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Oregon Marine gravely wounded, losing both legs after bombing in Afghanistan

by Julie Sullivan, The Oregonian

Tuesday July 07, 2009, 10:00 PM

Courtesy of Nick Carney. Marine Cpl. Matt Lembke takes a break with two children during his second deployment to Iraq in 2008. The Tualatin man lost both legs last month in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Courtesy of Nick Carney. Marine Cpl. Matt Lembke takes a break with two children during his second deployment to Iraq in 2008. The Tualatin man lost both legs last month in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

On his last visit home to Tualatin before his third deployment, Matt Lembke began to talk, for the first time, about life after the Marines.

About college. Maybe the FBI.

Two months later, Cpl. Lembke and the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment pressed in on the Taliban stronghold at Now Zad in southern Afghanistan, a crossroads so notorious that the Marines traveled with two trauma doctors and armored ambulances.

To help

People wishing to help can contribute to the Cpl. Matt Lembke Trust atany U.S. Bank branch.

Aid to Marines also may go to the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit that has given more than $30 million to wounded veterans and their families, and Operation PAL, which collects prayers and letters for wounded Marines.

Send wishes to and read about Oregon’s next wave of citizen-soldiers to head to war at

A highly trained sniper, Lembke stepped through the Afghan darkness just after midnight June 22. An IED exploded. The bomb blew his legs off. He is the fourth Marine to suffer double amputations from an Afghanistan roadside bomb in the past month.

Associated Press war correspondent Chris Brummitt, covering the Marines, reported that medics hustled Lembke into an ambulance, applying tourniquets and administering two units of blood. He stopped breathing.

Medics pumped air into his lungs and got him to a military hospital. There, his heart stopped. Doctors resuscitated him and stabilized him until he could be flown to the U.S. Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

His parents, Claudia and Dale Lembke, had just pulled in from work when they saw their answering machine blinking in their Tualatin home. They called the 800 number and learned from a Marine officer in Quantico, Va., that their son had lost his legs.

The Lembkes had never envisioned raising a Marine. They weren’t a military family, and Claudia Lembke says she was pretty much a “basket case” during her son’s first deployment to Iraq in 2007. With good reason: One in five from the 2/3 were killed or wounded during that deployment, with 171 wounded and 23 killed. On his second deployment to Iraq in 2008, four more members died, including the commanding officer.

Set on joining the military

Claudia Lembke faced her son’s third deployment this spring as part of President Barack Obama’s ramp-up of Afghan operations by focusing on Lembke’s life after the war and his growing interest in college. Many of his high school friends graduated from the University of Oregon and Oregon State University in June, and on his last trip home in April, he’d grilled them about classes. Lembke was scheduled to be discharged this fall.

The family has lived in Tualatin since 1991. Dale works at Western Machine Works in Portland, and Claudia at the equipment finance division of U.S. Bank. They’d raised Carolyn, 25, and Matt, 22, in the Oregon outdoors — camping, fishing, hunting and crabbing. Carolyn, who lives in Sherwood, is an instructor at Tualatin Dance Center.

Everybody knew Matt as “Lumpe” after a wisecracking football coach dubbed him that at Tualatin High. He was a favorite on the Timberwolves football team, a 6-foot-2, 214-pound defensive end who always sought the lighter side.

Since middle school he’d talked about joining the military. He came home from Tualatin High one day flush with excitement because veterans had visited his history class. By age 17, he’d decided on the Marines. His parents refused to sign the papers, though, saying he could wait until he was 18 to be sure.

He was.

“He never changed course,” his mother says. Lembke went to the recruiter’s office within three days of his 18th birthday.

“Above and beyond”

As part of the 2nd Marines, 3rd Regiment, “The Island Warriors,” Lembke was based at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. But he always came home to Oregon, driving to Eugene to see friends from the Tualatin class of 2005, including Nick Carney. The boys had grown close lifting weights while training for football and remained close.

Courtesy of Nick CarneyCpl. Matt Lembke shown serving in Iraq, where he deployed twice. He was wounded last month in Afghanistan in an IED attack.

But as Carney and their buddies went to college, Lembke went to war, first as squad leader, later as a sniper. He loved the Marines and what he was doing, everyone says.

Last Christmas, as the snow froze the metro area to a standstill, Carney remembers seeing a man jogging through the frozen Tualatin streets.

“Of course, it was Lumpe,” Carney says, “He’s got the Marine mentality of going above and beyond.”

The friends e-mailed frequently and, earlier this year, met in San Diego for a night out. On May 10, Lembke joined 1,000 Marines and sailors from Kaneohe Bay, deploying for seven months as part of Obama’s surge. Lembke was assigned to the 2nd Marines Expeditionary Force.

Network of family, friends

As news of the June bombing reached the Lembkes, Carney; Lembke’s best friend, Mike Koster; Casey McKillip; and others raced to the family home. Carney launched a Facebook page dedicated to his friend. By the next morning — Dale Lembke’s 52nd birthday — eight friends had signed on. Now, there are 250 members. Friends also have launched a Cpl. Matt Lembke Trust through U.S. Bank.

Courtesy of Nick CarneyMatt Lembke (from left) laughs with friends Tony Losh and Kyle Mignano shortly before the three graduated from Tualatin High School in 2005. Lembke remained close to his friends and visited often during his military leaves.

Lembke’s parents flew to Germany and then to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland on June 28. Lembke has had surgery nearly every other day since and remains on a ventilator to back up his breathing. He has remained heavily sedated.

His parents and sister, who are staying at the military lodging nearby, have taped photos in his ICU room. Singer Stevie Nicks visited, leaving an iPod with her favorite music for him and lotions for his mom. His doctors have held video conferences with their counterparts in Germany and Afghanistan to coordinate his care. And as they pray for their son, the Lembkes, who attend St. Cyril Catholic Church in Wilsonville, also ask people to remember Lembke’s unit, which is still fighting.

As of Tuesday, at least 646 U.S. military members have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the Defense Department. Seven U.S. troops died Monday in separate incidents in Afghanistan, and the Taliban has claimed on a Web site that it is holding a U.S. soldier missing from Lembke’s Afghan base since last week.

“Keep the faith”

Lembke’s sister posted on Facebook that her brother has a tattoo over his heart that says “Faith” and that her dad at first didn’t know why he had chosen that in particular for a tattoo. Now he knows why.

“Every time we get to see him, we see it there, and it’s a constant reminder for us — keep the faith; the faith in God, faith in Matt, and faith in ourselves to get him through this,” Carolyn Lembke wrote.

Claudia Lembke says her son “loves life. He loves to go constantly. And always wants to keep it moving.” Seeing him so grievously hurt has been shocking. A Marine in his unit who also lost his legs two weeks earlier has visited from another floor, offering living hope. They know it will be a long, uphill road. But he is alive, Claudia Lembke says.

And, Monday, he squeezed his mother’s hand.

— Julie Sullivan;

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