“If you took 100 Doug Zembiecs to war with you, you could conquer the world.” That is how Maj. Zembiec’s high-school wrestling coach characterized him – though the men who served with him captured his spirit more succinctly: He was reverently called the “Lion of Fallujah.” A magnetic commander, an “unapologetic warrior,” Zembiec believed in leading by deeds rather than words. As a result, his men would tell you that they would follow Zembiec to the gates of hell – or, at the very least, into the treacherous urban battlefield of Fallujah.
In early April of 2004, Zembiec’s company was sent in to help pacify Fallujah and restore order in a city where violence had spiraled out of control. During the month-long battle to claim Fallujah, Zembiec’s Echo Company was often the first one in and the last one out.
On April 6, Zembiec, a captain at the time, found himself deep in insurgent territory in Fallujah’s Jolan district.
A Marine patrol was taking heavy fire, and Zembiec’s unit was called in to lead a retaliatory assault. Right after arriving, Echo Company rushed toward the enemies, who launched a heavy volley of fire toward the new arrivals. Instead of directing from the back, Zembiec himself led the men toward the fire, determined to help the trapped patrol.
His men moved to a roof to counter the insurgents who had been firing down from above. The enemies wasted no time and focused their AK-47- and RPG-fire on the Marines on the roof. The Marines tried to radio an Abrams tank to fire on the enemy, but the tank didn’t respond. As they continued to call for assistance, Zembiec decided to take matters into his own hands.
He raced down the stairs and directly into the line of fire, heading toward the tank. He climbed up to the hatch even as mortar rounds exploded nearby and bullets ricocheted off the metal. Unscathed, he told the tank operators where to fire. The tank made quick work of the enemy, and Zembiec ran back to the roof. Witnesses say the other Marines dropped their jaws in awe of his bravery.
A few weeks later, on April 26, insurgents opened fire on Zembiec’s platoon from three sides, with thousands of rounds. Grenades flew back and forth between the enemy and his men – with only 20 feet between them. Zembiec, wounded by shrapnel, moved to a better position to direct the counterattack. He then moved from house to house, encouraging and motivating his men and repositioning the outnumbered Marines. Even as the battle raged, Zembiec coordinated the evacuation of nine injured Marines.
Later, despite being assigned to a desk job, Zembiec volunteered to return to the frontlines. He completed a tour in Afghanistan and returned to Iraq again. On May 11, 2007, Zembiec was killed in Baghdad, Iraq, while leading a combat operation.
When people think of warriors and heroes, images of legendary Spartans or Trojans often come to mind. The tales of those warriors may have faded into history, but that same timeless courage and heroism lives on in a new breed of heroes – men like Doug Zembiec, the “Lion of Fallujah.”
For his month-long fight in Fallujah, Zembiec received a Bronze Star for Valor on Dec. 9, 2004.