Operation Tribute to Freedom

OTF Soldier Story for October 4, 2010 - 1st Lt. Maria Mengrone

First Lieutenant Maria Mengrone

Current Unit: 72nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 36th Infantry Division
Current Position: Engineer Officer
Component: Texas National Guard
Current Location: El Campo, Texas
Hometown: San Antonio, Texas
Years of Service: 15

From the American Revolutionary War to present engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hispanic Americans have a distinguished legacy of courage, leadership and selfless service in the military. A former Marine and now an Army officer, 1st Lt. Maria Mengrone is no exception—her leadership in theater facilitated the successful turnover of two detainee facilities to the Iraqi government.

Mengrone deployed to Baghdad, Iraq with the Texas National Guard’s 72nd Infantry Brigade last year. She served as the officer in charge at the Camp Taji Theater Internment Facility Reconciliation Center and at the Camp Cropper Theater Internment Facility.

“We were the troops on the ground that took care of the needs of detainees in U.S. custody. We were there to make sure they were treated with dignity and respect,” she said.

The facility at Camp Taji housed approximately 350 detainees, making its oversight and daily operations a critical component to maintaining a secure environment in Iraq. The long-term goal of each the facility is to help Iraqi detainees to return to civilian life and no longer be a threat to the country’s stability.

With the upcoming transition of leadership at the facility, Mengrone and her unit were instrumental in preparing local Iraqi corrections officers to manage the facility on their own. Due to her successful leadership, Camp Taji was the first detainee facility officially turned over to the Iraq government.

Mengrone credits much of the success to the Soldiers in her unit, recognizing that she needed the cooperation of her Soldiers in order to earn the respect of the detainees.

“Being a female engineer officer is something that is not common. I knew I was competent, but I was realistic about Soldiers who might have hesitations about working under me. After we went through pre-deployment training, they saw that I could carry my own weight and still lead them on a mission,” she said. “Once the detainees saw that my Soldiers respected me, they knew that they should also show respect, even though their culture frowns on females in authoritative positions.”

Prior to her redeployment in July, Mengrone also led her team in the successful turnover of the Camp Cropper detainee facility to the Iraqi government.

“Throughout my deployment, the most rewarding experience was to be a witness and an accessory to the historical strides Iraq is making to become a sovereign nation,” she said.

That progress was evident to Mengrone, who had previously deployed to Iraq.

“When I first went to Iraq in 2005, I didn’t see much structure in the Iraqi army and they were not disciplined. But when I went back, I was impressed with how organized they seemed,” she said.

Mengrone currently lives in San Antonio, Texas with her three children. In her civilian life, she is a high school calculus teacher and is working toward her master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“My mission in Iraq was to take our sons and daughters to war and care for them, train them and do what I could to bring them all back safely. Similarly, as a teacher, the students’ futures are in my hands now. I am able to share some of my stories and inspire them and be a role model for them,” said Mengrone.

With 15 years of combined experience in the Marine Corps and the Army, she hopes to continue to serve in the military for five years and eventually become a commanding officer.

“Both the Marine Corps and the Army have given me good opportunities. The Marines gave me a foundation that I’ve been able to build upon in the Army,” she said.

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