CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina ― A former Marine staff sergeant received the Navy Cross on Aug. 26 for his 2020 heroic actions that saved the life of one French special operator and attempted to save, then recover the bodies of two Marine Raiders while fighting ISIS in northern Iraq.
Marine veteran Nicholas J. Jones, 29, of Olathe, Kansas, then an element leader from 2nd Raider Battalion, was working with allied special operators and Iraqi security forces to clear caves systems of enemy fighters when a neighboring unit came under heavy fire.
“Sunday, March 8, 2020 was a warm sunny day in northern Iraq, and among the beauty was erratic gunfire and explosions echoing through the deep valleys,” Jones said Thursday from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, after receiving the nation’s second highest award for valor.
“I heard mass chaos behind me and quick calls coming in through the radio with very little detail, until those piercing calls came through saying an eagle was down,” Jones said. “Something inside told me I needed to go now.”
The two MARSOC Marines down were Capt. Moises A. Navas and Gunnery Sgt. Diego D. Pongo. The two Marines had fallen down a steep ravine and were killed in the opening volley of the fight.
Wounded in the fight was a French special operator.
“That is when our mission changed from cave clearance to a recovery mission,” Jones said.
Jones said that day will always be “ingrained” in his mind as a failure ― a day he did not complete the mission. But his award citation speaks of the overwhelming heroism he exhibited against insurmountable odds.
“Under sustained and intense close range enemy fire, Staff Sergeant Jones maneuvered to the allied casualty, suppressed the enemy with small arms fire and grenades, and helped the wounded soldier get to a covered position for medical evacuation,” his award citation reads.
Though the French special operator was safe, Jones was not done.
He repeatedly attempted to recover the bodies of Pongo and Navas while “disregarding the rounds impacting all around him,” the citation said.
On his third attempt Jones was shot in the leg, but he refused medical treatment, instead opting to stay in the fight until he was forcibly removed and medevaced off the mountain, the citation said.
Additional forces were sent to the area to help push back the ISIS fighters and recover the bodies of Navas and Pongo, Marine Corps Times previously reported.
Jones credited all who fought with him that day for their heroism, which helped him stay alive.
“The actions taken on this day by each one of these men, many of whom are in the crowd today, were insurmountable,” Jones said. “There is absolutely no telling what anyone will do in a situation of such chaos, but I was trusting of everyone to make the right decision for the safety and betterment of the assault force.”
The wounds Jones sustained in that fight ultimately led to him to medically retire from the Corps.
So, Jones started a new mission: to help members of the special operating forces community mentally recover from the demands the nation puts on them.
He created the Talons Reach Foundation, named after his best friend Marine Raider Sgt. Talon Leach, who died in 2017 when the KC-130T carrying him, 14 other Marines and one sailor crashed into Mississippi farmland.
“As warriors we don’t always ask for help, but these injuries compound to a devastating effect on our quality of life,” the foundation’s website states. “Our goal is to offer our nation’s SOF warriors an opportunity for sanctuary, mindfulness, and the tools and resources necessary to accelerate the path to recovery.”
The Navy Cross was presented by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, with the ceremony attended by Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black and Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro.
After the ceremony ended, Del Toro spoke to the Marine veteran, quietly reassuring him that he did not fail that day.
Berger also reassured him that his heroic actions did not amount to failure.
The commandant said that when he went to Dover, Delaware, as the bodies of Pongo and Navas were returned to the United States, both he and Black had wondered how more Marines weren’t killed in that fight.
“There’s a reason more came home, now I know it’s because of Staff Sgt. Jones,” Berger said. “It is because of Staff Sgt. Jones that there weren’t more dignified transfers (of bodies) it is because of Staff Sgt. Jones that two other heroes are able to go back to their families.”
“It is pretty clear that his actions put him in that very small class of service members awarded the Navy Cross,” Berger added.
Jones was the eighth service member in MARSOC’s 15-year history to be awarded the Navy Cross for actions taken during Operation Inherent Resolve, a press release said.