Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Douglas A. Zembiec killed 'while conducting combat operations'

An Annapolis-area Marine known as the "Lion of Fallujah" was killed Friday in Iraq while commanding a raid on insurgent forces in Baghdad, military officials said Monday.

Maj. Douglas A. Zembiec, a 1995 Naval Academy graduate who was awarded a Bronze Star with a V for valor and a Purple Heart for his actions in Fallujah in 2004, will be buried Wednesday with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

An unabashed warrior who considered it an honor to lead his Marines into combat, Zembiec, 34, had a reputation for inspiring his men with a selfless, lead-from-the-front philosophy.

"He was the Marine that every Marine wanted to be next to, fighting the enemy," said Sgt. Maj. William Skiles, who had been Zembiec's first sergeant in Fallujah, where Zembiec's actions solidified his standing.

Skiles recalled that he was wounded in the leg during close and fierce combat in 2004 that earned him the two medals. The Los Angeles Times reported that despite his injuries, he was tossing grenades only 20 feet from the enemy.

"The bullet was still next to his knee -- it was like a badge of honor that he fought next to all the youngsters," Skiles said.

Born in Hawaii, he was the son of an FBI agent. The family later settled in New Mexico.

More than 6 feet tall, he was a big man whose physical condition was described by friends as impressive. His bear hugs were legendary.

At the academy, Zembiec was twice an All-American wrestler.

A Naval Academy spokeswoman said she could not provide information of Zembiec's years at the college, where Wednesday's funeral is scheduled.

He joined the Marines after his graduation from the academy, friends said, because he wanted to be among the toughest in the military. A friend, Marine Capt. Tom Ripley of Annapolis, recounted that when he tested Zembiec for the force reconnaissance program in 1996, Ripley's resolve waned after 12 hours but Zembiec was still going strong. Everyone he'd tested faded within eight hours.

Not long after, Ripley turned over his platoon of the 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company in the 2nd Marine Division to Zembiec.

He served in Kosovo and Afghanistan, before heading to Iraq, where he told the Times for a profile, "One of the most noble things you can do is kill the enemy."

In the fall of 2004, after Fallujah, he turned over his command. He was promoted to major and was stateside until his return to Iraq, assigned to the Headquarters Battalion, National Capital Region, in Arlington, Va.

Details of the battle in which Zembiec died were unavailable, with Ripley saying battle information was classified.

Admiration for him within the Marine Corps was broad, coming from those who knew him and those who knew of him.

Zembiec's nickname grew from media interviews he granted in Fallujah in 2004, where he was commander of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. Then a captain, he often said, "My men are fighting like lions," Ripley said. Zembiec's exhilaration in battle prompted others to use the moniker on him.

"He was the Lion of Fallujah. He was unstoppable," Ripley said.

During one firefight, his efforts to direct a tank to fire on a building housing insurgents seemed to go nowhere.

"Doug ran outside amid rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire and he jumped up on the tank," recalled Capt. Edward Solis, his first platoon commander.

Zembiec pointed with his rifle at where the tank should aim before running back to his position unscathed. The tank hit its target.

"The jaws of every Marine there had dropped. It was like, did he just do that? I am a God-fearing man, but he just sort of walked on water that day," Solis said.

And though people spoke of the fire in his eyes, Zembiec also was known for his wide smile and the unabashed tears he shed for his dead and wounded men, showing those who served under him that "you fight the good fight and you remember your fallen comrades," Solis said.

As fierce as he was in battle, that is how gentle he was with his family, friends said.

Zembiec leaves behind a wife of two years, Pamela, and a 1-year-old daughter, Fallyn Justice; parents Donald and Jo Ann Zembiec of Albuquerque, N.M., and a brother, John, also of Albuquerque.

"He deserves to be buried with full military honors. What he deserved is to grow old as an American," Ripley said.

From the Baltimore Sun