Anne Arundel County

Comrades remember a 'lion'

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 yesterday.

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

An unabashed warrior who considered it an honor to lead his Marines into combat, Major 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 Major Zembiec's first sergeant in Fallujah.

Sergeant Major Skiles recalled that then-Captain Zembiec was wounded in the leg during close combat in 2004. 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," Sergeant Major Skiles said. Captain Zembiec received the Bronze Star for his actions.

Born in Hawaii, he was the son of an FBI agent.

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

A Naval Academy spokeswoman said she could not provide information of Major Zembiec's years at the college, where tomorrow'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 the recent academy graduate for the force reconnaissance program in 1996, Captain Ripley's resolve waned after 12 hours but Zembiec was still going strong. Everyone he'd tested faded within eight hours.

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

He served in Kosovo and Afghanistan before heading to Iraq.

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 Major Zembiec died were unavailable; Captain Ripley said battle information was classified.

Major 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. He often said, "My men are fighting like lions," Captain Ripley said. Major Zembiec's exhilaration in battle prompted others to apply the moniker to him.

"He was the Lion of Fallujah. He was unstoppable," Captain 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.

Major 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," Captain Solis said.

And though people spoke of the fire in his eyes, Major 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," Captain Solis said.

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

Major Zembiec leaves behind a wife of two years, Pamela, and a 1-year-old daughter, Fallyn Justice; his 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," Captain Ripley said.