Major Douglas Alexander Zembiec was killed in action while serving in the United States Marine Corps in Baghdad on May 11, 2007.
“Doug was serving his fourth combat tour in Iraq - voluntarily - when he was killed,” classmate and friend Jon Rembold wrote in an e-mail. “He had previously served an instrumental role in the successful battle for Fallujah. For his actions there, he was dubbed the ‘Lion of Fallujah’ by friend and foe alike.”
But thanks to the kind actions of Rembold, a 1991 graduate from Archbishop Walsh High School in Olean, Zembiec’s legacy lives on.
Rembold and Zembiec became friends while the two shared time in the United States Navy and Marines, and now Rembold is raising funds to contribute to the education of Doug’s 4-year-old daughter, Fallyn.
“I wrote Fallyn a letter that first Christmas after Doug died,” Zembiec wrote in an e-mail from his South Carolina home. “I promised to honor her dad’s life of service by running some type of physically challenging event at least once a year. I decided that I would use these events as opportunities to raise funds for Fallyn to continue the efforts that were started by my classmates during Run to Honor.”
According to a website called Conventures, the Honor Run is “an event held in cooperation with the Semper Fi Society and the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation. Founded in 1995 by former Marines and law enforcement personnel, the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation has awarded over 40 million dollars in scholarships and bonds to children of Marine Corps and law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.”
Rembold wrote that he’s unsure how much has he raised for Fallyn’s eduction, but the numbers aren’t what’s important.
“I just want to try to make some kind of positive memorial to Doug and I think a nice way to do that is to support his daughter,” he wrote.
The support shown to the Zembiec family is something that Rembold takes heart in, and wrote that he knows they have a lot of people caring for them.
“And I know (Fallyn’s) fine as she is loved so much by her mother, and has many Marines and sailors who would rush to her aid if she ever needed it,” he wrote.
Rembold wrote that he is in contact with Zembiec’s widow, Pam, before he undertakes a fundraising mission.
“I check in with Pam before I do anything using his name or any of the family’s names out of respect for them all,” he wrote. “Pam has been extremely supportive and amazingly strong. I haven’t met her personally, but hope to sometime.
I do know that Pam runs in Doug’s honor, too … she ran with us all in 2007 and I think she’s continued."
The story of the how Rembold and Zembiec met takes a look at how two men from worlds apart came together for one common purpose - serving the United States in the military.
“I decided in my sophomore year of high school that I wanted to serve in the military, and at that time I thought the Navy looked like it had some great opportunities to become an officer and some great experience,” Rembold wrote. “I have some military experience in my family - my father was in the Army Reserves, two uncles were Marines who saw combat in Vietnam (one of whom was killed in action) and a grandfather who served in an amphibious unit in the Army during WWII.
“I know I felt that I had been given great opportunities thus far in my life and I should give something back to my country.”
Zembiec, on the other hand, came to the military from Albuquerque, N.M., where he was a state wrestling champion. At the Academy, he was a collegiate wrestler. He compiled a career record of 95-21-1 record and was a two-time All-American, according to a 2007 article in NCAA News.
Prior to his graduation from the United States Naval Academy in 1995, Rembold decided that he wanted to be commissioned as an Officer of Marines, so he completed all of the required physical and character training tests, was interviewed and was offered a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corps upon graduation. From there, he served more than six years on active duty as an artillery officer and then about four addition years in the reserves, he wrote.
So how did he meet his good friend?
“There is a very tight brotherhood at the Academy and then especially within the Marine Corps,” Rembold wrote. “Doug and I did some pretty tough Marine Corps training together prior to being commissioned. We knew each other pretty well and we respected each other. It’s hard to describe, really, but we both knew we were going to be Marines and that was enough.”
Zembiec was honored with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Combat Distinguishing Device and two Purple Hearts, in addition to a bevy of other military honors, for his dedication to the cause.
On May 16, 2007, a funeral mass was held at the Academy and he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Since that day, over 2 1/2 years ago, Rembold has made it his mission to compete in charity athletic events to remember his fallen friend.
“I’ve been a fitness nut since I was a teenager - I played soccer, ran cross-country, and wrestled in high school,” Rembold wrote. “Since then, I was in the Navy and Marine Corps where fitness is key, especially as an officer, where you are always expected to set the example in all areas of life. You can never ask your men to do what you cannot or will not do.”
According to Rembold, running 26 1/2 miles wasn’t necessarily the first choice, but the decision to do it was made rather simple.
“I had never considered a race like a marathon; in fact, I thought folks who did that kind of thing were crazy!” Rembold wrote. “But when Doug was killed and some of my classmates from the Academy decided to organize a big group of us 1995 alumni to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Doug’s honor, the decision was automatic. There was no debate. The good thing was that I was already in good shape. I just had to focus my training in a slightly different direction, so I prepared to run as part of Run to Honor.”
Rembold explained that the marathon was not only a tribute to Zembiec but to five other classmates of his who had been killed in action - Brendan Duffy, Bruce Donald and Rich Pugh (Navy Pilots), Erik Kristensen (Navy SEAL who died on a rescue mission) and Megan McClung, who was killed in Iraqi action after getting back in uniform after a brief stint in the civilian life.
Nowadays, Rembold enjoys his family life with wife, Heather, and their four kids - two girls and two boys. He is a program and project manager for Ward Edwards, a small development and engineering consulting firm in coastal South Carolina.
“My family life is unbelievably blessed,” he wrote. “They enrich our lives immensely. There is no adequate way to describe the blessings we have been given to be able to raise them. But we keep at it, pray hard, and have strong faith that we’ll be guided through this life together. My wife is a source of strength and energy for me.”