MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – He was only 15 years old when his plane was shot down over the Somalian desert. He went unconscious and awoke to a firefight between his father and 15 militants.
Douglas O. Ongiyo often travelled with his father, Maurice, who served in a diplomatic position as a brigadier and defense attaché in the Kenyan Army. Relations between Kenya and Somalia had been sour. Tribal militia, known as Janjaweed, roamed the country. They fired at the plane with an anti-aircraft gun, which forced a crash landing, said Ongiyo.
The pilot died in the crash. Bullets whizzed overhead during the gunfight, and AK-47s rattled off rounds. Before he blacked out, Ongiyo saw Humvees arrive.
Ongiyo awoke on a ship. The first thing he saw was a name tag with “U.S. Marines” written on it. The man in desert camouflage led him to a body bag, where he identified the remains of his father.
“I was in shock,” Ongiyo explained. “I thought he was asleep. The worst thing was thinking I had to explain it to my Mom. I wasn’t supposed to be there. She didn’t know.”
Over the next few days, the Marines prepared the body for burial, dressing his father in full dress uniform before flying them both to Kenya for the funeral.
“To show that kind of respect for him was a life altering event,” said Ongiyo. “I stopped being superficial. I saw people for who they are, not what they’re worth.”
Because his father served as a defense attaché, Ongiyo lived in many places in the world, including Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and Russia, where he was born. He also traveled through every nation in Africa, and through his travels learned nine languages, including English, Swahili, Russian, Arabic, German, Luo, Creole, Kikuyu, and Luhya.
While living in Kenya, Ongiyo played for the Kenyan national rugby team and began his college studies at Egerton University in Nakuru, Kenya. He enrolled in a transfer program that allowed him to begin his degree in Kenya and transfer to a U.S. university to finish his major. Ongiyo majored in Aeronautical Engineering and graduated from Western Michigan University in 2008.
Though he had the ability to pursue a career in engineering, Ongiyo chose to enlist in the Marine Corps as a financial management resource analyst. He never forgot how the Marines had taken care of his family when he was in need, and he wanted to have the self-discipline and respect of being a United States Marine.
“I feel like I owe the Marine Corps my life, and I’m just trying to pay them back,” Ongiyo explained.
Onigyo said he also wanted to continue his family legacy of military service. His older brother currently serves as a major in the Kenyan Army, and his older sister is a captain in the British Royal Marines. Their example inspired him to do well in recruit training.
“I saw them both get through it, so I was mentally prepared for it,” said Ongiyo. “I got a sense of pride. I felt a sense of accomplishment. I was serving a greater purpose.”
Now a 27-year-old lance corporal in the Marine Corps, Ongiyo brings a wealth of knowledge and experience with him, as well as a deep-rooted appreciation for the opportunity to serve a higher purpose as a Marine, he said.
“I feel like he is almost distinguished,” said Lance Cpl. Paul C. Bacus, a legal services specialist with Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division. “He can joke around, but at the same time he’s very proper about the way he speaks. He has a lot of knowledge of just about everything.”
Ongiyo is easily spotted by his thick Kenyan accent and dark skin. He hardly raises his voice and speaks calmly. During a recent field exercise with Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division, groups of Marines often gathered around him as he spoke in depth about a variety of topics, including foreign policy, history, physics, and the biomechanics of running. He said his fitness score was merely decent, though he runs three miles in less than eighteen minutes.
Ongiyo said he plans to stay in the Marines Corps, as he enjoys the sense of pride and service that he gets each day from wearing the uniform.