In May 2007, a Marine — known as “the Lion of Fallujah” by anyone aware of his legendary feats of bravery in what is now considered some of the thorniest — and bloodiest — American combat with insurgents in the war, was cut down during a Baghdad raid. Major Douglas A. Zembiec, 34, who had earned V for Valor and Purple Heart medals for his service in Fallujah, was on his fourth tour. He left behind a wife Pamela, who I have the privilege to know, and a tiny daughter.
The day after his memorial at Arlington Cemetery, the Washington Post landed on my front lawn. Glancing down, the photo hit me in the gut: there was Pamela, clutching the flag a Marine had just handed her (this photo of Pamela is not the same one. No amount of Google surfing was retrieving it). A confluence of emotions frozen on her face, she was clearly aiming to keep it together, just for a little longer. The photo was so haunting, so compelling, it followed me throughout the house the entire day.
The story of Major Zembiec that accompanied this photo was equally riveting. Whether you are for the war or against it, there is no greater impact than getting a “human face” on a story that is usually told with cold statistics, sanitized television footage and Pentagon press releases. Perhaps it was the personal testimony shared with the reporter under a tree at the historic cemetery that set the right tone and assured Zembiec’s place in the nation’s heroic canon:
About 40 enlisted men gathered under a tree, telling stories about their former commander. Some had flown in from as far away as California, prompting one officer to observe: Your men have to follow your orders; they don’t have to go to your funeral.
The men knew firsthand how Zembiec, who lived outside Annapolis, had come to be known as the Lion of Fallujah.
The story is one of their favorites. It was 2004, in the Jolan district of Fallujah, and Zembiec was a captain. They were on a rooftop, taking fire from AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. They tried to radio an Abrams tank below to open fire in the direction of the enemy. No good.
Zembiec raced down the stairs and out to the street and climbed onto the tank. Gunnery Sgt. Pedro Marrufo, 29, who watched from the rooftop, remembers Zembiec getting a Marine inside the tank to open the hatch. Insurgents shot at Zembiec as he instructed the men in the tank where to fire.
Cpl. Chad Borgmann, 28, who went to Zembiec’s funeral from Camp Pendleton, Calif., said yesterday that boarding tanks during firefights and similar actions is typically the work of enlisted men. If a lance corporal falls, there are 40 to take his place. But there are fewer captains, Borgmann said, and fewer still who always seemed to be out in front.
“He let us know it was his privilege to lead us,” Borgmann said, walking back to a car through the graves of Arlington before heading out to meet up with his Marine buddies at the Clarendon Grill.
Last month I posted a brief critique on the Army’s restrictions on reporters covering “ramp up” ceremonies from the battlefield and the flag draped coffins of our war dead when they arrive back in the states. Now it seems that if Arlington Cemetery has its way, reporters may be kept so far from military funerals, that finding a bunch of mourners under a tree to flesh out a story might not even be possible. No more emotionally arresting photographs of war widows and their families and the enormous crowds of mourners behind them (there were more than 1,000 to send Zembiec off). Well, unless the photog has an amazing zoom lens.
According to a column by Dana Milbank yesterday, young Arlington Cemetery director Gina Gray — herself an Army veteran of Iraq — was given “the boot” by the Army, and she thinks it’s because she complained about what seems to be new restrictions on media coverage at Iraq war memorials.
Just 10 days on the job, [Gray] was handling media coverage for the burial of a Marine colonel who had been killed in Iraq when she noticed that Thurman Higginbotham, the cemetery’s deputy superintendent, had moved the media area 50 yards away from the service, obstructing the photographs and making the service inaudible. The Washington Sketch column on April 24 noted that Gray pushed for more access to the service but was “apparently shot down by other cemetery officials.”
Milbank charges media access to military funerals has “eroded, and Gray arrived to discover it was gone.”
Furthermore, Gray contends that Thurman Higginbotham, the cemetery’s deputy superintendent, had been calling each of the war dead’s families before their scheduled memorials to “encourage them not to allow media coverage at the funerals.”
I am not convinced that any family that has had media coverage of their son’s or daughter’s memorial services — whether it be at Arlington, or the church back home — has ever complained that reporters or photographers have displayed anything other than respect and sensitivity. As a reporter, I know how difficult it is to insert oneself into these things. The mourning may be public, but the energy is raw and personal. Therefore the coverage, particularly of soldier families, is always respectful, if not generous and poetic. It is with pride that families and friends find their loved one memorialized in a paper of record, as heroes and angels, their sacrifice posted for the community to bear witness.
Tomorrow is the Revolution March and Rally in Washington D.C. It’s good to remember that the loss of liberty not only comes at the hands of shocking Executive Orders, Patriot Acts or congressional capitulation to demands for more surveillance powers. It comes, too, at the loss of access to our government, not being able to see what it is up to. Photographs like the ones at Arlington Cemetery not only remind us of who we are, but what the government is doing in our names.