In death, 'Lion of Fallujah' still inspires

The Baltimore Sun

Barry Subelsky never knew Maj. Douglas A. Zembiec.

And until the Charleston, W.Va., police chief found out about Zembiec's combat death in May from e-mail messages circulated in the law enforcement community, he had never heard about the Marine who came to be known as the "Lion of Fallujah."

But Subelsky was so moved by all he read about the unabashed warrior who celebrated the nobility of killing the enemy that he sent his officers inspirational principles found in a notebook that the Marine had with him when he died.

Subelsky then wrote Zembiec's parents to share how much their son's words had touched him, contributing to the hundreds of e-mails and letters that Donald and Jo Ann Zembiec have received from all over the country, many from people who never met their son.

Talk of his battle exploits has fast become the stuff of legend among Naval Academy midshipmen. This month, hundreds of Zembiec's academy classmates are dedicating marathon runs and a triathlon to his memory.

In July, two months after Zembiec's death at age 34, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates grew tearful as he discussed the Marine and Annapolis resident in a speech.

And on Oct. 26, Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter will personally give the Zembiec family a Silver Star awarded posthumously for the Marine's valor in Iraq.

While service members have been widely decorated during conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, few have gained as much attention as Zembiec, a former two-time All American wrestler, who in some quarters is growing into the Audie Murphy of the Iraq war.

His growing mystique is an unlikely fulfillment of Zembiec's dying wish: to write a memoir after 20 years in the Marine Corps and spend the rest of his days motivating troops and young people.

"What I remember most about Vietnam is that you lose good men. That's the nature of our business, and you manage to keep going on and doing what you have to do," said retired Col. Tom Ripley, a Vietnam combat commander and Annapolis resident whom Zembiec considered a mentor. "But every once in a while, someone brilliant shows up and his loss affects everything. Every single thing. Doug was just such a person."

Ripley added that while the Medal of Honor is usually awarded for "individual acts that generally take place over a short period of time, Doug's influence was in his whole life."

The always gregarious Zembiec, the son of an FBI agent, grew up following his father to bureau offices across the country. He decided at a young age to attend the academy, declaring all along that he would become a Marine in force reconnaissance.

And that's what he did. Coached by Ripley, Zembiec reveled in leading from the front and "taking the fight to the enemy." As chance would have it, he got to Iraq during one of the most difficult firefights of the war, in Fallujah in 2004.

In one instance, while his men were under enemy fire on a rooftop and Zembiec was having trouble directing a tank to fire at insurgents in a nearby building, he ran outside amid the machine gun bursts and explosions from rocket-propelled grenades and jumped on the tank. The company commander pointed his rifle at where the tank should aim before running back into position unscathed.

In another shootout chronicled in a 2004 Los Angeles Times Magazine profile, Zembiec was wounded in the leg by shrapnel but still managed to toss grenades within 20 feet of the enemy.

When he was killed commanding a raid on insurgent forces in Baghdad, blogs and tribute sites filled immediately with accounts of his leadership skills, his trust in his men and his fearlessness. More than 1,000 people attended his funeral in Annapolis, where his best friend read aloud "principles my father taught me" from a notebook found on Zembiec's body.

"Live with integrity, for without integrity we deceive ourselves, we live in a house of cards," said one. Others extolled fighting for what you believe in and sacrificing, since "anything worthy in life requires sacrifice."

Though she didn't know Zembiec, Laura Johnston, an acquisitions editor for the U.S. Naval Institute Press, said she attended to support those she knew who were grieving.

"It was devastating that this young guy that everybody felt was indestructible was gone," she said. "But it was tempered by a sense of celebration in how he lived his life."

Johnston said she hopes to compile many of Zembiec's notes and sayings -- he was an incessant journal writer, friends say -- in a chapter on a future book on combat leadership.

But lionizing Zembiec extended far beyond the funeral.

In July, speaking at a Marine Corps banquet, Gates paused several times to compose himself while recounting the episode in which Zembiec jumped on the tank in Fallujah. In a video of the defense secretary's speech posted on YouTube, Gates mourns that the Lion of Fallujah did not return from a second tour in Iraq, not "to his country or to his wife and his 1-year-old daughter."

This week, classmate Damon Dixon will compete in the Ironman Triathlon world championships in Hawaii, raising money for the college education of Zembiec's 18-month-old daughter, Fallyn.

Dixon said he had received 40 contributions to date from many quarters, including the parent of a current midshipman who was inspired to apply to the academy after Zembiec gave a presentation at his high school.

"Doug was the kind of guy who did whatever he had to do to be successful," said Dixon, a Navy oceanographer in San Diego. Dixon, once a relatively small Division I football player, added that Zembiec's work ethic as a wrestler and beyond has always inspired him.

"He's a bona fide war hero, and after reading what his men thought of him, and that he was a man who loved his wife and daughter, I'm sure he would want nothing more than to see his daughter reach her full potential," Dixon said.

More than 300 of Zembiec's classmates -- nearly a third of the graduates that year -- have pledged to run the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 26 to honor him and several other classmates killed in combat in recent years. The Silver Star ceremony will come two days later, making for an emotional month for his family.

Jo Ann Zembiec, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., with her husband, said the outpouring of support has often overwhelmed her, sharpening her grief at times but at others filling her with pride.

"We've always known Douglas was so special," she said. "We've been amazed to find out how many people he's touched. Every so often, people will call and you just have a bad day, you know? But it has really helped us to know what he means to people."

An article on the front page of Monday's editions about the legacy of the late Maj. Doug Zembiec incorrectly stated the first name of his mentor, Col. John Ripley, and also incorrectly stated the date of the Marine Corps marathon. It will take place Oct. 28.The Sun regrets the errors.
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