Marines’ ‘Lion of Fallujah’ died during CIA work

Thomas Gibbons-Neff / The Washington Post

Published Jul 17, 2014 at 09:41AM

WASHINGTON - In the foyer of the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, there is a marble wall covered in stars. They are carved divots that represent those who have fallen in the service of the CIA. Below them, jutting out from the polished rock, is a black book entombed in a case of glass and steel. The book is a guide to the stars, giving the names of some of those who died and withholding the names of others.

On the pages of the CIA’s Book of Honor are 107 hand-drawn stars organized by the years those officers died. For 2007, there is a single, anonymous star.

It belongs to Marine Maj. Douglas Alexander Zembiec.

Long thought to be an active-duty Marine when he was killed in Baghdad, Zembiec was actually serving with the CIA’s paramilitary arm. While the CIA would not comment on whether Zembiec worked for the agency, former U.S. intelligence officials said in interviews that he died in an alley in Baghdad’s Sadr City on May 11, 2007, as a member of the Special Activities Division’s Ground Branch.

It was the final chapter in the life of a Marine known to many as the Lion of Fallujah but whose story, until now, has never been fully told. He is one of the few Americans to be simultaneously honored by the military and the CIA for his actions. But because he was working covertly, his role was never acknowledged publicly.

Family members and former intelligence officials say Zembiec was working with a small team of Iraqis on a “snatch and grab” operation targeting insurgents for capture. Just moments after warning his men that an ambush was imminent, he was shot in the head by an enemy insurgent; he died instantly.

In the ensuing gun battle, the Iraqis serving beside Zembiec radioed back, “Five wounded, one martyred,” according to battle reports.

Top military commanders, including Gen. David Petraeus, lauded Zembiec’s actions on the night he was killed, and the military dedicated a helicopter landing zone to him at Camp Victory at Baghdad International Airport in 2008. It included a white sign with Zembiec’s name, his awards and the emblem of the Marine Corps.

Markedly absent: the crest of the CIA.

Zembiec, who was 34, is credited with saving 25 men on the night of his death, and for his heroism, he was later awarded the Silver Star.

“He was something else,” his wife, Pam Zembiec, said in an interview at her home in Maryland. “Sometimes I thought he was born in the wrong time, like he should have been born with the Spartans.”

Zembiec was a warrior, and an outspoken one at that, heralding a firefight during the battle of Fallujah in 2004 as “the greatest day of my life.”

Among his Marines he was known for his humility and fearlessness. He was the company commander for Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, and during the first battle of Fallujah he led from the front, rallying his men and directing fire even after being wounded. His Purple Heart would be one of 78 citations for the 139 Marines of Echo Company during that deployment.

Zembiec was also awarded the Bronze Star for valor for rushing into the middle of a machine-gun-raked street to get the attention of an Abrams tank supporting Echo Company. Abrams are equipped with small radios on the rear to allow infantrymen to talk to the tank crew while behind the safety of 60 tons of steel, but for whatever reason the radio, or “grunt phone,” wasn’t working, so Zembiec scaled the tank while bullets ricocheted off its hull.

After he knocked on one of the hatches repeatedly, the crew of the tank finally opened up. Zembiec then loaded a magazine of illuminated tracer rounds and began shooting from the top of the tank to mark the building his Marines were being shot from.

The tank swung its turret and without warning fired its massive 120mm gun. The blast threw Zembiec into the air and onto the street below.

“He deserved five Bronze Stars, not one,” retired Sgt. Maj. Williams Skiles said. Skiles served as Zembiec’s company first sergeant and right-hand man during the battle of Fallujah. In a going-away plaque given to Skiles, Zembiec called him “the metal-weld” that kept the company together.

For all Zembiec’s accolades, he was always more comfortable talking about his Marines’ deeds rather than his own.

“My men fought like lions and killed many insurgents. The valor and courage of the Marines was magnificent,” Zembiec wrote in a letter to his wife during the battle. “The Marines fought with such ferocity that any Marine who went before us would have been proud.”

It was his frequent references to his Marines as lions that earned him the nickname the Lion of Fallujah.

Zembiec was born in Hawaii and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His father, Donald Zembiec, is a retired special agent for the FBI, and his mother, Jo Ann Zembiec, once a third-grade teacher, now volunteers as the master gardener for the New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial Rose Garden, as well as with other veteran nonprofit organizations.

Zembiec attended the U.S. Naval Academy, where he quickly rose to prominence for his prowess on the wrestling mat. He graduated in 1995 as an All-American athlete and Marine officer. Years later, Zembiec would sometimes return to the academy to teach the midshipmen on the wrestling team “a thing or two.”

His wife included his letters in her recently published book, “Selfless Beyond Service: A Story About the Husband, Son and Father Behind the Lion of Fallujah.”

“He wrote those letters because he wanted his Marines to know how much he loved them,” Pam said.

And his Marines loved him back.

Shortly after Zembiec’s return from Iraq, he and his father were driving separately onto Camp Pendleton, in California. When his father pulled up to the gate, the Marine on duty looked into the vehicle and asked, “Are you Captain Zembiec’s father?”

In an interview at his home in New Mexico, Donald Zembiec said he nodded.

“I was with him in Fallujah,” the Marine continued. “And if we had to go back in there, I’d follow him in with a spoon.”

After a short stint at the Marines’ Special Operations Training Group at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in 2005, Douglas Zembiec decided to apply for a coveted slot in the Ground Branch of the CIA’s Special Activities Division.

The position is extremely competitive, and the CIA accepts only one Marine Special Operations officer every few years.

“He went for this with all of his guts and glory,” his wife said. “I’ve never seen this man stressed in my life until he started interviewing for this. He was pacing, and he couldn’t sleep.”

His parents saw the move to the CIA as a strategic one in order to stay in a combat-related role and avoid a staff position, something most Marines of Zembiec’s rank are forced into at a similar point in their careers.

“He wanted to be at the tip of the spear,” Jo Ann Zembiec said.

He was accepted into the program and was sent to the agency from the Marines for a two-year assignment.

Shortly afterward, he deployed to Afghanistan. His work with the CIA was the first experience Pam Zembiec had as a military spouse after they married in April 2005.

“The three months gone, three months back seemed like a cake ride for me,” Pam said, referring to the length of her husband’s deployments with the agency.

Because of the secrecy of the Ground Branch’s operations, Zembiec rarely talked about the job, and Pam followed suit, letting the unknown form a layer of normalcy as she raised their newborn daughter, Fallyn, and their Labrador retriever, Valhalla, outside Annapolis.

“I wouldn’t have been able to focus on our life if I would have known,” Pam said. “Because he didn’t tell me anything, I never for a second worried about him. I never thought he was in any kind of danger. He was smart, he knew what he was doing. He was trained.”

“I always expected someone to come to the door and tell me that Doug had been in a motorcycle accident,” his mother said. “I never thought he would be killed in combat.”

In March 2007, Doug Zembiec volunteered to deploy again, this time to Iraq, where he was able to call Pam almost every day.

“The last thing Doug said to me on the phone - I’ll never forget it,” Pam said. “ ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, I have to tell you something before I hang up. Babe, you should see what we’re doing with the Iraqi people and what we’re doing to help them. Things are getting better over here.’

“He was elated; he was crazy about his job.”

That was the morning of May 11, 2007.

Four people came to Pam’s door that night. One of them was Col. John Ripley, a mentor to Doug Zembiec, a family friend and a Marine legend.

“When the guys came to tell me that night . . . I was very angry,” Pam Zembiec said. “At the time I wanted to blame someone, and I blamed [the fact] that he wasn’t with his Marines.”

Zembiec’s job with the CIA meant that he was working with other Special Operations types and Iraqis, not the Marines with whom he had fought during his earlier deployment to Fallujah.

“I saw a lot of tough guys crying in that house,” said Elliot Ackerman, a friend who was in Marine Special Operations training when Zembiec was killed. “They cried for Doug, but because of where we were in the war I think they cried for themselves, too.”

The last time Ackerman saw Zembiec was in the winter of 2007; his friend had driven through the night from the District of Columbia to North Carolina so they could do dive training together. They stayed up into the early hours of the morning, catching up, until it was time to do the dive. Before they left, Ackerman offered Zembiec breakfast because hadn’t eaten in the past 12 hours.

“And all he wanted was a glass of milk,” Ackerman said. “A big glass of milk.”

It took years for Pam’s anger to subside; she felt she had been forced to remain silent about her husband’s involvement - even as movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” trumpeted the CIA’s operation to kill Osama bin Laden. The film also referenced the Ground Branch.

“I’m kind of irritated: Why did I have to lie about Doug, and why he was killed, when the whole world knows about Ground Branch?” his wife asked. “It’s time to say, ‘Hey, this is what he was doing when he was killed - he was in charge of an elite group.’ “

Todd Ebitz, a CIA spokesman, said, “Consistent with long-standing practice, we do not comment on who may or may not have been honored anonymously with a star on the agency’s Memorial Wall.”

Weeks after his death and his burial in Arlington National Cemetery, Pam and the rest of Doug Zembiec’s family were invited to a private ceremony in then-CIA Director Michael Hayden’s office on the seventh floor of headquarters in Langley. Hayden quietly thanked them for Zembiec’s service. In attendance were some of the men who were serving with him when he was killed, along with Shannon Spann, the wife of Johnny Spann, a former Marine and the first American killed in Afghanistan, in November 2001. Spann, like Zembiec, was in the CIA’s Special Activities Division.

Later, the CIA’s next director, Leon Panetta, presented Pam Zembiec with the anonymous star that was subsequently chiseled into the Memorial Wall and inscribed into the Book of Honor.

Today, she has come to terms with her husband’s death and her feelings toward the agency. She said she plans to return to CIA headquarters in three years to mark the 10th anniversary of his death at his star.

“It’s nobody’s fault,” she said. “Doug chose this path. He died doing what he loved, and he made a difference. And that’s what matters.”

- - -

Washington Post staffers Adam Goldman, Julie Tate and Greg Miller contributed to this report.

- - -

Clarification

Marine Maj. Douglas Alexander Zembiec, who was killed in 2007 while on a mission for the CIA, should have noted that Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor first reported in their book, “The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama,” that Zembiec was working for the CIA at the time. Gordon, citing a classified summary of raids, also said in an e-mail to The Post that Zembiec was killed in Adhamiyah district, not Sadr City.