SIMPSONVILLE—Father Robert Falabella will spend Memorial Day in the same way that millions of other Americans mark the occasion: with prayer and remembrance for those who died while serving their country, although the priest’s thoughts will likely be mixed with a touch of joy and satisfaction.
In March, Father Falabella, priest-in-residence at St. Mary Magdalene Church, received an unexpected visitor at the parish rectory — a man he had not seen in 48 years who wanted to thank him for saving his life.
“It had been on my mind for a long time,” Jim Marschewski said last week from his home in Fort Smith, Ariz.
Marschewski, now a retired federal magistrate, arrived in Vietnam in June 1967 as a young lieutenant, assigned to the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division. Father Falabella was in the same division, serving as chaplain.
Marschewski was initially assigned to rear duty at the support command in Cu Chi, not far from Saigon, but he was moved closer to the fighting to replace a fellow lieutenant who had been killed. A couple of days later, the unit came under heavy enemy fire and shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade ripped through Marschewski’s left arm and shoulder.
“I would have bled to death if I hadn’t gotten quick medical help,” he said. “I was so dazed from the explosion, I couldn’t tell where to go to reach safety.” Then he saw a soldier waving him over, and “the next thing I remember was someone leaning over me, praying and asking the Lord to allow me to live.”
That someone turned out to be Father Falabella, who came out from cover to help the fallen lieutenant.
Marschewski spent the next six months in hospitals, but the Army surgeons were able to save his arm. After he left the Army, he finished college and law school, and practiced law in a variety of roles for the next 42 years. He still wondered about the soldier who saved him.
“I didn’t know if the soldier was real or imaginary,” Marschewski said.
The trail that led to Father Falabella started in earnest three months ago when Marschewski asked some of his Army contacts if they remembered the chaplain for their unit. One of them recalled meeting Father Falabella.
Marschewski entered the name in an Internet search, and found links to a book, “Vietnam Memoirs: A Passage to Sorrow.” The author was J. Robert Falabella. It was first published in 1971, three years after the end of his one-year tour in Vietnam.
Marschewski downloaded it and soon reached the chapter describing the Feb. 19, 1968, firefight and the priest’s efforts to save the lieutenant.
He then wrote a letter to Father Falabella, thanking him for what he did that day. “Without your willingness to risk your life, I am sure mine would have ended then and there,” he wrote. “The Lord has blessed me beyond measure and I am grateful. You were His instrument to allow this blessing.”
Marschewski asked if he and his wife could visit Father Falabella on their way to Florida, where one of their four adopted sons teaches ROTC. The couple plus one of their seven grandchildren met Father Falabella on March 20 at the rectory.
“I had to get to him, to look him in the eye and say ‘thank you for saving my life.’ He is a remarkable individual who is truly a credit to the Catholic faith,” Marschewski said.
“It was a wonderful experience when I finally met him,” Father Falabella said. “I remember saying ‘hello’ once when he first arrived with the 5th mechanical all those years ago, and that was about it until 40-some years later.”
Though Marschewski is a Protestant, his late brother, John, was Catholic, and served as a deacon at a parish in Little Rock.
“John would have been so excited [to learn] that it was a Catholic priest who saved my life on that day,” Marschewski said.
Father Falabella, who entered the priesthood out of high school in Washington, D.C., was teaching theology at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia when he volunteered as an Army chaplain.
“There was a need at that time for Catholic chaplains,” he said. “I wanted these young men to have the care and the love Christ wanted them to have, even in such a violent environment.”
Father Falabella said he keeps in touch with men from the 25th Infantry whom he met and prayed with in Vietnam, but Marschewski was a new face to the battalion and formal introductions took nearly 50 years.
“We were able to get (Marschewski) out of the kill zone and into a chopper and get him to Cu Chi,” Father Falabella said, adding that it was the work of God, who put him in a position where he could reach Marschewski.
Father Falabella rotated out of Vietnam later in 1968 and spent his final year in the Army at Fort Story, Va., where he was assigned to tell families that their loved one had been killed in action.
“That was really rough,” Father Falabella said. “There’s nothing you can say in that situation.”
The success of his Vietnam memoirs led Father Falabella to consider writing a second book, this one based on his experiences at Fort Story, but he never found the time. Instead, he received a call from Father Herbert Conner, a longtime friend who asked the priest to join him at St. Mary Magdalene.
At 86, Father Falabella still holds private Mass and brings Communion to parish shut-ins.
The Marschewski family said they will always hold Father Falabella in the highest regard. They plan to return to St. Mary Magdalene a few days before Memorial Day with their third son, Jeff, who completed two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, and has a new assignment at Fort Knox, Ky.
The family also has a gift for Father Falabella: a painting created by Mrs. Marschewski’s father of that February 1968 battlefield scene.
To Marschewski and his family, Father Falabella is “an angel, sent by God.”
Top photo provided: Father Robert Falabella visits with Jim Marschewski, who he helped save during a battle in Vietnam in 1968.