Even if you don’t believe in guardian angels, anyone who has the chance to listen to Michael Montigny’s story about his deployment with the United States Marines in Vietnam – where he narrowly escaped death over a dozen times by his count – may start to at least consider the possibility.
Actually, anybody with an Amazon account can read Montigny’s harrowing account of his life as a machine gunner in Vietnam, as he published a book in 2016 about it called “A Few Good Angels.” On Wednesday morning, Montigny told his story to a few history classes of Bishop Hendricken students as part of a Veterans’ Day week of activities organized by former Hendricken history teacher and veteran Joe Cichon.
“Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past,” said Hendricken President John Jackson. “Unfortunately, certainly Korea and Vietnam are two of the wars that America was involved in that are sometimes forgotten. So, to have this opportunity to have someone of Mr. Montigny’s stature here speak to you is a very, very big privilege for us.”
Montigny’s story actually begins in 1920, well before he was born, back to when his mother was suffering from polio at 16 years old. In an attempt to cheer her up, Montigny’s grandparents brought in an old woman who could supposedly tell fortunes.
The woman told multiple specific fortunes that would ultimately come true – such as Montigny’s mother learning to walk on her own again after sacrificing something she enjoyed (chocolate) and praying each day; the fact she would marry a man involved in law enforcement (she did); that she would have two sons and a daughter (she did) and that her daughter would also marry a man in uniform and have two boys and a girl (and she did).
However, one particular fortune left an uneasy feeling rather than a hopeful one. The woman said her youngest son – which would be Montigny – would not return home alive after fighting overseas. In conversations held between his mother and her nine brothers and sisters, as well as her husband, that Montigny recalled overhearing while lying in his bed, the solution was to simply not let little Michael join the armed forces.
“In 1965 they didn’t know there was going to be a draft,” Montigny said. He and his cousin were drafted at the same time. His cousin went into the Navy and Montigny, though he was drafted into the Army, joined the Marines. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said.
Montigny survived what he described as a hellish basic training and was assigned what he thought to be an especially macho role of being a machine gunner, as opposed to being a part of the general infantry. “I felt like John Wayne. Well, today I guess I should say I felt like The Rock. I felt like a real bad guy,” he said. “I had no idea what to expect."
His gunnery sergeant cleared up that confusion for him. He gathered all machine gunners from his training unit and summarily told them to “Take a good at each other, because half of you are not going to come home. And the rest of you are going to be seriously wounded or commit suicide.”
According to Montigny, machine gunners had a 15-minute life expectancy during combat in Vietnam, as they were the most heavily targeted combatants due to the high power and suppressing ability of their firearms. The information came as a shock to Montigny, but he refused to resign himself to an early end.
“So now I’ve had a fortune teller saying I’m not going to make it home and I have a gunnery sergeant telling me my chances are very slim,” he said. “I made a decision at that time that I’m going to do whatever I can to survive.”
Prior to deploying for Vietnam with 200 other Marines, a convoy of 200 Marines coming back from Vietnam – ghost-faced, dehydrated and with stares reflecting death in their eyes, according to Montigny – one of the returning soldiers inexplicably broke through the ranks and approached him with a Marine Corps ring.
“‘Here, I want you to have this,’” Montigny recalled him saying. “‘It protected me and it’s going to protect you.’”
Although he felt his training, machine gun and fellow Marines would be of much more protection than a ring, Montigny started to feel differently after his life was saved by sheer coincidence the second day of his deployment in the country – when he was called out of a foxhole by a fellow soldier for a random reason and the Marine he was originally sharing the foxhole with dropped a live grenade, resulting in his death.
“That would have been me,” he recalled. He said that, in total, his life was saved through either coincidences or sheer luck – sometimes involving animals like a python, scorpion, a rat or gorillas (he didn’t expand on those instances, perhaps saving good tidbits from the book), and in one instance falling backwards off a 30-foot cliff – more than a dozen times through his deployment.
Montigny was eventually sent to provide support to a contingent of Green Berets who were pinned down in Khe Sahn, which would become one of the most infamous battles of the entire Vietnam War. It was during this conflict that Montigny met his second “angel,” a chaplain who was preparing to leave the country that stopped him and gave him a rosary necklace that he said would protect him in times of danger.
Whether it was his training, pure luck or divine intervention, Montigny made it to the end of his tour and prepared to go home. His excitement to return was not sufficient to help him withstand the “welcome” that was actually waiting for him back in the United States.
“I heard about protesting but don’t forget, we didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t have Snapchat or Facebook or any of that,” he said. “We were getting a Stars and Stripes newspaper that only talked about all our victories. They didn’t talk about protesting.”
Montigny’s first brush with the misplaced anger that was lobbed toward soldiers returning from Vietnam occurred on his flight home, when the captain of the plane insisted he sit in first class to thank him for his service. Other first class fliers protested, following the lead of one passenger (traveling with his wife and two children) who threatened to leave the flight if Montigny wasn’t sent back to his original seat by the bathroom at the back of the plane.
When the captain saw Montigny had gone back to his original seat, he told him he insisted he go back and not be bothered by the rude passengers. “I looked at him and said I’m all done fighting, just take me home,” Montigny said.
When he arrived at T.F. Green Airport, expecting to find a large group of friends and family waiting for him, he instead was greeted by nobody. Still, he hoped they had simply forgotten or mistaken the time he would be home, or even better, that they were planning a surprise party for him once he made it to his house.
But when he did make it to his house, his mother fainted upon seeing him. His father broke down into tears after clutching his chest. His mother, after regaining consciousness, said, “We thought you were dead. We haven’t heard from you in two months.”
It turns out all of Montigny’s mail sent home had been getting lost since he left Vietnam and spent two months recovering at a base in Okinawa. His parents feared that the fortune teller’s prophecy had come true.
While Montigny eventually did get that surprise party, he was the one to be unfortunately surprised by the reaction he got from his friends and family, who asked questions such as “how many did you kill” and “how were the women over there.”
“I couldn’t believe the questions people were asking,” he said. “Once you’re military, once you’ve been involved, it’s hard to explain to people what you’ve went through…I decided to shut up. I decided to not talk about it.” Montigny would also decide to no longer wear his uniform after going out to a club and being denied service by the bartender for that reason.
Now, following the publishing of his first book, Montigny meets with Vietnam veterans who, like him, stopped talking about their experiences after they came home to a world that clearly didn’t want to listen. He is an advocate for better healthcare for veterans, as many were exposed to the preposterously dangerous Agent Orange while in Vietnam. Montigny himself was diagnosed with cancer and a 5 percent chance to survive, however he says his angels looked out for him again, as he ultimately beat the disease.
He still suffers from tinnitus and post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of the things he experienced now over 50 years ago. He says he can be triggered by something as simple as looking through the drapes out an open window into the darkness of his wooded backyard of Coventry, as it is all too reminiscent of the view he had while on sentry duty in a foxhole in the jungles of Vietnam.
When asked by a student how we should avoid the mistakes of how people treated Vietnam veterans, Montigny said a little decency goes a long way.
“Today you have people in Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever going through hell as well. So you get off your butts when you see them, go over to them and thank them for their service – and watch the smile you get,” he said. “We would not here today if it was not for them.”
Following the presentation, Montigny and other veterans from the era, including Gold Star family Don and Karen McKenzie, brother and sister-in-law of Richard McKenzie, BHHS class of 1963, who was killed in Vietnam, visited the Hendricken black wall memorial in the 600 Wing, which memorializes each of the 239 members of the U.S. armed forces from Rhode Island who died in Vietnam.
The presentation also offered a moment of silence for Army Sergeant Mikeal Miller, who was severely wounded in Afghanistan in 2006.