Unsung heroes

DeathAfghanistanEntertainmentTelevisionArmed ForcesIraqDefense

Iwasn't surprised when I heard that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had nearly broken into tears talking about the life and death of Marine Maj. Douglas Zembiec. A lot of us who knew Zembiec felt the same way.

I first met him in Fallouja in 2004 and was immediately drawn to him. He was charismatic, courageous and candid -- in all, a reporter's delight. Indeed, some of the passages Gates read during his speech were from my stories, which included a long profile of Zembiec.

During the Fallouja fight, Zembiec was the commander of a rifle company with 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment. He led from the front. He didn't coddle his Marines, he didn't try to play the role of big brother. And he didn't call them by their first names. But he shared their danger and hardship and radiated confidence in their abilities and an enthusiasm for their mission. "They fought like lions," he said.

After Fallouja, he was promoted and given a desk job in Washington. But Zembiec behind a desk was an affront to nature, and he requested a transfer. Soon he was in combat in Afghanistan.

Then, in May of this year, he was back in Iraq. That's when he was killed, while leading a raid on a suspected insurgent nest in Baghdad. He was 34 and left a wife and daughter. I was in Bahrain with a group of Marines when I heard of his death. I spent the night exchanging shocked e-mails with reporters and Marines, sharing Zembiec stories.

Zembiec was the kind of warrior you don't read much about it. He made no apologies for killing those he saw as his nation's enemies. In the profile, I quoted an essay from Proceedings, the U.S. Naval Institute publication. The author asserted that the media seem uncomfortable with the concept of battlefield courage. As a result, the presentation of military personnel seems channeled into two narratives: victim or victimizer.

If that was true in 2004, when the profile was published, it is even more true after three additional years of war. Newspapers regularly run obituaries of local men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; on PBS, the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" has its "honor roll," and ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" lists the names on its "In Memoriam" segment.

On the victimizer side of the slate, wide coverage is given to the handful of cases in which U.S. soldiers and Marines have been accused of war crimes. Quickie profiles are done of the defendants. Military hearings are covered closely.

Both kinds of stories are important. Obituaries remind us that the dead had dreams and families and were devoted to their fellow soldiers, sailors and Marines -- important lessons in a nation where military service is no longer a shared responsibility.

And coverage of abuse cases provides a glimpse into our nation's attempt to maintain its humanity in the midst of a savage war. The cases also show the moral dilemmas faced by frontline troops.

The problem with the victim-or-victimizer template is that it leaves out the reality of the vast majority of military personnel -- those who go to Iraq or Afghanistan, serve decently and come home. Also left out is the experience of those like Zembiec, who display incredible bravery and leadership.

If the news media are reluctant to talk about bravery, some military brass and the White House may not be much better. Five years into a two-front war, President Bush has bestowed only two Medals of Honor, one for a soldier, one for a Marine.

Acts of heroism that might have merited a Medal of Honor in other wars seem to stall out in the military's nomination process. More than 240 Medals of Honor were bestowed during the Vietnam War and two, both posthumous, for the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" fight in Somalia.

Maybe some of the fault lies with the Army and its attempts to manufacture heroism where it didn't exist. The cases of Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman come to mind. But does that justify the fact that more Americans know of Lynndie England, convicted in connection with the Abu Ghraib scandal, than know of Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham or Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, who were (posthumously) awarded the Medal of Honor?

Along with his physical bravery -- he was awarded a Bronze Star for jumping on a tank while under fire to direct a battle -- Zembiec had also pondered at length the nature of men and nations at war. Between skirmishes with insurgents, he ran ad hoc tutorial sessions for reporters.

For all of his talkiness, Zembiec sought no attention for himself. But he was worried that young Marines of his beloved Echo Company would never get the recognition they deserved for their courage and commitment to duty.

"A nation that doesn't honor its warriors," he said one hot Iraqi afternoon, "may someday find it doesn't have any when they're needed the most."

Tony Perry is a staff writer for The Times.

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