La Habra K9 officer spent 20 years as Marine from Panama to Afghanistan

By Daniel Langhorne

Despite being, at age 40, the oldest in his class, Amsony Mondragon thought the Orange County Sheriff’s Regional Training Academy was easy after a 20-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Mondragon fought with Marine infantrymen from the streets of Panama to the mountains of Afghanistan, and from the Sea of Japan to the deserts of Iraq. At the height of his career as a master sergeant, he oversaw a company of about 100 Marines.

Now a K9 officer with the La Habra Police Department, Mondragon has tactical and leadership experience because of his military background that makes him an asset to the agency and the community he serves.

“There are officers who, to this day, don’t know I was in the military for 20 years,” Mondragon said. “I’d say it’s one of my best-kept secrets.”

La Habra PD Officer Amsony Mondragon, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, with his K9 partner, Renzo, a 5-year-old Dutch Shepherd he has been with for two years.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

In 1987, Mondragon watched the movie “Iron Eagle” with a friend. The film tells the story of a teenager who borrows two F-16s to rescue his fighter pilot father after his plane is shot down. The movie inspired the two young men to join the military, and they enlisted in the Marine Corps.

Both Mondragon and his friend were assigned to the same unit at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego as part of a buddy system designed to help recruits cope with the physical and mental challenges of boot camp.

“It was a culture shock,” Mondragon said. “I didn’t think boot camp was going to be what it was. Their (Marine Corp staff) job is just like staff in the Police Academy, to make sure that you’re going to be able to survive the challenges of this occupation.”

Mondragon’s first deployment to a combat zone was during the American invasion of Panama in 1989. The operation didn’t involve much combat, and many missions involved securing perimeters around key buildings.

La Habra PD Officer Amsony Mondragon works with his K9 partner, Renzo, during a demonstration for a Spanish-speaking Citizens’ Academy class.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

After getting off his ship in Kuwait during Operation Desert Shield, Mondragon feared for his safety for the first time.

“The first thing we had to do was take cover because there was a scud missile fired in our direction,” Mondragon said.

Coalition troops fighting in Desert Storm and Desert Shield lived under the threat of Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons delivered by short-range missiles such as scuds.

For the first month in Kuwait, Mondragon’s unit cleared land mines laid by the Iraqi army. He’ll never forget watching oil wells burn and send billowing black clouds into the sky.

“It could have been 12 o’clock in the afternoon and in two hours it would look like night because of the burning oil fields,” he said.

Mondragon also was part of Operation Anaconda in March 2002, one of the U.S. Military’s first engagements in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. His unit’s mission was to hike through the mountains and find members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda by looking for the chimneys of underground hideouts.

However, the most dangerous time in Mondragon’s military career occurred while he was with the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines, in the al-Anbar province in Iraq. Improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks took a heavy toll on the battalion, killing 28, a grizzly record for the most Marines killed on a deployment.

“You never knew who the ‘bad guy’ was in Iraq, because you can talk with someone and you can meet a family that is cheerful and happy and the next week, the same family members are shooting at you in the middle of the field,” Mondragon said.

After leaving the Marine Corps, Mondragon applied for a firing range master job with the Costa Mesa Police Department. When the background investigator came to interview him, he mistakenly thought he was interested in a police recruit position. He went for the job anyway and was later recruited for the police academy.

Once again, Mondragon was being yelled at by instructors, but he had little trouble graduating from the Orange County Sheriff’s Regional Training Academy in 2008. He learned that a large part of his job as a police officer is to be a peacekeeper who can talk someone down from an emotional state.

“For 20 years of being on what I call ‘The Green Machine,’ you do things much differently  as a police officer,” Mondragon said.

Mondragon’s experience as a Marine and as a middle-aged man gave him an advantage over his younger classmates in dealing with conflict. For example, a 21-year-old officer who just graduated from college would have difficulty relating to a married couple in a dispute.

“I don’t take those things personally,” Mondragon said. “It takes quite a bit for me to get wound up.”

Mondragon chose a life of service early, and the Marine Corps readied him for his next calling as a police officer.  He is proud to be a La Habra Police officer and enjoys serving the public and his fellow officers.