The speech is from last year but it’s always good to be reminded of the sacrifice and heroism that our country’s finest have endured and displayed.
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.”~~~
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spring in Proceedings, a publication of the U.S. Naval Institute, suggested that the ideal of battlefield bravery has been replaced by a culture of victimhood.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
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.”
During his funeral in 2007 there were passages read from the journals he kept, and they are words we should all try to emulate:
“Be a man of principle. Fight for what you believe in. Keep your word. Live with integrity. Be brave. Believe in something bigger than yourself. Serve your country.
“Teach. Mentor. Give something back to society. Lead from the front. Conquer your fears. Be a good friend. Be humble and be self-confident.
“Appreciate your friends and family. Be a leader and not a follower. Be valorous on the field of battle. And take responsibility for your actions.”
“Become the greatest husband and father ever”
A terrible loss for his family, the Marines, and this country….but he gave the greatest gift to the men he led. Something which will be passed on from each Marine….courage, integrity, and leading by example.