In the spring of 1967, my younger brother Mike was reported missing in action in Vietnam. Although it was just a clerical error on the part of the Marines, it gave us all a horrible fright. First, we received a telegram stating Mike was missing in action. Then another informing us Mike had lost his legs and was critical. Then followed the nightmare of a Marine officer and chaplain arriving on my parent’s doorstep with the news Mike had died.
It turned out Mike was actually recuperating from a minor wound in Tokyo, Japan. He called soon after we received the mistaken report. At this point, my older brother Bill put college on hold and re-joined the Marines. He asked for duty in Vietnam to be with our brother Mike. His hope was to convince Mike to file under the Sullivan ruling which states that no more than one family member has to serve in a life-threatening situation at a time.
Bill wanted Mike in a safer place--out of the combat zone-- while he served in ‘Nam himself. Bill always looked out for his three younger siblings, and he was determined to do so again. If Mike refused to leave, Bill figured they could at least support one another.
On the day he was to leave for retraining, the last thing my father did was to make sure Bill was wearing his Sacred Heart badge. My parents had my sister, two brothers, and me consecrated to the Sacred Heart while were babies. They made sure we made the First Friday devotions, which were given to St. Margaret Mary. It was to her that Jesus revealed his promises concerning devotion to His Most Sacred Heart.
Daddy jokingly told Bill: “It might not stop a bullet, but it can keep you safe along the way. Just remember it is only as good as the faith you put with it. If you wear it as a scrap of material and don’t follow Christ, it will be no help at all. Remember what’s important--trust Christ and follow him. He will get you home. Ask St. Margaret to help you too. That’s all the protection you really need.”
With that last bit of unassuming faith from my father, Bill left for boot camp wearing the banner of Christ--His Sacred Heart badge. He landed in Vietnam on August the 21. Sadly, the very day Bill landed, Mike was again wounded. This time his wounds were more serious. A land mine struck his amphibious mobile unit and he was badly burned.
Because of the severity of Mike’s wounds, he was soon transported stateside for medical treatment and the two brothers never saw one another. Bill’s plans were now just to do his duty and return home to finish college. He had a sense of duty to serve his country, and strove to follow Christ even under difficult circumstances. In order not to worry the rest of us, Bill wrote letters home telling us he was assigned in Da Nang as a clerk. That was our Bill; always protecting others. His ploy worked, and we believed that he was fairly safe in DaNang.
But then, during the night of Sept. 21, 1967, I had a terrible dream. I was standing on a small incline and I saw my brother Billy carrying a machine gun. I heard a horrible sound of rockets and mortar going off. In my dream I screamed: “Run, Billy, run!” And then a big flash and explosion landed close to him. Through the smoke and fire I saw him lying wounded. Both of his hands were gone and there was blood everywhere. He was moaning in pain but I could not reach him. My heart broke as I watched and tried to run to him. My beloved Billy was all alone. I was so close to him and yet so far.
Then, suddenly, I saw a Catholic chaplain sprint over to Bill. He too appeared to be wounded also but leaned over Bill and comforted him. He prayed and anointed Bill as best he could. He was so calm and reassuring to my brother. He said: “Don’t worry son. God is with us this good day.” I was crying so hard by this time, I woke up from this awful nightmare. As I always did as a child, I wanted my Dad to sooth me from the nightmare. I got out of bed and called him at 1:30 am.
The phone barely rang once before Dad picked it up. He was crying softly when he answered. To this day I don’t remember which one of us said it first: “Billy is dead.” Dad and I related the exact same dream and the exact details. We consoled one another, and clung to the hope that it was just a warning. “Maybe it is just a sign we need to pray harder for Bill,” Dad said. We both so desperately wanted to believe that.
One week later, Sept. 28, the Marines again paid a visit to my parent’s home. This time there would be no phone call saying it was a mistake. Instead, our nightmare was confirmed. Billy was dead.
The Marines reported that on September 21, while on night patrol, Bill’s entire unit was caught in an ambush. They were trapped in crossfire of rocket and mortar fire, which claimed the life of every man in the unit. My brother Bill managed to survive alone until another unit found him. One of the letters we received later, related how the Marines, who ministered first aid to Bill before he died, had promised to honor Bill’s request: “Please thank the Padre for helping me die well.” They unfortunately did not know the name of the priest who had administered the last rites of the Church to Bill. There wasn’t one in their unit.
We were told Bill was at peace when he died on September 21, exactly one month from the day that he had landed in Vietnam. Christ kept his promise to protect those devoted to His Most Sacred Heart even deep in the jungles of Vietnam. We never could locate the chaplain who helped my brother. As time passed, we decided we would never be able to thank the mysterious priest in this life.
My beloved father went home to meet his Lord on Valentine’s Day, 1985. Before he died, he gave me His most treasured possession-- the tattered and bloodstained Sacred Heart badge that the Marines had returned after Bill’s death. He asked that if I should ever find that wonderful priest who had helped Bill, to thank him personally.
Many years had passed when I received an email one day from a friend who had also served in Vietnam. He wanted me to read about a wonderful chaplain from Vietnam who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his extraordinary service. The chaplain was known as the “Grunt Padre.” As I opened the attachment and saw the picture of the priest, my heart skipped a beat. It was the priest from my dream of Bill’s death, all those years before. My father and I had both described him to each other in the same exact detail. His name was Father Vincent Robert Capodanno. He also had died in Vietnam in 1967.
|Fr. Vince Capodanno|
Reading the attachment, I learned that Fr. Capodanno died of severe wounds. He was missing part of his right hand. The story explained the extent of his injuries. They were the same wounds of the priest in my dream.
The article stated that Fr. Capodanno was well known for his council to his beloved troops. He was known to say: “God is with us this good day.” It was unbelievable--those were the words he had said in my dream. Then reading the date of his death, I held my breath, blinked, and looked at the date again. A shiver shot through me from head to toe. Fr. Capodanno died seventeen days before Bill did.
As part of the communion of saints, Father Capodanno was truly “A priest forever in the order of Melchezidec.” Father Capodanno was the man whom Christ sent to fulfill the promise of the Sacred Heart Devotion revealed to St. Margaret Mary: “I promise thee in the excessive mercy of My Heart that My all-powerful love will grant to those who communicate on the first Friday in nine consecutive months the grace of final penitence; they shall not die in My disgrace nor without receiving their sacraments; My Divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.”
|Bill's actual badge, Christine gave to Fr. Capodanno's brother promoting his cause for sainthood.|
This story was originally published in Amazing Grace for the Catholic Heart By Christine Tollinger. She is an inspired writer and blogs at Writing for the Lord.
For more inspiration, check out Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories From Everyday Families. Your children will laugh while learning spiritual lessons with Dear God, I Don't Get It! and Dear God, You Can't Be Serious.