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Gates lets down emotional guard before Marines

The Defense secretary fights off tears as he speaks of one officer's sacrifice in Iraq, and the family he left behind.

July 20, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Over the four decades Robert M. Gates has worked in the federal government's national security bureaucracy, he has earned a reputation as a cool and analytical operator who keeps his inner feelings from even his closest colleagues.

But Wednesday night, at the end of an address to the Marine Corps Assn., the Defense secretary nearly came to tears telling the story of a decorated Marine officer who was killed in Iraq in May after volunteering for a second combat tour.

His voice wavering, Gates told of how Maj. Douglas Zembiec -- the subject of a 2004 profile in the Los Angeles Times Magazine -- had chafed at the Pentagon desk job he was given after returning from Iraq, where he led a Marine company in battle in Fallouja in 2004.

Zembiec went back to Iraq this year, Gates said.

"This time," Gates said, "he would not return -- to his country, or to his wife, Pamela, and his 1-year-old daughter." Appearing to lose his composure as he discussed Zembiec's family, Gates took a long pause before describing with difficulty Zembiec's funeral and memorial service.

Other administration officials -- including Gates' predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, and President Bush -- occasionally have battled their emotions when publicly discussing war sacrifices. But the White House has gone to lengths to maintain a stoic public face and to shield Americans from the rawness of the war.

The administration has barred photographs of coffins returning to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, for example. Bush has not attended public funerals for fallen troops and meets only with the families of deceased service members in private -- meetings that many have described as emotional.

Gates has shown similar reserve, although he has talked passionately about his practice of writing personalized notes to the families of all troops killed in combat.

"Every evening, I write notes to the families of young Americans like Doug Zembiec," Gates said in his address Wednesday, his voice pinched and his eyes welling. "For you and for me, they are not names on a press release or numbers updated on a Web page. They are our country's sons and daughters."

Zembiec, of Albuquerque, was mentioned in several Times articles, including the profile written shortly after the Fallouja campaign in 2004. That article portrayed the tall, bald company commander as "a warrior, and a joyful one," in the tradition of Sgt. York from World War I or Audie Murphy in World War II.

Gates cited such articles in his address, describing a grounded, respected leader who earned praise from those he commanded as well as his superiors.

Gates told of how during the Fallouja campaign, Zembiec -- on a rooftop with some men from his company, drawing "grenades from all directions" and unable to summon a nearby tank unit on the radio -- ran down a street "through withering fire," climbed onto the tank and told the gunner where to shoot.

"He was an unabashed and unashamed warrior, telling one reporter that 'killing is not wrong if it's for a purpose, if it's to keep your nation free or to protect your buddy,' " Gates said.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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