A 19 year-old Marine from Riverside has died in Iraq, becoming the second U.S. military member to die as the U.S. fights the advance of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Lance Cpl. Sean P. Neal, a specialist in the use of mortars, died in a "non-combat related incident" Thursday in Baghdad, the Department of Defense announced Friday. The incident is under investigation.
Neal, who enlisted in 2013, was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment at Twentynine Palms. The battalion deployed last month to the Middle East as part of what Marines call a Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force.
The task force is meant to bolster the "crisis response capability" in the region. The announcement of Neal's death marks the first indication that Marines from the task force are in Iraq.
In its Sept. 30 announcement about the deployment of the 2,300 Marines of the task force, the U.S. Central Command said that it was "not in response to the ongoing operations in Iraq" and that the Marines would be spread to several spots in the region.
Central Command said late Friday that there are approximately 150 Marines from the task force assigned to Iraq to provide additional security for U.S. personnel and facilities.
President Obama has insisted that there will be no U.S. ground combat troops in Iraq, but last month the administration approved sending additional troops to the Iraqi capital to bolster diplomatic security for State Department officials at the Baghdad embassy compound and its support facilities.
Not counting Marines from the special task force, the U.S. force in Iraq is now about 1,400.
The death of Neal, and the deployment of task force Marines to Iraq, indicates the key role that Marines and sailors from California bases are playing in the U.S. mission.
Earlier this month, Cpl. Jordan Spears, 21, from the San Diego-based 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, became the first U.S. fatality in the mission that the Pentagon recently dubbed Operation Inherent Resolve.
Spears bailed out of an MV-22 Osprey aircraft in the Persian Gulf when it appeared on the verge of crashing. After searching for two days the Navy declared Spears as "lost at sea."
From 2003 to 2011, 345 Marines and sailors from Camp Pendleton and 115 from Twentynine Palms died in Iraq.
The administration has steadily increased its efforts against the Islamic State militants as they have seized large swaths of western and northern Iraq and threatened Iraq's government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
Plans for the task force crisis response unit began in summer of 2013, months before the assault on Iraq by Sunni militants under the banner of setting up an Islamic caliphate, the Marine Corps said.
The force will be headquartered in Kuwait, Col. Kenneth DeTreux told the newspaper Stars and Stripes. Kuwait was the staging point for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The force includes infantry Marines from Twentynine Palms, fixed-wing and rotary aircraft from Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, headquarters and logistics personnel from Camp Pendleton.
Spears, from Memphis, was a crew member on the Osprey, which deployed to the Persian Gulf aboard the amphibious assault ship Makin Island.
The Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group consists of three San Diego-based ships and 4,000 Marines and sailors. The Marines are the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton.
A week ago the carrier Carl Vinson, based at North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado, relieved the carrier George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf to continue the bombing mission of Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.
The Vinson's air squadrons are from Naval Air Station Lemoore, near Fresno. The three destroyers and one cruiser with the Vinson are all from San Diego.
The U.S. and coalition partners have launched more than 600 airstrikes since Aug. 8.