“March 1 is my ‘Alive Day,’ ” Father Salois said. “That’s what the young vets call the day when you survive but it’s a close call. You celebrate your Alive Day more than your birthday.”
Philip Salois (widely known as “Father Phil”), VVA’s national chaplain and president of James M. Ray Memorial Chapter 818 in Rhode Island, is the 2014 recipient of the United Veterans Council of Woonsocket, Rhode Island’s Veteran of the Year Award. But that distinction is only one of many for a man whose combat experience fueled a remarkable life devoted to the pastoral care of people like himself: war veterans struggling with battered psyches and postwar lives.
Salois was twenty years old when he was drafted. “I was an 11 Bravo—a grunt—in short order.” He was soon humping the jungles of South Vietnam with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade.
A Day to Remember
Late in the day of February 28, 1970, Salois’s platoon came upon an NVA bunker complex. The platoon withdrew and set up a defensive perimeter. The next morning, March 1, an inexperienced young commander sent the troops back down the same road and straight into an ambush.
The platoon’s forward element was cut off and pinned down. Salois agreed to try to reach those men and bring back any he could. “I paused,” he said, “and I said a prayer, and I told God that if He got me out of this mess in one piece I’d do anything He asked.”
Salois and another trooper took off and made it to the forward element. Making the run back with four other men, the trooper who had gone out with Salois was shot in the head. After reaching the rear line, Salois immediately returned to bring back his fallen comrade. Then he went out a third time, bringing back wounded and dead. He received the Silver Star for his actions that day.
A Different Call
After a twelve-month tour Salois came home a highly decorated veteran. He received the call to the priesthood in 1972, “but I’d completely forgotten that promise to God I made in the jungle.” Salois had been in seminary two years when, sitting in meditation, he heard a voice. “The voice asked if I remembered that promise. For me, at least, it was the voice of God—and I realized my destiny was before me, my personal path to serving God.”
That path has been a lifetime devoted to pastoral care for other men like himself who have seen combat and the human destruction it brings. “I’ve been working with vets ever since my ordination,” Salois said. “And it’s been a wonderful life.”
A Ministry to Veterans
Salois is chief chaplain of the VA’s Boston Healthcare System, where he works with Vietnam vets, Desert Storm vets, and vets of Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s a little harder to connect with the younger guys,” he said, laughing. “They speak the language of hip-hop, and I’m not very fluent in that.”
Quickly becoming more serious, Salois said: “Many of these young vets come home to no family structure at all. In the military they knew what they had to do, but back home that’s all gone. They don’t know how to manage their lives—or what’s going on inside their heads.” Which is where Salois enters those lives, following the path set for him by that inner voice heard in meditation so long ago.
Salois is now considering retirement from the VA after twenty-five years. But this is clearly not a man who retires with an empty plate. In addition to his VVA activities, he is founder of, and very active with, the International Conference of War Veteran Ministers, an organization that has fostered spiritual outreach to veterans since 1989.
The Rhode Island Senate issued a proclamation that perhaps says it best: “Father Philip Salois is honored for his lifelong work in helping veterans and their families overcome the trauma that results from combat and loss of life.”
Fr. Phil Inducted into the 2014 Class
of the French Canadian Hall of Fame
The notification letter reads:
"CONGRATULATIONS! As chair of the American-French Genealogical Society Hall of Fame Committee, I am pleased to inform you that the committee has selected you for induction in the Class of 2014.
"For the past twelve years, the Hall of Fame Committee has selected individuals for induction who are of French-Canadian ancestry, have demonstrated outstanding service to their nation, state or community, and/or have achieved extraordinary success in their life's work.
"Your devotion to our military veterans as the Chief Chaplain of the Department of Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System and Chaplain of the VA New England Healthcare System as well as your military service to our country as a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War reflect favorably on our French-Canadian heritage and make you truly worthy of this recognition."