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Washington Post: Navy All-American, Iraq war hero Doug Zembiec worked for CIA

Doug Zembiec as a Navy wrestler, and as a Marine in Iraq
Doug Zembiec as a Navy wrestler, and as a Marine in Iraq
Photo of Doug Zembiec as wrestler from NCAA, as Marine from La Ceuva High School, both used with permission

Doug Zembiec, U.S. Naval Academy wrestler and Marine war hero known as “the Lion of Fallujah”, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency at the time of his 2007 death in Iraq, the “Washington Post” reported Tuesday, July 15.

The Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported that Marine Major Zembiec was serving with the CIA’s paramilitary arm as a member of the Special Activities Division’s Ground Branch when he was shot in the head in Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq on May 11, 2007. While the CIA would not comment on whether Zembiec worked for the agency, former U.S. intelligence officials disclosed this information to Gibbons-Neff in interviews.

Family members and ex-CIA officials told Gibbons-Neff that 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, the 34-year-old Zembiec was shot in the head by an enemy insurgent. He died instantly.

At the time of his death, Zembiec’s heroics were openly acknowledged and applauded by top military commanders, including Gen. David H. Petraeus. The former Navy wrestler was posthumously honored with a Silver Star for being credited with saving 25 men that night. In addition, the military dedicated a helicopter landing zone to him at Camp Victory at Baghdad International Airport in 2008.

Those honors for Zembiec were in addition to earning two Purple Heart medals for his service during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was also awarded a Bronze Star for Valor during the 2004 battle of Fallujah, along with the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal.

The “Washington Post” article explained how Zembiec decided to apply for a coveted slot in the Ground Branch of the CIA’s Special Activities Division in 2005. Although the CIA accepts only one Marine Special Operations officer every few years, Zembiec’s parents said that they thought the move was so he could continue to serve in a combat role and avoid a staff position, which is the career path of most Marines of Zembiec’s rank. As his mother Jo Ann Zembiec told Gibbons-Neff, “He wanted to be at the tip of the spear.”

Weeks after his death and his burial in Arlington National Cemetery, Doug Zembiec’s family – including his widow Pam – attended a private ceremony in then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden’s office at the organization’s headquarters outside Washington, D.C. “Hayden quietly thanked them for Zembiec’s service,” according to the “Washington Post.”

Born in Hawaii in 1973, Douglas Alexander Zembiec grew up in Albuquerque. He attended La Cueva High School, where he won back-to-back New Mexico state wrestling championships in 1990 and 1991, the first athlete from the school to win a state title in any sport. According to the school's website, Zembiec’s high school wrestling coach, Ron Owen, told the "Albuquerque Journal", “Whatever you asked of him he was going to do it, and then he was going to do a little more. He had a super work ethic and led by example. He was one tough kid.”

After graduating from La Cueva in 1991, Zembiec headed east to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he continued his wrestling career. Zembiec earned All-American honors for Navy when he placed eighth in the 177-pound bracket at the 1995 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in Iowa City. (Oregon State’s Les Gutches won the 177 title that year.) In addition, Zembiec was a three-time Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association championships finalist, winning two EIWA titles in 1994 and 1995 after being runner-up in 1993.

While at Annapolis, Zembiec compiled a 95-21-1 overall record. Long before he became “the Lion of Fallujah”, Zembiec was nicknamed “the Snake” by his Navy wrestling coach Reginald Wicks. “Doug was very strong on his feet in a neutral position and he would circle around and strike at an opponent ankles,” the former Navy coach told NCAA.org. “Once he got in, he kept sucking them in until he got the two points. He was really quick at it.”

In addition to his military honors, Zembiec earned the NCAA’s Award of Valor in 2008. What’s more, La Cueva High School renamed its wrestling room to honor Doug Zembiec, and inducted him into the La Cueva Hall of Fame.