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A Special Memorial Day Story: The Lion Of Fallujah

The Doug Zembiec Story

May 22, 2009

The Lion of Fallujah

by BoB Socci

Long before his life would be remembered as that of a legend, his death mourned as that of a hero, a young man made a seemingly bold, if not brash promise.

“It was between his freshman and sophomore years,” recalled Reg Wicks, who back then in the autumn of 1992 was entering his sixth season as head wrestling coach at the United States Naval Academy. “I remember walking down a hallway with him, when he said, `Coach, I’m going to start for you and be an All-American.”

Considering the context – at this time, in this place, from this kid – Wicks was entitled to listen with a disbelieving ear to an otherwise quiet individual.

Tall and lanky, this was someone endowed with far more desire than skill, hailing not from the country’s wrestling-rich heartland but rather the American Southwest.

In truth, Wicks admits, it was the wrestler who’d recruited the coach and his program more than the other way around – a wrestler who, once in Annapolis, had won just seven of his first 12 varsity matches.

But Wicks knew something else about the source, something that made those words not just conceivable but prescient. Something every other member of his Midshipmen understood as well.

Nobody – including everybody who ever wore a singlet in all of Wicks’ years at Navy, including 13 as an assistant coach – outworked Doug Zembiec.

Wicks said as much on record that very same fall, in the team’s 1992-93 media guide. They’re words he stands by to this day – with plenty of company to back him up.

Including then team captain Jamie Cummings, who at 167 pounds was often paired with the younger Zembiec inside the Mids’ wrestling room.

“(Doug’s) sophomore year, we went at it constantly,” Cummings says. “He would put everything he had into everything he did.”

“He had a single-minded purpose,” said classmate Andre Coleman.

“Nobody could outwork this guy,” added another, Dan Hicks. “(Doug) didn’t talk a whole lot. If he said it, he did it.”

And so he did. As a wrestler who’d become an All-American. And, later, as a soldier who was all about America – willing to put everything he had into everything he did on behalf of his country.

Until he’d given everything he could give.

Which – on May 10, 2007, less than a month after his 34th birthday – meant the ultimate sacrifice.

A decorated major in the Marine Corps on his fourth tour of Iraq, following two tours of Afghanistan, Zembiec was killed while leading an assault on insurgents in Baghdad.

Described by one friend as “the quintessential warrior-leader” and another as “larger than life,” Zembiec’s heroism inspired emotional tributes from those he led and others whose orders he followed.

Some in the form of high-profile speeches, like the one in which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates struggled to compose himself at the mention of Zembiec’s name.

Others as more personal postings on internet message boards. Many from Marines who served under Zembiec. Or wish they had.

Last November the NCAA Honors Committee named the ex-wrestler and fallen comrade Emily Perez, a former track-and-field athlete at West Point, recipients of the 2008 Award of Valor.

And in January, Gen. David Petraeus, the American commanding officer in Iraq, presided over a ceremony to rename a helicopter landing zone at Camp Victory in Baghdad.

All in honor of the man remembered as the “Lion of Fallujah,” a nickname Zembiec earned while commanding the Echo Company of 2nd Battalion during fierce fighting in the summer of 2004.

Today, more than a year after Zembiec’s death, the coach who saw a young wrestler’s guarantee become a goal attained and the teammates who helped him get there, are sustained in the sadness of their loss by the memories of the life they celebrate.

Only willing, it seems, to share stories about their friend, starting when the lion was merely a cub.

Albeit, a tireless one with an unwavering sense of self. Even as a first-year midshipman.

To appreciate the following anecdote, echoed by several of Zembiec’s friends, you must first understand the plight of a service-academy freshman.

Generally, one is seen and rarely heard from, unless answering questions or affirming orders from upperclassmen. If in Annapolis, you’re referred to as a plebe. Your vocabulary limited for the most part to five words; “Yes sir!” and “Beat Army, sir!”

“We had a calculus professor with an Eastern European accent,” Hicks explained in a recent phone conversation, his smile audible as he recounted a first-day roll call that eventually led an instructor to the letter Z. “Well, the professor couldn’t say Doug’s name properly.

“So Doug goes, `Zem-beck. Red-blooded, two-fisted American. Zem-beck!'”

It was perfectly clear who he was and what he was. And, from that day forward, how he would be remembered.

As fellow classmate Mike Clayton pointed out, Zembiec was proud of his family name. Based on his life’s calling, he was equally proud of the family business – patriotism.

His father, Donald, served in the Army before beginning an FBI career that led his family from Hawaii, where Doug was born, to New York, Texas and New Mexico. But wherever they were uprooting, Doug’s destiny remained the same.

“Doug wanted to come to the Naval Academy from an early age, 8 or 10 years old,” says Wicks. “His goal was always to be a Marine.”

“He was a bright-eyed and eager kid,” says Cummings, who years later as a Navy SEAL would encounter Zembiec aboard the same amphibious craft in the Adriatic Sea. “Doug was someone who was in awe of the Academy and eager to come on board.”

And determined, like no other.

“It’s almost clichéd, but Doug had an indomitable spirit,” says Coleman. “He was never going to give up.

“His technique was (lousy). There’s no other way to put it. We’d think, `What is this guy doing?'”

To Coleman, a product of Virginia Beach, and classmates – including Hicks, an Oklahoman, and Clayton, an Iowan – Zembiec was an unknown.

But as a state champion from La Cueva High School in Albuquerque, he immediately earned their respect with an indefatigable work ethic.

“He was the guy who inspired you,” said Hicks, a three-time EIWA heavyweight champion before graduating into the Corps and reaching the rank of major as head coach of the Marine wrestling team. “You felt bad if you didn’t give as much as (Zembiec).”

As with the valor exhibited in his next career, Zembiec’s relentless conditioning became legendary.

There was the time Hicks approached his head coach, concerned Zembiec might be overexerting himself while running sprints in the heat and, often oppressive, humidity of Annapolis summer mornings.

“Don’t worry about Zembiec,” Wicks told him.

Coleman best remembers the day each Navy wrestler was expected to do 15 pull-ups. Naturally, Zembiec didn’t stop there.

“He was like a machine,” Coleman recalled. “We counted 67. No one does 67 pull-ups!”

And there was the summer Clayton and Zembiec spent together in Florida, engaged in military training as midshipmen and off-season conditioning as wrestlers.

“Doug said to me, `Let’s get a lift in,'” says Clayton, who proceeded to join Zembiec for a circuit of countless pull-ups and repetitions in the weight room. “I think it’s one of the toughest workouts I’d ever done. Then Doug says, `That’s just the warm-up!'”

As for the cool-down, it figured to be an easy jog along the beach. It turned out to be an eight-mile run.

“He knew what standards had to be set to reach his goals,” said Clayton, who left the Navy and has since become the head coach at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. “And he was uncompromising.”

“Each year he got better,” Wicks says of Zembiec, who went 24-7 at 177 pounds as a sophomore. “In his junior year he qualified for the nationals.”

Zembiec captured the EIWA crown with a 25-7 record. With one year left, he was exactly where he promised he’d be; a starter for Wicks poised to be All-America.

He’d gotten to this point one leg at a time.

“(Doug) had an extraordinary style of wrestling,” Wicks explained. “He’d circle you like a snake and, after taking hold of a leg, he’d suck your body in and take you down, like a Python.”

“He’d shoot a single-leg takedown and you couldn’t stop it,” says Coleman. “His thinking was, `I’ll continue to do it until I win.”

“But he wasn’t very strong in riding or pins,” Wicks added. “So he’d let you up and take you down.”

If the single-leg takedown was Zembiec’s trademark, his 1995 match opposite Lehigh’s two-time All-American Rick Hepp was his signature performance.

Up, down. Up, down. Until time ran out on a 14-4 decision.

“He took (Hepp) down so many times, the guy couldn’t stop it,” Clayton said. “Doug believed he could really will himself to do things.”

Zembiec remained on the attack into the NCAA Championships. Until he clutched his 35th victory, letting go only to raise his arm as an All-American.

“When you look at pictures from (Doug’s) matches, they show him wrestling with such high intensity,” Wicks says. “You can look at him and see it in his eyes.”

It was the same self-assured, single-minded intensity Zembiec would later bring into battle, where he’d earn a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

At the same time, he led in the same selfless and humble manner with which he handled triumphs and treated teammates.

“When he earned All-America honors, Doug tried to give his medal to (his teammates),” says Clayton. “We told him to, `Shut up and enjoy it. Accept the fact that you’ve done something great.'”

“Doug never did anything for attention and glory,” said Coleman. “He loved wrestling, but more than that, he loved competing.”

And how he loved the soldiers who served by his side.

“His troops want to talk to me about the things he did for them,” says Coleman, himself a Lt. Cmdr. in the Navy. “He believed if he looked after them, they would look after him.”

In a Los Angeles Times feature from August 2004, Sgt. Casey Olson said of Zembiec: “He’s everything you want in a leader: He’ll listen to you, take care of you and back you up…But even when he’s getting at you, he doesn’t do it so you feel belittled.”

No different than what friends describe from their time together at the Naval Academy.

“Doug was very considerate,” Hicks said. “He was always careful not to make anyone feel bad or left out.”

“He’s an example of the type of people and strong leadership we need in this country,” says Cummings, who now works in the private sector in Texas. “He put others’ needs before his own. His Marines respected him. It’s obvious he cared about his men.”

Especially so, considering the outpouring of emotion since that dreaded day in May of 2007.

Coleman had just returned to the United States from England at the time. He and his wife, Stephanie, were driving south on I-95, passing through North Carolina en route to Mississippi.

The couple had double dated with Zembiec and his bride-to-be, Pam. At their wedding, it was Zembiec who escorted Coleman’s mother down the aisle.

They were that close. If not closer.

When Stephanie’s new cell phone rang at what Coleman described as an odd hour, both sensed something terribly wrong.

“My heart just stopped,” says Coleman. “I did all I could do to keep the car on the road.

“We had to get back to his wife, Pam, and daughter, Fallyn. I know he would have been there for my wife, Stephanie, if the shoe were on the other foot.”

Hicks also felt the tug of family, while overseas, in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he was scheduled to remain for two weeks. With news of Zembiec’s death, he was outbound on the next flight.

“I still don’t believe it. I was really hurt for a long time,” says Hicks, before shifting from sadness to solace. “He was almost like a knight from the middle ages. While I was really dejected, I knew that the man died doing what he loved to do.

“I’m just happy I got to know him, happy I got to wrestle with him.”

To the man who coached them both in Annapolis, Zembiec’s death is a reminder of the worst reality for any coach at a service academy.

Wicks was still mourning the death of another ex-Navy wrestler turned Marine, 26-year-old Travis Manion, when he was jolted yet again.

“I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was invincible,” says Wicks, who in his 34th year at the Academy remains on faculty in the physical education department post-wrestling retirement. “Every day I hope I never hear of another name. So many are still there.

“They’re all great individuals serving their country. (Doug) sort of stood out. He led his troops by being out front.”

Left with their memories and touched by his spirit – through photos that hang at home and in the office as well as the passages excerpted from his journal – Zembiec’s college teammates want to ensure that future generations of Americans learn of the values that guided his life.

Several have worked with other ex-athletes to create a post-graduate scholarship in Zembiec’s honor to be awarded to a Navy senior wrestler headed into the Marine Corps. But the criteria – like the man for which it is named – will remain unyielding.

“The standards have to be met,” said Coleman. “We wouldn’t give it out just for the sake of giving it.”

“I don’t feel anybody’s worthy of it,” Hicks says of his old friend, Doug Zembiec, the Lion of Fallujah. “He’s one of the really heroic warriors in the history of the world. He was that special.”

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