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Lt. Col. Mike Lembke, right, an Army chaplain in Schweinfurt, Germany, has composed more than 400 songs in the past quarter century, and he plays them frequently for his military congregations. He and his son, Mike Jr., 16, left, have their own garage band that performs frequently with soldier/musicians as guests.

Lt. Col. Mike Lembke, right, an Army chaplain in Schweinfurt, Germany, has composed more than 400 songs in the past quarter century, and he plays them frequently for his military congregations. He and his son, Mike Jr., 16, left, have their own garage band that performs frequently with soldier/musicians as guests. (Steve Liewer / S&S)

SCHWEINFURT, Germany — For centuries, Christian ministers of every stripe have used music in their services to bring God’s message to the faithful.

Still, few have relied on music so completely as Lt. Col. Michael Lembke, 46, head chaplain for the 280th Base Support Battalion in Schweinfurt. On many Sundays, he will step down from the pulpit, grab his guitar, and play a rocking religious tune he has composed. Most of the time his son, Michael Jr., 16, joins him as a drummer or guitarist.

“People really enjoy it,” said Pfc. Delfina Gripp, 22, a chaplain’s assistant who regularly attends Lembke’s services. “You’re guaranteed to hear a brand-new song you’ve never heard before.”

Although he’s never distributed them beyond family, friends and parishioners, Lembke has produced six CDs of music from the 400 or so songs he has written over the years.

He’s just completed the latest one, “Welcome Back, Heroes,” which features songs written since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Lembkes’ latest garage band, “The Mikes,” performed the same songs Dec. 3 at a concert to greet members of the 1st Infantry Division’s Schweinfurt-based 2nd Brigade, which had recently returned from a six-month peacekeeping tour in Kosovo.

Lembke knew as long ago as his early teens in Crawfordsville, Ind., that he would somehow bind together his two callings, music and faith. He grew up in a pious Lutheran family that also loved to sing.

The folk rock music of his youth strongly influenced him, and he started playing guitar at age 13. He played in a series of bands during his college years, but he didn’t start writing songs until he entered Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., in 1978.

During his four years in seminary, Lembke estimates he wrote about 50 songs to perform for friends and bandmates. He used his songwriting to cope with the stress of his religious studies. To this day, he said, he has been most prolific during difficult times, like the Gulf War and after Sept. 11.

“That has been the seed of all his music, the difficult times,” said Lembke’s wife, Nancy.

Although his beloved grandfather Werner Krug had served as a chaplain during World War II (a framed portrait of Krug drawn June 7, 1944, by a Chicago newspaper artist aboard a ship off the Normandy coast hangs on his office wall), Lembke never thought much about the Army.

Then he attended a recruiting lecture during his seminary training, and he joined the Army Reserves on the spot. He was commissioned the day before his graduation in 1982.

He was assigned to a large parish in Eugene, Ore., but Army life called. By the time Lembke went on active duty in late 1986, he had been married seven years and had two children: 4-year-old Heidi and 6-month-old Michael Jr.

Two years after the Gulf War, Nancy bought Lembke a four-track music recorder, which allowed him to record and mix CDs. Along with his band “The Stewarts” (named for Fort Stewart, Ga., where he was then stationed), he produced his first album, “A Song for the Army Family,” from songs he wrote in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War.

Later missions to Somalia and Bosnia gave him more material. A company in Tuzla produced 1,000 copies of the Bosnia CD, “A Balkan Journey,” which included the tunes “Beautiful Day (in Bosnia)” and “Slivovitz,” named for the local plum brandy. He used it to open discussions with Bosnian Muslim chaplains he met.

“[Music] has a way of breaking down barriers,” Lembke said. “It touches people at a deeper level.”

For the past few years, he has shared his love of music with Heidi and Mike Jr. Heidi sings several selections on “Welcome Back, Heroes.” She’s a junior at Syracuse University in New York, currently performing in the school’s production of “West Side Story.”

Now a student at Würzburg American High School, Mike Jr. is a full partner in his dad’s band. But he started playing early.

“When he was 2, we got him toy drums, because he was banging on everything in sight,” Nancy said.

At age 6, Mike Jr. graduated to a hand-me-down drum set from a friend of his father’s. A decade later, he’s a full partner in his father’s band and also composes songs for his own garage band, which he formed with two school buddies.

“He’s probably the best drummer I’ve ever worked with,” Lembke said.

Both Lembkes like a wide variety of music. Mike Sr. lists Frank Sinatra, the New Christy Minstrels, and Johnny Winter among his influences, though he is especially fond of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s bayou brand of rock ’n’ roll.

“[Our music] all sounds like Peter, Paul and Mary meets Creedence Clearwater,” Lembke said.

There’s no generation gap here. Mike Jr. likes his dad’s taste in music, and his biggest influences — drummer Buddy Rich and the Beatles — also come from the ’60s.

Mike Jr. has thought of following his father into the Army chaplain corps, but he’s recently decided to devote himself to music.

In college, he plans to major in music performance.

“Whether it’s in a pit orchestra or playing in a band, I want to be totally immersed in music,” he said.

In an otherwise musical family, Nancy is the only nonperformer. She doesn’t mind being the family’s roadie, setting up equipment and running sound boards.

“She’s really the energy and support for my work as a chaplain, and as a soldier,” Lembke said. “For us, [music] is a part of duty, honor and country. She’s gone with it all the way, even when she’s been a rock ’n’ roll widow.”


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