Anyone who prefers that their military officers follow the media-enforced ideal of being diffident, silent about their feelings, unwilling to talk about their combat experience and troubled by the violence of their chosen profession should skip this story.
Marine Corps Capt. Douglas Zembiec is none of these things.
Zembiec, an All-American wrestler and 1995 graduate of the Naval Academy, is the charismatic commander of Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division. During the monthlong battle in Iraq earlier this year for the Sunni Triangle city of Fallouja, no combat unit did more fighting and bleeding than Echo Company, and during it all--from the opening assault to the final retreat ordered by the White House--Zembiec led from the front. He took on the most dangerous missions himself, was wounded by shrapnel, repeatedly dared the enemy to attack his Marines, then wrote heartfelt letters to the families of those who were killed in combat, and won the respect of his troops and his bosses.
It was the time of his life, he acknowledged later, for by his own definition Zembiec is a warrior, and a joyful one. He is neither bellicose nor apologetic: War means killing, and killing means winning. War and killing are not only necessary on occasion, they’re also noble. “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 to protect your buddy,” he said. “One of the most noble things you can do is kill the enemy.”
For his Marines, Zembiec asks for respect, not sympathy, even as one-third of his 150-man company became casualties. “Marines are violent by nature--that’s what makes us different,” he said. “These young Marines didn’t enlist to get money to go to college. They joined the Marines to be part of a legacy.”
He knows talk like that puts him outside mainstream America and scares the bejabbers out of some people. Modern America is uncomfortable with celebrating those who have gone to war and killed their nation’s enemy. Maybe it’s because American military hardware is thought to be so superior that any fight with an adversary is a mismatch. Then again, people who feel that way probably have not stared at the business end of a rocket-propelled grenade launched by an insurgent hopped up on hatred for America.
Or maybe, like so many attitudes of the press and public toward the military, the queasiness about unabashed combat veterans is traceable to public opposition to the Vietnam War. A cynic I know says that although Americans remember Sgt. York from World War I and Audie Murphy from World War II, the only heroes most remember from Vietnam are Colin L. Powell and John McCain. One helped fellow soldiers after a helicopter crash, the other was shot down on a mission and survived a horrendous POW experience. Neither is known for killing the enemy.
An essay this spring in Proceedings, a publication of the U.S. Naval Institute, suggested that the ideal of battlefield bravery has been replaced by a culture of victimhood. Navy reservist Roger Lee Crossland wrote that Americans after Vietnam seemed to prefer “safe heroes, heroes whose conduct was largely nonviolent .... “The prisoner of war and the casualty, Crossland lamented, have replaced the battlefield leader as the ultimate hero. Take your own media reality-check. Which is seen more frequently: stories about the potential for post-traumatic stress among U.S. troops or stories about troops who have successfully carried the fight to their enemy?
My association with Zembiec started with his one-word answer to a question of mine. It was April 6, the second day of the siege of Fallouja by two battalions of Marines, the “two-one,” and the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment, the “one-five.” A Marine patrol from two-one had been fired on as it ventured just a few yards into the Jolan neighborhood, and the Marines were quickly assembling a retaliatory assault to be led by Zembiec’s Echo Company. Marines were piling into assault vehicles--windowless metal boxes on treads that can, in theory, bring Marines to the edge of the fight quickly and without casualties.
At the “two-one” camp, Marines were running every which way as the assault was forming up for the mile-long drive to the spot where the patrol had been ambushed. I had never met Zembiec, but by his tone and body language, he clearly was in charge. Accommodating embedded media appeared to be on no one’s to-do list.
“Do you have room for me?” I shouted as Zembiec rushed past.
“Always,” he shouted over his shoulder.
I piled into one of the assault vehicles and sat next to a Marine chewing dreadful-smelling tobacco and another talking sweetly about his sister having a baby. The ride was bumpy beyond belief; bumpy and scary as continuous gunfire from insurgents pelted the sides of our vehicle with an ominous plink-plink-plink sound. The vehicles finally rumbled to a halt in a dusty field just a few hundred yards from a row of houses where the insurgents were barricaded. The insurgents stepped up their fire from AK-47s, punctuated with rocket-propelled grenades. The Marines rushed out the rear hatch, quickly fanned out and began returning fire with M-16s as they ran directly toward the enemy.
Zembiec was in the lead. “Let’s go!” he yelled. “Keep it moving, keep it moving!” The battle for Fallouja had begun in earnest, and Zembiec was in the forefront, practicing the profession that’s been his heart’s desire since childhood.
I saw Zembiec periodically over the next weeks. He was supremely quotable and candid. By nature--and under orders from the commanding general--Marine officers try to be helpful to the press. Zembiec went a step further. He took time even when time was short. Even when circumstances were grim--as when a “short round” from a mortar killed two Marines and injured nine others--he was upbeat. His enthusiasm and confidence were infectious. At 31, he still retains a slight boyishness. Like many Marine officers, he has thought a great deal about his profession, its role in the world, and the nature of men in combat. He leans forward when giving answers and looks directly at his questioner. He has a rock-solid belief in the efficacy of the American mission in Iraq.
He seemed to genuinely like talking to reporters, telling them of the successes of his Marines, his plans to push the insurgents to the Euphrates River and force them to surrender or die.
It was not to be. After a month in Fallouja, with the prospect of even bloodier combat to come, including civilian casualties, politicians in Baghdad and Washington called for a retreat just as the Marines seemed to be on the verge of success. Political concerns had trumped tactical ones.
After Echo Company--and Fox and Golf companies--had withdrawn from frontline positions, Zembiec reflected on what had occurred. In measured tones, without boasting, he sat under a camouflage net in a dusty spot outside Fallouja and answered all questions, and invited reporters to his parents’ home in New Mexico for a barbecue.
As the Iraqi sun began its daily assault, and the temperature soared to 100 degrees, Zembiec drank bottled water and talked about the fight that had just passed, including what turned out to be the finale, a two-hour firefight April 26 in which his Marines and the insurgents had closed to within 30 meters of each other in a deafening, explosive exchange. Zembiec called that fight “the greatest day of my life. I never felt so alive, so exhilarated, so purposeful. There is nothing equal to combat, and there is no greater honor than to lead men into combat. Once you’ve dealt with life and death like that, it gives you a whole new perspective.”
Zembiec joined the Marine Corps to fight. He nearly quit a few years ago in hopes of becoming an FBI agent like his father, because the prospect of seeing combat seemed too remote. But he decided that being a rifle company commander was too good to pass up. Before Fallouja, his only combat experience had been in 1999, when he spent a month as platoon commander of a reconnaissance unit in Kosovo. He had been stationed in Okinawa during last year’s assault on Baghdad, an experience that he found enormously frustrating. Marines in Iraq were in combat, and Zembiec was watching the war on television.
A broad-shouldered 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 190 pounds, Zembiec is an imposing physical presence even among Marines known for their tough-muscled physiques. He oozes self-confidence (“confidence is a leadership trait”) and at meetings with top officers, he never expressed doubts about success. When called to headquarters with other commanders for an intelligence briefing, he seemed impatient to return to his troops and always positioned himself near the door for a quick getaway once the talk was finished.
“He’s everything you want in a leader: He’ll listen to you, take care of you and back you up, but when you need it, he’ll put a boot” up your behind, said Sgt. Casey Olson. “But even when he’s getting at you, he doesn’t do it so you feel belittled.”
The image of Zembiec leading the April 6 charge had a lasting impact on his troops. Leading by example is a powerful tool. “He gets down there with his men,” said Lance Cpl. Jacob Atkinson. “He’s not like some of these other officers: He leads from the front, not the rear.”
Said Lt. Daniel Rosales: “He doesn’t ask anything of you that he doesn’t ask of himself.”
To his bosses, Zembiec had the aggressiveness and fearlessness they wanted in a commander. He was not reluctant to put himself and his troops at risk to draw out the insurgents. As Maj. Joseph Clearfield, the battalion’s operations officer, said: “He goes out every day and creates menacing dilemmas for the enemy.”
A quote from Zembiec in a Los Angeles Times story drew a flood of e-mails from stateside military personnel. He had remarked about having a “terrific day” in Fallouja. “We just whacked two [insurgents] running down an alley with AK-47s.”
Navy Lt. David Ausiello e-mailed that he met Zembiec at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where “the legend began.” Ausiello was a plebe (freshman) and Zembiec a senior. “Doug was not a screamer,” Ausiello said. “He was a leader, and every plebe in our company knew it. I like to think of him as a gentle giant.” Zembiec set the standard at the academy for fitness and toughness, Ausiello said. He also rebelled mildly, on occasion, by slyly shouting out an oddball word while standing in formation, to the dismay of senior officers reviewing the troops.
Brig. Gen. Richard Kramlich, upon learning that a reporter had met Zembiec, smiled broadly and said, “He’s something, isn’t he?” Kramlich taught at the academy when Zembiec was a wrestler. “Everybody’s out for blood” in wrestling, Zembiec told the Albuquerque Journal, his hometown newspaper, in 1995. “You better be tough.”
As Echo Company suffered casualties during the battle for Fallouja, Zembiec counseled his Marines to stay focused. But he never acted as a buddy, never addressed the troops by their first names, and discouraged excessive mourning over the mounting casualty toll. “Pity gets you killed in this profession,” he said.
With three dead and more than 50 wounded, Echo Company had the largest number of casualties of any Marine rifle company in Iraq. To civilians, the figure may seem horrific, but Zembiec notes that in past wars, it was common for Marine rifle companies to suffer even greater casualties and continue “taking the fight to the enemy.”
Between firefights, he wrote condolence letters to the families of the dead Marines. He also recommended individuals for combat commendations: “I’m completely in awe of their bravery,” he said. “The things I have seen them do, walking through firestorms of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades and not moving and providing cover fire for their men so they can be evacuated.... “
He thinks the cliche about troops being enveloped by the “fog of war” is overstated. “It’s just the opposite,” he said. “You become acutely aware and attuned to your environment. You become like a wild animal. Your vision, your hearing, everything becomes clearer.”
He is not given to introspection, not even about the April 26 fight in which he led a mission that turned into an ambush. After two hours of fighting, one Marine was dead and 16 were wounded. “I don’t second-guess myself or have doubts or regrets about that day, except that lots of Marines got busted up. Not to be cold, but that’s the way with battle. It goes with going into harm’s way.”
Only reluctantly did he order a pullback. “I would have stayed there and fought all day but I had [Marines with] injuries,” including himself. He was hit in the leg with shrapnel.
Born in Hawaii, Zembiec grew up in New York, Texas and New Mexico as his father’s career took him to different FBI offices. In Albuquerque--where his parents make their retirement home--he loved to hunt deer and bobcat. Military service was a natural career path. His father’s friends included men who had served with distinction, among them a Medal of Honor winner. His father, Donald, served in the Army in the 1960s. He is not surprised that his son was in the thick of the action in Iraq. “He’s wanted to do this his entire life,” he said. “I always thought I saw leadership in him.”
My own generation of baby boomers went to college in order to express their individuality. Zembiec was searching for something else at the Naval Academy. “It was a culture of hardness and mental toughness and challenge. You’re there to be part of a team. It’s not about you.”
He quickly decided to join the Marines. Navy life aboard ship seemed too far from the action. “I liked the idea of the Marine Corps being shock troops. They’re combat arms; they’re men on the ground.”
Zembiec’s battalion is due back in Camp Pendleton in October. In April, he plans to marry his longtime girlfriend, a sales executive for a pharmaceutical firm, in a ceremony at the Naval Academy chapel. Thoughts of leaving the corps are now gone. His next promotion--to major--might give him greater responsibility, but it would take him away from troops in the field. He jokes about turning it down in order to stay close to the action, sounding nostalgic about the firefights of April. “There was a lot of lead in the air that day,” he says of one such fight.
Would you want Douglas Zembiec in charge of U.S. foreign policy? Maybe, maybe not. Would you want him on your side if you--or your nation --got involved in a street brawl? Without a doubt.
He is, as his fellow officers say, a military hybrid of modern tactics and ancient attitudes.
“Doug is the prototypical modern infantry officer,” Clearfield said. “He’s also not that much different than the officers who led the Spartans into combat 4,000 years ago.”