chemical warfare, Mogollon said he expected they'd be chemically attacked. "I didn't expect a lot of soldiers to surrender," he explained. "We're good at what we do, but I was surprised at how quick it was over — shorter than two months."
He said the most important thing he learned was "trust in my fellow Marines, my family and friends back home, and not to worry that we were gonna get the job done." What he did worry about, though, was his family — "especially my little sister." But he kept on with the task at hand. Said Mogollon: "I kept my head high. I knew I was doing something right."
Before returning to Centreville, his unit landed at March Air Force Base in Southern California; then it was on to his home base, Camp Pendleton. "People were hugging and screaming," he said. "It was a great feeling to see how happy people were that they were a family again because, the last time I saw them, they were crying."
Then he went out and celebrated with his friends. "We didn't have our clothes, yet, so we just partied in our desert 'cammies,'" he said. "I was just so happy to be back." Later, when he returned to Centreville, said Mogollon, "I was never so glad to see traffic lights again — the roads are crazy in Iraq."
He came back earlier than some others in his artillery battery because, in January, he'll be sent to Okinawa, Japan. But he may not make the military his career. "I still want to go to college, study business management and computers, and challenge myself in other ways," he said.
His mom says his wartime experience matured him: "I always was proud of him, but now I'm more proud." In turn, Mogollon acknowledged his family's support and also thanked his high-school sweetheart, Andrea Parilak, for all her letters.
He also has a message for families with loved ones still over there. "They're well-trained and they're doing a good job," he said. "They have a lot of people praying for them still — and they'll be home."