A lifetime of healing

A lifetime of healing

Phil Salois recognized the dire situation six comrades faced near the village of Suoi Kiet. Their platoon was surrounded by the North Vietnamese Army, ducking fire from multiple directions.
“We had walked right into a U-shaped ambush,” recalls Salois, who served in the Army’s 199th Light Infantry Brigade. “Six of our guys were separated from the rest of us by an open clearing. They were stranded. We were trying to return fire, but we’re shooting over our comrades’ heads trying to find a place to shoot, so as not to kill any of them.”

The fighting was intense for an hour, maybe longer. Salois grew angry and impatient. Why wasn’t anyone trying to rescue them?

“I said a quick prayer to God,” he says. “I said, ‘You know, God, I’m going to go out there and rescue these guys. This is a crazy thing to do. If you get me out of this mess safe and sound without a scratch, I’ll do anything you want.’”

With adrenaline pumping through his veins and what he describes as his “useless” M79 grenade launcher at his side, Salois ventured out to help his fellow soldiers. Herb Klug voluntarily accompanied him.

They found a huge boulder to hide behind and opened fire on the NVA’s right flank, providing cover for the trapped soldiers. Four of their comrades safely sprinted back to camp.

After they didn’t see any more movement, Salois and Klug agreed that the other two were either dead or too wounded to move. (Terrance Bowell was killed, but Michael Kamrat survived.) They decided to return, low crawling side by side.

“I made it back safely, and I turned around, and I said, ‘Where’s Herb?’” Salois recalls. “He didn’t come back with me. I looked back over the berm and he was halfway out, laying on his stomach. And without even thinking, I went out there and tried to drag him in.”

It was too late. A sniper had picked off Klug.

Salois was one of only seven in his platoon who weren’t injured in the battle. He received the Silver Star for his actions on March 1, 1970. What transpired led him to an even higher calling, one that has given him the opportunity to minister to countless souls over the decades since Vietnam.

‘THIS IS WHAT I WANT FOR YOU’ Salois served just over a year, then returned home to California and started working again for an insurance agency. A few years later, a newspaper article caught his attention and changed the course of his life.

“It said in 20 years there’s going to be a great shortage of priests, Catholic priests,” Salois says. “The prediction came true, because in 1990 a lot of the priests were leaving the church. And there were not that many going into the seminary.”

As a boy, Salois was raised in the church but considered himself a “Sunday Catholic” – he attended Mass but was not an altar boy. During his time in Vietnam, he read from his Bible daily – a French pocket version his aunt had given him. But he had never considered religion as a profession.

“I kept going back to that article,” he says.

“I don’t know why I kept going back to it. I started reading the Bible again. I hadn’t picked up the Bible since I left Nam. I wondered if I was being called to the priesthood.”

Salois began studying – the “first time in my life I really enjoyed studying” – and passed the test in 1972. A couple of years after joining the seminary, he was walking through the woods, praying the Rosary, when he had a flashback to the battlefield.

“I remember saying to God, ‘You know, God, I’m really happy here. I’m really glad you called me here,’” Salois says. “And I heard that inner voice say to me, ‘Well, do you remember that promise you made to me four years ago?’”

Of course he did: “If you get me out of this mess safe and sound without a scratch, I’ll do anything you want.”

In the woods, Salois heard God respond, “This is what I want for you.”

Until that day, he had not thought about his vow during the firefight in Vietnam. But now it was an affirmation. “From then on, I knew where I was supposed to go.”

A SURPRISE AT THE WALL Salois decided to move back to New England to join the La Salette order. Eventually, he graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island, then completed theology studies at Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., and was later ordained.

In 1983, an experience as a deacon at the White River Junction Vet Center in Vermont brought him back to the jungles of Vietnam. He was among clergy invited to a panel discussion of Vietnam War veterans who would talk about their spiritual needs. “That’s pretty avant-garde for them to be talking about in those days,” he says.

Salois looked forward to the meeting, thinking he would teach and mentor the others.

“The Vietnam veterans started telling their stories to clergymen from different denominations,” he says. “All of a sudden, I am reliving my Vietnam. I hadn’t thought about Vietnam since 1970. It’s starting to weigh on me. Then they showed a newsreel of actual footage, and I got butterflies in my stomach. I was churning all over the place. I just felt very uncomfortable. I just wanted to get out of there but didn’t want to make a scene.”

The panel leader was the only ordained clergyman who was a Vietnam veteran. He approached Salois afterward, asking if he was all right. Salois admitted that he wasn’t, and they agreed to talk the next morning in private. “I showed him some pictures to help me remember,” Salois says. “I remembered March 1 detail by detail. But everything else I couldn’t remember.”

The counseling sessions continued for six months, until Salois was ordained. Then he was given a homework assignment: Visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and look up Herb Klug.
“There were like a gazillion people there,” he recalls of his Fourth of July visit. “I looked up Herb’s name, found out what panel he was on, what line. He was 13 west, line 71. He was right at eye level.”

Salois was surprised to see another familiar name directly above Klug: Lt. Terrance Bowell.

“I did a pencil rubbing of both names and said a quick prayer,” he says. “I didn’t want to get too emotional because of so many people around. It’s quiet though, very quiet. Everybody’s very still.”

BACK TO VIETNAM Something was still missing for Salois. The visit to the Wall had brought him comfort but not closure.

He was still sad about Klug’s death. He was still angry at the North Vietnamese. “As a priest, I can’t hate a race of people. I didn’t quite know how to heal from that.”

In June 1990, Salois took advantage of a three-week “healing trip” to Vietnam, organized by VA. He figured that being immersed in Vietnam would help him, but he didn’t really know what to expect.

“We landed in Hanoi, the capital of the former enemy country,” Salois recalls. “There were soldiers at the airport with their pith helmets. Oh my God. They looked like NVA. And the heat, and the smell, the smell of death. I thought I made a big mistake. I wanted to turn that plane around and go back home, but I stuck it out.”

The VA psychiatrist on the trip counseled Salois, assuring him that all returning veterans go through the same emotions. Some are affected upon arrival, while others take a little longer. As Salois let his emotions out, he allowed the healing in.

“What healed me over there was the children,” he says. “Every time we walked the streets in Hanoi, they would run up to us, touch us, pinch us, giggling and all that. I was never fond of children and especially that many at once. They kind of make me nervous. But I got to thinking about that passage from Scripture, ‘Let the children come to me.’ And I realized these children have never known war. Why should I hate these children? It’s not their fault. They’re innocent.”

From there, Salois began to embrace the Vietnamese, their culture and his past. In Ho Chi Minh City, Salois concelebrated Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral with a pastor and addressed the congregation in French since he did not know Vietnamese.

“I told them who I was: a Vietnam War veteran who 20 years ago was shooting at people who look like them, and receiving fire from people very much like them,” he says. “I went there to be healed and to forgive them and to have them forgive me. It was just very healing, and it was a very powerful image.” 

‘I’LL NEVER FORGET YOU’ Inspired by his trip to Vietnam, Salois set out on another healing quest: Klug’s grave.

After locating Klug’s parents – Ray and Beulah – and getting their phone number, Salois put off making contact for a couple of weeks. Eventually he did, in July 1991.

Ray answered the phone. “I don’t want you to think this is a crank call,” Salois told him. “I just wanted you to know that I served with your son and that he died in my arms and what I wanted to do was write you a letter to tell you about it, the incident, and I would like to go to Dayton (Ohio) and visit his grave, but I would understand if you don’t want to meet with me.”

Instead, they welcomed Salois, and plans were made for a visit to the Klugs’ home and Herb’s grave nearby.

With knees bent and a red rose extended, Salois poured out his heart at the gravesite.

“Herb, here I am. I know it’s taken me 21 years to get here. I’m sorry, but you know you never left me. You’ve never been away from my heart and my soul. You’ve been with me in all the ministry I do for vets, and I want to thank you for the strength that you gave me and thanks for the sacrifice you made for us on March 1. I’ll never forget you.”

A MENTOR AND FRIEND With closure, Salois thrust himself into his work and joined veterans organizations, including The American Legion.

“For me, healing is activity,” says Salois, the Legion’s Department of Massachusetts chaplain since 1993. “It’s doing something. It’s not a passive thing. I always tell vets if you want to be healed, you’ve got to do something. You can’t just sit on your butt, wait for God to heal you. If you know somebody who was killed, try to get ahold of the family. Try to go visit his grave. Try to bring some of your buddies together. That’s healing.”

He found himself counseling other veterans and their wives.

“I just wasn’t one of the guys anymore,” he says. “I was doing a little bit of marriage counseling because a lot of those guys were having troubles with their wives. Their wives didn’t understand why they were behaving the way they were. And the guys weren’t talking to their wives, not explaining. They didn’t want to tell them anything about Vietnam because they didn’t want to hurt them, cause them pain or have them think less of them.”

In 1993, Salois was promoted to chief of the chaplain service for the VA Boston Healthcare System, where he counseled veterans and provided other services. He retired Feb. 28, 2015.
He was often called upon to counsel veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. One of those was Skip Spoerke, who joined the 94th Army Band as a trumpet and flugelhorn player and later deployed with the 3rd Infantry Division.

After a vehicle accident in Iraq, Spoerke returned home and recovered from his physical injuries. But he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder following the deaths of his comrades.
Spoerke turned to drinking. Sometimes he would stay in bed all day. Once, he put on camouflage and ran into the woods for hours, thinking he was behind enemy lines.

“He couldn’t understand why other people couldn’t understand what he was going through,” says Nancy Spoerke, his mother.

But “Father Phil” understood, thanks to a chance meeting at a Boston-area VA facility in February 2006, soon after Spoerke returned from his deployment.

Salois first met Spoerke while the latter was lost in the hallway, giving him direction in more than one way. They talked for several hours that day and later met in counseling sessions.
The first session still resonates in Salois’ memory. Spoerke was describing nightmares about his friends who died in Iraq.

“He’s explaining all of this to me,” Salois recalls. “He says that one of the guys came up to him and says, ‘Don’t bother ... he’s gone.’ And he doesn’t believe it. But as he’s telling me that, I’m gone.

I dissociated. I don’t know how long I was gone.

I went back to March 1 when I was dragging Herb and his body across land ... and turning him over and seeing that.”

When he came to, he apologized to Spoerke, explaining that his story took him back to the ambush. “He says, ‘Don’t apologize. That makes you more human,’” Salois says. “I guess I’ll never forget the compassion that I received from him. And it helped him as well, knowing he wasn’t alone. You know, I still get emotional about that.”

From their first meeting, Spoerke knew he could trust Salois.

“I’m grateful that Father Phil had time to meet me – a guy who came home feeling broken and hopeless – because our first conversation gave me a slice of hope that quality of life would improve,” says Spoerke, who does not consider himself a religious person. “After a close friend committed suicide a year after we returned from Iraq, Father Phil made time to talk to and help me remember the good times with my friend. He encouraged me to see the opportunities in the world, instead of fearing the threats. Father Phil showed me that a happy and long life was within reach. I only needed to pursue it.”

Their counseling sessions continue today and involve Spoerke’s family too. Spoerke still battles PTSD but is happily married and pursuing a college degree.

“We could see that Father Phil was impacting Skip’s life through the communication and everything Skip would talk about,” says his father, Frank, an Air Force veteran and member of American Legion Post 226 in Massachusetts. “Father Phil really became a close mentor to Skip. They have a personal connection that’s hard to explain.”

It’s a relationship that has helped both men heal from their losses on the battlefield.

For many years, Salois saw March 1 as doomsday. But now he takes a different view.

“Now I have a celebration in honor of that day,” he says. “I got another buddy who lives nearby. He was in the 4th Infantry Division and that same week he had nine of his guys killed. We try to get together with some of the other guys and go to dinner, and we celebrate. We have a toast to them. I think and talk about it a lot, because it’s made me who I am today. If I hadn’t gone to Vietnam, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Henry Howard is deputy director of media and communications for The American Legion.