When I went off to war in Vietnam, my grandmother gave me a religious medal to wear and told me to pray the prayer associated with it daily, and I would be protected. The medal was of St. Michael the Archangel. Michael the Archangel is recognized by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and for very similar reasons. This video by Fr. Richard Erikson, who is an Air Force Chaplain, explains the role that St. Michael the Archangel has played with the military over the years.
77 of my first days in Vietnam were spent at the forward Marine air base at Khe Sanh in Quang Tri Province during the Tet Offensive of 1968. I arrived there at the beginning of the 77-day-long siege of the base by 20,000 – 40,000 NVAs. I was a Navy Hospital Corpsman assigned to Bravo Co., 3rd Recon Bn, 3rd Marine Division, which was attached to the 26th Marines reinforced regiment at Khe Sanh. As a result, I was introduced to the realities and responsibilities of combat medicine on day one, and my “education” would be intense, real, and harrowing for the rest of the siege.
I prayed the St. Michael the Archangel prayer every morning and every time I heard a Marine shouting the words, “Corpsman Up!” calling myself and the other Corpsmen to care for the wounded. Praying that prayer was a comfort to me. I knew I needed protection from a superior source, and I prayed for the wisdom to be able to do the right things in terms of treating the kinds of injuries I might encounter each time.
And I truly believe that I was protected and aided. What we were experiencing and, so often, what we were challenged to do for our brother Marines as eighteen- to twenty-year-old Corpsmen, was beyond our meager skills, and yet we did what we could, most of the time with positive effects.
On one occasion during the siege, a couple of my Marine squad mates and I were in our bunker, taking cover there during a particularly heavy barrage of enemy artillery. A round landed close by, and a piece of shrapnel cut the electric line into our bunker that lit the one light bulb we had. Our bunker was about six to eight feet deep and three to four feet wide, and it was dug into the red clay of Khe Sanh. It was covered over with hundreds of sandbags, 50-gallon drums filled with dirt, and strips of metal matting that were used for the airstrip, or whatever we could get our hands on in an attempt to minimize the threat of death if we took a near-direct hit.
When that electric line was severed by that shrapnel, everything suddenly went pitch black. The smell of the dirt and the pitch blackness in that bunker was overwhelming. All I could think of was that this bunker was like a grave, and we were in it. At that moment, I became aware of the fact that I had a tight grip on the medal of St. Michael the Archangel, my teeth were tightly clenched to keep from screaming, and I was praying that prayer with corresponding intensity.
The enemy artillery barrage, as always, ended as suddenly as it began, and we just went back to what we were doing, always aware of and poised to react when we heard the telltale sounds and cries of “incoming.” That event happened somewhere in the middle of the siege. That medal and that prayer remained a part of my daily reality throughout the rest of the siege and my remaining time in Vietnam. I still pray that prayer every morning.
There are four elements to the prayer that come across and that clearly relate to military experience, particularly in war: the need to fight for the good, no matter the cost, the need to be rescued oneself, the desire to rescue others from any and all harm, and the desire to stand up, like a champion, to all that is in opposition to what is good, and to call souls to heaven. Our appeal to and knowledge of St. Michael the Archangel has its roots in ancient times. He is mentioned three times in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. He is also mentioned in the New Testament in the Book of Revelation, where he is described as the angelic champion leading God’s army against Satan’s rebellious forces. Hence the connection to military things.
There is an old saying that goes something like this: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” There is nothing like incoming artillery shells, or bullets buzzing by your head in a fierce firefight, to focus the mind on ultimate things, like the immediate threat of death, or the call to the ultimate act of love, that is, to lay one’s life down for a friend. These realities call us out of the narrow enclosure of ourselves in recognition of the immediate need of another, even those who are not known to us but whose immediate situation moves us to serve a higher good. What happens in war often stirs us to uncommon valor that is beyond our own strengths.
Even if we do not have the words for it, we are aware that there is something greater than ourselves that somehow enables us to carry out selfless actions on behalf of our brothers and sisters when all hell breaks loose. St. Michael the Archangel is one of the ways that warriors over the ages have been able to explain the seemingly super-human things that they have been able to accomplish in the midst of the unspeakable cruelties of war. There is much in our experience that is often beyond our understanding or that of science. These things are hard to explain, or for that matter, to explain away.
Yes, we depend on our brothers and sisters to the right and to the left of us on the field of battle, but it is also a fact that more than may be willing to admit it have depended upon that which is greater than themselves to protect and defend them and those around them in those terrible and terrifying situations. St. Michael the Archangel is just one name for that mysterious aid that comes to us in the midst of battle, or in our daily interior struggles to choose between what is truly right and good versus that which is simply the selfish desire to fulfill some form of immediate gratification, no matter the consequences. For those who have been in combat, it is another way of explaining how we survived the seemingly unsurvivable realities of war, or how we were able to transcend our own failings and weakness. It is a recognition that we are not alone in our struggles with these monumentally life-threatening realities of life.
The St. Michael prayer goes like this: “St. Michael the Archangel, defend me in battle; be my protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, I humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Hosts, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who roam about the world seeking the ruin of souls.”