The Lion of Fallujah

“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 self-confident. Appreciate your friends and family. Be a leader and not a follower. Be valorous on the field of battle. Take responsibility for your actions.”

—Major Douglas Alexander Zembiec, USMC

Major Zembiac 001These are noteworthy sentiments. We would expect to receive such advice from our father or grandfather, particularly if either had served in the military during time of war. But these are the thoughts of a 30-something officer who became known throughout the Marine Corps as the Lion of Fallujah. He was speaking to his Marines while in command of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines.

Fallujah was a troubling location from the outset of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The community was a beneficiary of the economic policies of Saddam Hussein, there was hardly any unemployment in the city, but none of the people living in Fallujah seemed to be particularly loyal to Hussein, either. It was a traditional and very religious community.

US Army units entered the city in April 2003 and almost immediately, things started going downhill insofar as good relations with the inhabitants was concerned. Between 23 April and 28 April, 17 Iraqis were killed and 70 more injured when shooting erupted between US soldiers and protesting locals. Each side claimed that the other started the shooting. Three more deaths resulted from an incident near the Ba’ath Party headquarters. The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment replaced the 82nd Airborne troops in June and they too came under attack. Insurant activity steadily increased through the end of March 2004, culminating on the murder of four Blackwater civilian contractors whose mutilated bodies were hung from a bridge. Marines were dispatched to Fallujah on 3 April 2004.

Then captain Zembiec and Echo Company was assigned to the Jolan District of Fallujah. His Marines were situated on a rooftop and they were taking fire from AK-47 semi-automatic rifles and rocket propelled grenades. The Marines severally attempted to radio for support from an Abrams tank (below them) to fire on the enemy position, but they were unable to make contact. Suddenly, Zembiec leaped up and rand down the stairs, out into the street under a hail of enemy gunfire. From the rooftop above, Gunnery Sergeant Pedro Marrufo observed the captain leap upon the tank and was able to get the tank commander’s attention from inside. While under intense enemy fire, Zembiec directed the tank fire into the enemy position. Leading from the front is how Zembiec’s men remembered him.

In May 2007, Zembiec was serving with the CIA Special Activities Division in Iraq. He was leading a force of Iraqi soldiers, who he had helped train, and they were carrying out a raid in the dark of night. Moving into an alley, Zembiec saw something, or heard something, or sensed something … he quickly warned his troops to “get down.” And then a shot rang out from the darkness, and Doug Zembiec fell, mortally wounded. A firefight ensued, and when it was over, a radio report went out, “five wounded, one martyr.” Leading from the front —the hallmark of a true American hero; in keeping with his own advice: be valorous on the field of battle.

Major Zembiec was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates later remembered him with these words. “The crowd of more than 1,000 [at the funeral] included many enlisted Marines from his beloved Echo Company. An officer there told a reporter, ‘Your men have to follow your orders; they don’t have to attend your funeral.’ Every evening I write notes to the families of young Americans like Doug Zembiec. For you, and for me, they are not names on a press release, or numbers updated on a web page. They are our country’s sons and daughters. They are in a tradition of service that includes our forebears going back to the earliest days of the republic.”

Major Zembiec believed in something bigger than himself; it is how he lived his life; it is how he died. May God bless and keep him.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

5 thoughts on “The Lion of Fallujah”

  1. This says it all: ‘Your men have to follow your orders; they don’t have to attend your funeral.’ It is too bad more people don’t understand this.


  2. Thank you for your service and sacrifice, Major Zembiec. I’m sure you’ll be long remembered by the men you commanded. Rest in peace and Semper Fidelis.


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