Salute to a Memorable Marine

Marine pallbearers carry the coffin of Maj. Douglas A. Zembiec at Arlington National Cemetery. The much-admired career officer was killed last week in combat outside Baghdad.
Marine pallbearers carry the coffin of Maj. Douglas A. Zembiec at Arlington National Cemetery. The much-admired career officer was killed last week in combat outside Baghdad. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)

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By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007

The turnout seemed entirely fitting for a Marine who was described -- with little apparent hyperbole -- as the toughest guy in the house. More than 1,000 mourners, from generals to civilians, packed the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis yesterday to honor Maj. Douglas A. Zembiec, who was killed last week outside Baghdad.

Five hours later, after the sound of taps had faded over his coffin at Arlington National Cemetery, came what Zembiec, 34, might have considered the finest tribute of all.

About 40 enlisted men gathered under a tree, telling stories about their former commander. Some had flown in from as far away as California, prompting one officer to observe: Your men have to follow your orders; they don't have to go to your funeral.

The men knew firsthand how Zembiec, who lived outside Annapolis, had come to be known as the Lion of Fallujah.

The story is one of their favorites. It was 2004, in the Jolan district of Fallujah, and Zembiec was a captain. They were on a rooftop, taking fire from AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. They tried to radio an Abrams tank below to open fire in the direction of the enemy. No good.

Zembiec raced down the stairs and out to the street and climbed onto the tank. Gunnery Sgt. Pedro Marrufo, 29, who watched from the rooftop, remembers Zembiec getting a Marine inside the tank to open the hatch. Insurgents shot at Zembiec as he instructed the men in the tank where to fire.

Cpl. Chad Borgmann, 28, who went to Zembiec's funeral from Camp Pendleton, Calif., said yesterday that boarding tanks during firefights and similar actions is typically the work of enlisted men. If a lance corporal falls, there are 40 to take his place. But there are fewer captains, Borgmann said, and fewer still who always seemed to be out in front.

"He let us know it was his privilege to lead us," Borgmann said, walking back to a car through the graves of Arlington before heading out to meet up with his Marine buddies at the Clarendon Grill.

Zembiec, born in Hawaii, the son of an FBI agent, was a two-time all-American wrestler at the Naval Academy before graduating in 1995. His most recent U.S. posting was in Arlington.

For years, Zembiec had drawn the attention of Marines and journalists alike. He served in Kosovo and was on his fourth tour in Iraq, said Col. John Ripley, a retired Marine and close friend. His numerous military honors included a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

Through it all, he remained an unabashed warrior. "A terrific day. We just whacked two [insurgents] running down an alley with AK-47s," he told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 2004. Of the 168-member unit he commanded, about one-third suffered casualties.

"From Day One, I've told [my troops] that killing is not wrong if it's for a purpose, if it's to keep your nation free or protect your buddy," he told the Times. "One of the most noble things you can do is kill the enemy."


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