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'He Was a Hero in Every Sense'

By Michael Coleman
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Washington Bureau
    WASHINGTON— America buried one of its fiercest warriors Wednesday, when Marine Maj. Doug Zembiec was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery after a somber yet celebratory funeral service at the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Md.
    Zembiec, a 1991 graduate of La Cueva High School in Albuquerque, died May 11 while leading a raid on insurgent forces in Baghdad. Details of his death have not been released.
    During a service attended by more than 2,000 in Annapolis, Capt. Pete McGeory, a Naval chaplain, said Zembiec's death, while profoundly sad, also offered reason to rejoice.
    "You can shed a tear that he is gone, or you can smile because he lived," McGeory said. "Even in our tears, we celebrate his life and the beginning of his eternal life."
    McGeory said people who knew Zembiec and fought alongside him in Iraq were convinced that "he was a hero in every sense of the word; a courageous patriot."
    "He was the very definition, it seemed to me, of Semper Fi," McGeory told the audience.
    Semper Fidelis, which means "always faithful" in Latin, is the Marine Corps motto.
    The two-time high school state wrestling champion is survived by his parents, Don and Jo Ann Zembiec of Albuquerque, his wife, Pam, and the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Fallon.
    Eric L. Kapitulik, Zembiec's closest friend and former Naval Academy classmate, delivered the eulogy Wednesday. He recalled a man of exceptional character and incredible physical prowess who inspired others to reach beyond whatever limits they set for themselves.
    Kapitulik said Zembiec had planned to open a motivational business when he retired from the Marines. He kept meticulous journals for most of his adult life, transcribing what he viewed as pearls of wisdom; some his own and some gleaned from others who had inspired him. Kapitulik recited a few of them for the crowd.
  • "Never forget those who were killed, and never let rest those who killed them."
  • "I'd rather live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a dog."
  • "Prepare as if no one will ever help you."
  • "Believe in something bigger than yourself."
        The 6-foot-2 Zembiec was a disciplined Marine, but he also had a rebellious streak, Kapitulik said, without elaborating.
        "He was our hero, but he was not a saint," Kapitulik said, drawing appreciative laughter from the decorated young men and women who knew the Marine best.
        Zembiec cemented his legend during the invasion of Fallujah, when he led his 150-man company into one of the most pivotal— and deadly— battles of the war. Zembiec's leg was sliced by shrapnel during the fight.
        He frequently compared his comrades to lions, and Zembiec himself became known as the Lion of Fallujah.
        For his bravery in Fallujah, Zembiec earned the Bronze Star with a V-device for valor. He was given a full military burial at Arlington as a cool breeze blew and square-jawed men draped with medals dabbed tears from their eyes.
        Reg Wicks coached wrestling at the Naval Academy for 26 years and remembered Zembiec as "the best-conditioned athlete I've ever been around." Zembiec was named an All-American wrestler while at Navy.
        Speaking before the burial, Wicks lamented that the United States lost a supremely capable leader at a time when it needs them most.
        "He loved his country, and he made the ultimate sacrifice by dying for it," Wicks said, wiping away tears moments before the Marine's burial at Arlington. "It's too bad we couldn't keep him here longer, because he's such a great leader and a great person."
        Wicks said he took solace that Zembiec died for his country.
        "He probably would have been disappointed if there wasn't a war to fight while he was a commissioned officer, so he was in his glory," Wicks said.
        Zembiec, 34, moved to Gallup from New Jersey with his parents when he was about 9, and then to Albuquerque two years later. His father is a retired FBI agent; his mother a former teacher.
        Doug John, a 1991 graduate of La Cueva High School, was best friends with Zembiec during adolescence and "ate lunch with him every day from eighth grade through high school."
        The pair used to dream of attending military service academies, and John said Zembiec had a habit of confronting classroom bullies who preyed on weaker kids.
        "He was always on the side of good," said John, who graduated from the Air Force Academy and now lives in New Jersey.
        "This is news I've been fearing for a few years, but I'm proud of my friend," John said. "He's been wanting to serve ever since we were 13 years old."