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A Mother’s Touch
U. S. A. | NEWS | NEWS
A Marine’s experience of Mary in the midst of war.

Michael Lambert 1
Lieutenant Michael Lambert on leave after the fighting in Vietnam.

October 13, 2010. Atlanta, Georgia. It was after Michael Lambert’s two-week tourist trip to Vietnam in 1994 that all the memories came flooding back. Walking over the old battlefields had resurrected vivid images of the hell he had lived, reminding him of a chapter in his life that he had left behind like a distant nightmare.

It was only later, while in the quiet of the confessional, that he remembered something else: while walking through the valley of the shadow of death, Our Lady had been right at his side, and it had been her gentle touch that kept him from committing a terrible deed.

From the seminary to the battlefield

There are not many men who go from two and a half years in the quiet, prayerful life of a Catholic seminary to the chaos and violence of battle. Just three and a half years after his time in the Marist Seminary, Lambert was a young lieutenant in the Marines, deployed on active duty as a platoon commander in Company H, Second Battalion, Fifth Marines.

The faith and prayer life he had built up during his years in the seminary served him well. 

“When fatigue began to confuse my mind, the prayers that I had learned as a child were a source of refreshment and vigor for my spirit,” he said. “I credit my Catholic faith for keeping me on an even keel during the chaos and violence of battle.”

Catholic priest chaplains did not come around all that often, but when they did, he seized every opportunity to attend Mass, receive the Eucharist, and go to confession. And he prayed. Intensely.

“During the hours before dawn, I continually said the Rosary to Our Blessed Mother, asking for her intercession for me and my Marines,” he recalled.

From the start, he looked upon his new
Michael Lambert 2
Lieutenant Michael Lambert. This photo was taken in a meeting during Operation Hue City, two days after the incident in Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish.
duties as a responsibility given to him by God.

“I regarded my commission as a Marine officer as a sacred trust, much the same as my time with the Marists,” he said. “As a combat officer, your priorities are: 1) accomplishing the mission, 2) taking care of your men, and lastly, taking care of yourself.”

Urban combat

It was with this sense of responsibility that he set out with his men to recapture the sacred city of Hue, which had been seized by North Vietnamese forces in a surprise offensive during the Tet holiday truce in February 1968.

The Vietnam War was at its climax. Lambert and his men were walking into a city that the North Vietnamese forces had almost completely decimated, with no mercy shown to civilians. After the war, mass graves with up to 1,200 civilian bodies were found around the city. The North Vietnamese had massacred up to 6,000 innocent people, many of them women and children, in the middle of the night.

The mission of recapturing Hue required the young Marines to place themselves on the line of fire again and again.

“There were several occasions during the 29-day battle of Hue that I was ordered to hold my position at all costs. An order like that means you are not given the option to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds. On two occasions, we were outnumbered five to one,” he recalled.

This was not a battle in a field or a forest. It was urban warfare, waged in narrow city streets, with snipers perched on church steeples and enemy forces squirreled away in the back rooms of houses.

Lambert and his men fell into the same efficient routine as they swept through the city: first, the men would storm a building, following up their assault with heavy automatic weapons fire. Then a “fire team” of three Marines would enter the building, throwing fragmentation grenades into the rooms and sweeping every corner with bullets from their M-16 rifles. Once the house or building was secure, they would mark it off on their map and continue to the next one.

Deadened by constant violence, exhaustion, and fear, the men were almost on autopilot, doing what they had to do. Meanwhile, the number of men in Lambert’s platoon dwindled down from 65 to 20. The battle was taking its toll.

Sweeping the church

On the seventh day of continuous combat, Lambert and his men received the order to clear out a Catholic church near the Phu Cam canal that was suspected of being a strategic point for North Vietnamese forces.

While his men cleared the church yard and checked the interior of the church, Lambert went around to the bell tower.  On the first day of battle, when the American convoy had entered the city, enemy fire had come from within this tower.

On his way there, he saw a staircase descending from a low door at the back of the church. Accustomed to the routine, he tiptoed his way down the stairs, easing
Our lady of perpetual help
Our Lady of Perpetual Help
the pin halfway out of the M-26 hand grenade and preparing to throw it into the darkness beyond the bottom of the stairs. He didn’t know what he would find there.

“I was operating solely on training, experience, and nerves,” he said.

Just as he was about to pull the pin the rest of the way out and launch the grenade, he felt a gentle hand touch his, a woman’s hand.

There was no one standing next to him. But he sensed a familiar presence.

He pushed the pin back into the grenade.

As he entered the basement, he was met with the soft glow of dozens of vigil lights. The basement was full of parishioners who had spent the past days hiding and praying to Our Lady for protection.

It was no coincidence that the name of the church was Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Revisiting the moment

Lambert sent the civilians to a refugee center where they would be safe and continued his mission. In fact, after weeks more of intense combat, the incident fell dormant in his memory. He was wounded, taken out of battle, treated, and then sent back. Layer upon layer of battles obscured the memory of that day. And then the years of civilian life after the war made those memories fall even deeper into the distant past.

It was the trip to Vietnam in 1994 that brought it all back. Like a soldier suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, he found himself reliving experiences of hellish combat, witnessing all the violence and tragedy again in his mind.

When his son Michael told him about a priest in Slidell, Louisiana who could read souls in confession, he decided it was time to pay him a visit.

“I loaded the van with our children and went to Fr Joe
Michael and Peggy Lambert
Michael and Peggy Lambert
Benson’s church for Saturday confession,” he said. “I was in the confessional for 45 minutes, according to my kids.

“Before absolution, he asked if anything was troubling me. I said that I was experiencing memories of Vietnam. He said, ‘About the church in Hue?’ That’s when he told me that the hand of Mary had stopped me from tossing the grenade into the crypt of the church,” he said.

Looking back, he recalled that there was a kind of interior touch that accompanied the tangible feeling of her hand on his.

“My defenses were down and the Blessed Mother touched my spirit before she touched my hand,” he said. “I didn’t react. I just obeyed her. It seemed entirely natural, as though your mother had asked a favor of you.”

With that one touch, she not only saved a room full of innocent civilians; she also saved him from unwittingly inflicting a lasting wound on his own soul.

 “If I had carried out the brutal act, I would have been haunted for the rest of my life,” Lambert acknowledged.

That loving hand

Instead, he has been blessed. Lambert sees Our Lady’s hand not only in that one moment during the war, but also in the day-to-day life of his family. All of his children are practicing Catholics with a devotion to Mary.

“She is with us constantly,” he said. “I can see the deep love that my children have for her as well. There are times when she is so present that I can actually smell her… like herbs and roses on a warm summer day. The holy Rosary is a big part of our lives.”

Lambert himself had been dedicated to Our Lady at the moment of his birth. Now, as a grandfather, he sees signs of her predilection in his little grandchildren.

“My little
thomas anthony rueda
Lambert's 13-month-old grandson, Thomas Anthony Rueda, kisses his miraculous medal.
grandson Thomas Anthony has a special devotion to her. When I pick him up, he reaches for my miraculous medal, kisses it, and says, ‘May, May!’ with a big smile.”

When he found himself walking through the valley of the shadow of death, his mother walked at his side. That gentle but powerful hand reached out when he needed it most, perhaps drawn closer by years of faithfully praying the Rosary.

Living under Mary’s protection is not just for the privileged few. It is a gift that Mary is willing to give to anyone who turns to her with trust and love, both in the hour of need and in the hour of plenty. There are times when she allows that hand to be seen, and many other times when she remains hidden in the background. But for Lambert, and for his family, there is no doubt that she is always there.

This article is part of a series about God’s action in the lives of Regnum Christi members who turned to him in prayer. If you have a story to share, please contact us at this link.


PUBLICATION DATE: 2010-10-13


 
 


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Sponsored by the congregation of the Legionaries of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement, Copyright 2011, Legion of Christ. All rights reserved.


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