WASHINGTON — In the summer of 2007, a secret ceremony honoring legendary Marine commander Douglas Alexander Zembiec, known among his comrades as “the Lion of Fallujah,” took place in then-CIA Director Michael Hayden’s office on the seventh floor of the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
The ceremony was convened in secret because it was not public knowledge that the longtime Marine was actually an operative in the CIA’s paramilitary wing. Among the small group in attendance was Shannon Spann, the wife of former Marine and CIA operative Mike Spann, the first American killed in the Afghanistan War.
Spann, who was from Marion County and graduated from Auburn University, died Nov. 25, 2001 during a Taliban prisoner riot near Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. The story of his heroic death and funeral returned to Alabamians’ consciousness this year when his dad appeared in a political ad for Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).
“My son, Mike Spann, was the first American to die on Afghanistan,” Johnny Spann said in the ad, which aired during the Super Bowl. “They said he couldn’t be buried at Arlington Cemetery. I called Senator Shelby and told him the story. Fifteen minutes later he called and said ‘Mike is going to be buried at Arlington.’ People listen to Shelby.”
Mike Spann served in the CIA’s Special Activities Division, as Zembiec — “The Lion” — later did.
The Washington Post tells Zembiec’s incredible story in a detailed report:
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.
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 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.
“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.
Pam Zembiec and Shannon Spann, who was also a CIA employee, know what it is like to send their husbands away for months on end on clandestine missions. Now they have something else in common: Both of their husbands are among the 113 CIA employees who gave their lives in the service of their country and are honored with a star on the white Alabama marble wall in CIA headquarters.
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