In the foyer of the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters, 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 111 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 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 H. 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 from which his Marines were being shot.
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. 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 veterans nonprofit groups.
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.