DOUGLAS A. ZEMBIEC, MAJ, USMC
Douglas Zembiec '95
Date of birth: April 14, 1973
Date of death: May 11, 2007
From the 1995 Lucky Bag:
Doug Zembiec was born on April 14, 1973 in Kealakekua, Hawaii. He attended La Cueva High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he was a New Mexico State high school wrestling champion in 1990 and 1991. As a wrestler, Doug was the first time New Mexico State Champion in any sport and the first repeat winner at La Cueva High School. He was undefeated in competition his senior year.
He attended the United States Naval Academy where he was a collegiate wrestler compiling a 95–21–1 record and finishing as a two-time NCAA All-American. His fellow wrestlers sometimes referred to him as "The Snake" for his anaconda-like grip. Doug was well known amongst his contemporaries throughout his athletic and professional life for his exceptional physical fitness. His coach, Reginald Wicks, referred to him as "the best-conditioned athlete I’ve ever been around." Zembiec graduated from the Academy on May 31, 1995; then served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1995 until killed in action in 2007 — serving combat tours in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Upon graduation from the Naval Academy, Zembiec was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. After finishing The Basic School, and the Infantry Officer’s Course, he was assigned to First Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment as a rifle platoon commander in Bravo Company, which was effective starting April 1996. After successfully passing the Force Reconnaissance indoctrination in June 1997, he was transferred to 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. As part of his training for Force Reconnaissance, he completed Army Airborne School as well as the Marine Combatant Diver Course. He served for two and a half years as a platoon commander, eight months as an interim company commander, and one month as an operations officer.
Zembiec’s Force Reconnaissance platoon was among the first special operations forces to enter Kosovo during Operation Joint Guardian in June 1999.
In September 2000, he was transferred to the Amphibious Reconnaissance School (ARS) located in Ft. Story, Virginia and served as the Assistant Officer-In-Charge (AOIC) for two years. In 2001, Zembiec competed in the Armed Forces Eco-Challenge as team captain of Team Force Recon Rolls Royce.
From ARS, Zembiec was selected to attend the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico, Virginia graduating in May 2003. Following the Expeditionary Warfare School he took command of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division in July 2003.
He was named the "Lion of Fallujah" as a result of his heroic actions leading Echo Company 2/1 during Operation Vigilant Resolve in 2004. As a rifle company commander, he led 168 Marines and sailors in the first conventional ground assault into Fallujah, Iraq. He was awarded a Silver Star, Bronze Star with Combat Distinguishing Device and two Purple Hearts due to wounds incurred in action.
He turned over command of Echo Company in November 2004 and served as an assistant operations officer at the Marine Corps’ First Special Operations Training Group (1st SOTG) where he ran the urban patrolling/ Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) and tank-infantry training packages for the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit in preparation for an upcoming deployment to Iraq. Zembiec transferred from 1st SOTG to the Regional Support Element, Headquarters, Marine Corps on June 10, 2005. His promotion to Major was effective on July 1, 2005.
Zembiec was serving in the CIA's Special Activities Division Ground Branch in Iraq when he was killed by small arms fire while leading a raid in Baghdad on May 11, 2007. Zembiec was leading a unit of Iraqi forces he had helped train. Reports from fellow servicemen that were present in the dark Baghdad alley where he was killed indicate that he'd warned his troops to get down before doing so himself and was hit by enemy fire. The initial radio report indicated "five wounded and one martyred" with Major Zembiec having been killed and his men saved by his warning. On May 16, 2007, a funeral mass was held at the Naval Academy Chapel and later that day he was interred at Arlington National Cemetery, Grave Number 8621, Section Number 60. Zembiec is buried only a few yards away from his Naval Academy classmate, Major Megan McClung. McClung was the first female Marine Corps officer killed in combat during the Iraq War, and first female graduate in the history of the Naval Academy to be killed in action. Shortly after his death, he was honored with a star on the CIA Memorial Wall, which remembers CIA employees who died while in service. Although Zembiec's star officially remains anonymous as of July 2014, his CIA employment was confirmed in interviews with his widow and former U.S. intelligence officials.
In July 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates publicly lost his composure showing a rare glimpse of emotion from senior political leadership while discussing Major Zembiec during a speech. Major Zembiec was also prominently featured in a high-profile Wall Street Journal column in September 2007. In November 2007, Zembiec's high school Alma Mater, La Cueva High School, inducted him as the charter member of their Hall of Fame and named the wrestling room in his honor. The NCAA announced that Zembiec would be awarded the 2008 NCAA Award of Valor. In January 2008, General David Petraeus, Commanding General Multi-National Force – Iraq (MNF-I) dedicated the Helipad at Camp Victory located at Baghdad International Airport in Zembiec's name. He referred to Zembiec as "a true charter member of the brotherhood of the close fight." Douglas Zembiec is survived by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Don Zembiec, brother, and his wife and daughter, Pamela and Fallyn.
On May 11, 2009, a petition was presented to the Secretary of the Navy to have the next Arleigh Burke class destroyer to be commissioned named after Zembiec.
The swimming pool located at the Marine Corps' Henderson Hall is named in honor of Major Zembiec.
By order of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the Douglas A. Zembiec Award for Outstanding Leadership in Special Operations was created on April 11, 2011 to annually "recognize the Marine officer who best exemplifies outstanding leadership as a Team Leader in the Marine Corps Special Operations Community."
Major Zembiec left many volumes of personal writings behind, some of which were shared at his funeral. The final words of the eulogy, delivered by his friend Eric L. Kapitulik, have evolved into a new credo for many members of the USMC and USMIL communities at large, amounting to what Kapitulik said was a summary of Zembiec himself.
Be a man of principle. Fight for what you believe in. Keep your word. Live with integrity. Be brave. Believe in something bigger than yourself. Serve your country. Teach. Mentor. Give something back to society. Lead from the front. Conquer your fears. Be a good friend. Be humble and be self-confident. Appreciate your friends and family. Be a leader and not a follower. Be valorous on the field of battle. And take responsibility for your actions. Never forget those that were killed. And never let rest those that killed them.
Kapitulik said the creed came from the man who knew Zembiec the longest, as indicated by the Major's written description: "Principles my father taught me."
Killing is not wrong if it's for a purpose, if it's to keep your nation free or protect your buddy. One of the most noble things you can do is kill the enemy.
He was the consummate warrior… absolutely magnetic. He was a great inspiration, an absolute role model for every one of the Marines he served with. He would walk into a unit and literally stun every Marine. They would look at him and say, “My goodness, we got this guy?” Colonel John Ripley '62, USMC (Ret.)
From an article commemorating the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks authored by Captain David Poyer '71, USNR (Ret.) in the September-October 2016 of Shipmate:
Born in Kealakekua, HI, the son of an FBI special agent and a grade school teacher, Douglas Alexander Zembiec attended La Cueva High School in Albuquerque, NM. There, he was a state wrestling champion, undefeated in his senior year.
At the Naval Academy, Zembiec majored in political science and continued to wrestle. He was a two-time NCAA All-American wrestler, a Naval Academy Athletic Association Senior Award Winner at graduation (winning three varsity letters in one sport and participating in that sport for four years) and won the Ed Peery Wrestling Award in 1995 for demonstrating outstanding leadership, dedication and competitive spirit in the wrestling team.
Zembiec always pushed himself and his friends, challenging them to do more than they thought possible. His classmate and fellow wrestler Andre Coleman ’95 recalled: “ … during one of our pre-practice runs we were running from Lejeune to the blinking light up 450 near the intersection of 301/50. Being one of the bigger guys I was lagging towards the back of the group, but Doug stayed back to push me on. On the way back we were making great pace, as we crossed the old Severn River Bridge, Doug looked at me and said we can beat everyone back if we swim to the Yard from here. Before I could even contemplate the implications he was over the rail and in the water, realizing that I would much rather swim than run another mile I was in the water right behind him. Needless to say it took us much longer to swim to the Yard than we planned and we therefore were back in the wrestling room only minutes before we had to strap on wrestling shoes and hit the mat.”
Zembiec service-selected for the Marine Corps. He served as a Force Reconnaissance platoon commander, being one of the first to enter Kosovo in 1999 as part of Operation Joint Guardian. He deployed to Iraq in Operation Enduring Freedom before taking command of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division in July 2003. He returned to the special operations community in 2004.
The city of Fallujah had been a thorn in the side of the Coalition for years. The mainly Sunni population had not taken well to the democratic handover of the country to the Shia-majority interim government. The first Battle of Fallujah (spring 2004), also known as Operation Vigilant Resolve, began with the killing of four U.S. security contractors, mutilated and hung on the Highway 10 bridge in west-central Fallujah. Beginning 6 April, Echo Company was among those sent in to root out insurgents, launching a month of intense street fighting.
Bing West, a reporter embedded with Zembiec’s unit, called him “ … a wild man, terrific in a firefight and brimming with enthusiasm.” “ … Doug Zembiec had a manic grin, as if he wanted to spring up and grab you in a bear hug, maybe breaking a rib by accident, just for the hell of it. ‘I’m never so alive,’ he told me, ‘as in a firefight. Time slows down for me. I can see it all, sense what they’re going to do next.’”
He and his Marines fought hard, taking heavy casualties and inflicting many more. Zembiec “led from the front, rallying his men and directing fire even after being wounded.” Captain Ben Wagner ’02, USMC, described how in his first firefight, he “looked across the line of fire, and Captain Zembiec stared back at me and smiled—a reminder that everything was going to be okay.”
Along with the Purple Heart, “Zembiec was also awarded the Bronze Star for valor for rushing into the middle of a machine-gun-raked street to get the attention of an Abrams tank supporting Echo Company … for whatever reason the radio, or ‘grunt phone,’ wasn’t working, so Zembiec scaled the tank while bullets ricocheted off its hull. After he knocked on one of the hatches repeatedly, the crew of the tank finally opened up. Zembiec then loaded a magazine of illuminated tracer rounds and began shooting from the top of the tank to mark the building from which his Marines were being shot. The tank swung its turret and without warning fired its massive 120mm gun. The blast threw Zembiec into the air and onto the street below.”
For his actions in Fallujah, Zembiec was awarded the Bronze Star with valor device and his first Purple Heart.
In interviews, he often said his men had “fought like lions.” The title became his: “The Lion of Fallujah.”
This first battle ended with a coalition withdrawal in favor of an Iraqi-run security force. But that soon crumbled, leaving the city at the mercy of criminals, warlords and ‘Takfiris’—foreign, largely Al-Qaeda-linked radical Islamists—who earned Fallujah the title “the bomb factory.” It became “a safe haven for foreign fighters, terrorists and insurgents, “a ‘cancer’ on the rest of al-Anbar Province.”
The Second Battle (Operation Phantom Fury) took place in November and December, when the U.S. Army, Marines, Iraqis and British were ordered in. Their opponents were two to three thousand local insurgents and foreign fighters, stiffened by Chechens who had fought the Russians in Grozny. Many were foreign extremists who were more than willing to be martyred. The six-month withdrawal had permitted them to train, recruit, dig trenches, build defensive berms and roadblocks, prepare VBIEDs [vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or car bombs], and emplace mines and daisy chains of IEDs. On 8 November, the attack began. Marines cleared buildings room by room behind heavy Army armor. It was called “some of the heaviest urban combat U.S. Marines have been involved in since the Battle of Hue City in Vietnam in 1968.” Over the entire Fallujah campaign in 2004, 151 Americans died.
After turning over command, Zembiec was assigned as assistant operations officer at the First Special Operations Training Group, ostensibly conducting pre-deployment training for deploying Marines. He left there for duty at Headquarters, Marine Corps (HQMC) in mid-2005 and was promoted to major that July. That same year, he married and started a family, wife Pamela and daughter Fallyn.
But the official records don’t tell the whole story. Actually, Zembiec never did any staff work at HQMC, nor did he hold a staff position there. That was a cover for his real assignment, to a highly competitive position in the Ground Branch of the CIA’s Special Activities Division. “He went for this with all of his guts and glory,” Pamela Zembiec said. “I’ve never seen this man stressed in my life until he started interviewing for this. He was pacing, and he couldn’t sleep.” Accepted, he deployed to Afghanistan, then volunteered again to return to Iraq, his fourth deployment to that country, this time to fight not beside Marines, but with Iraqi forces.
On 11 May 2007, Zembiec was leading his unit on a raid in Baghdad. “Family members and former intelligence officials say Zembiec was working with a small team of Iraqis on a ‘snatch and grab’ operation targeting insurgents for capture. Just moments after warning his men that an ambush was imminent, he was shot in the head by an enemy insurgent; he died instantly … In the ensuing gun battle, the Iraqis serving beside Zembiec radioed back, ‘Five wounded, one martyred,’ according to battle reports.” His posthumous citation for the Silver Star read, “Attacking from concealed and fortified positions, an enemy force engaged Major Zembiec’s assault team, firing crew-served automatic weapons and various small arms. He boldly moved forward and immediately directed the bulk of his assault team to take cover. Under withering enemy fire, Major Zembiec remained in an exposed, but tactically critical, position in order to provide leadership and direct effective suppressive fire on the enemy combatant positions with his assault team’s machine gun. In doing so, he received the brunt of the enemy’s fire, was struck and succumbed to his wounds.”
Perhaps the hardest person for any officer to impress is his or her chief or sergeant. In Zembiec’s case, his company first sergeant in Fallujah, Bill Skiles, was won over. Skiles said, “He could not handle seeing his Marines bleeding and hurting … He and I would weep behind closed doors during some of the trying times with mass casualties. Doug’s emotions were always worn on his sleeve and I really admired that … I cannot name another commander that all of his troops would give their lives for if needed.”
“Doug’s Marines loved to laugh with him, cry with him and mostly fight and kill the enemy with him … and every Marine knew that when Doug shows up to a fight, it makes them feel a little better. Doug allowed the chaplain to perform services during firefights, comforting our grieving warriors after loss and listened to our corpsman on how to take better care of the fallen … From his firm handshake to a grieving hug together, I will miss him until I join him. I will even miss the hairiest man on earth, from the eyebrows on down … Poor guy had no hair above his eyebrows but he was a human woolly pulley everywhere else. He would try to shave his back before patrols and always miss various spots and yes, I would help finish the job … What are buddies for?”
Colonel John W. Ripley ’62, USMC (Ret.), one of those who called on Pamela Zembiec to tell her of her husband’s death, said Zembiec was “absolutely magnetic.” “He was a great inspiration, an absolute role model for every one of the Marines he served with,” said Ripley, a hero himself who blew up the bridge at Dong Ha in Vietnam. “He would walk into a unit and literally stun every Marine. They would look at him and say, ‘My goodness, we got this guy?’”
Zembiec is commemorated by a star chiseled into the Memorial Wall at the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, and inscribed in the CIA’s Book of Honor. The NCAA awarded him the 2008 Award of Valor. The swimming pool located at the Marine Corps’ Henderson Hall is named in his honor, and the Commandant of the Corps annually presents the Douglas A. Zembiec Award for Outstanding Leadership in Marine Forces Special Operations Command.
From Hall of Valor:
The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Silver Star (Posthumously) to Major Douglas Alexander Zembiec, United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy while serving as a Marine Advisor, Iraq Assistance Group, Multi-National Corps, Iraq, in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM on 11 May 2007. Attacking from concealed and fortified positions, an enemy force engaged Major Zembiec's assault team, firing crew-served automatic weapons and various small arms. He boldly moved forward and immediately directed the bulk of his assault team to take cover. Under withering enemy fire, Major Zembiec remained in an exposed, but tactically critical, position in order to provide leadership and direct effective suppressive fire on the enemy combatant positions with his assault team's machine gun. In doing so, he received the brunt of the enemy's fire, was struck and succumbed to his wounds. Emboldened by his actions his team and supporting assault force aggressively engaged the enemy combatants. Major Zembiec's quick thinking and timely action to re-orient his team's machine gun enabled the remaining members of his unit to rapidly and accurately engage the primary source of the enemy's fire saving the lives of his comrades. By his bold initiative, undaunted courage, and complete dedication to duty, Major Zembiec reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
Action Date: May 11, 2007
Service: Marine Corps
Battalion: Headquarters Battalion
Division: Marine Corps National Capital Region