From Infantry to Seminary By Barbara R. Bodengraven
According to Philip Salois, M.S.,
it began with a prayer in the jungles of Vietnam 6 years ago
One La Salette’s story of spiritual healing and ministry following the battlefield
“OK, God,” Salois prayed just minutes before he risked his life to save six members of his platoon caught behind enemy lines. “If you get me through this safe and sound without a scratch, I’ll do anything you want—anything.” That “anything” turned out to be a call to the La Salette priesthood and a ministry to the broken and wounded men and women who return from the battlefield. But before that call would become a reality at his ordination in 1984, Salois saved four of the six platoon members that day and, in the process, lost his best friend Herb, who had volunteered to accompany him on the search and rescue mission.
As an ordained priest in the La Salette missionaries and Chief of Chaplain Service at Boston’s Veterans Administration (VA) Healthcare System, Salois’ ministry is helping other combat veterans lay their own nightmares and guilt to rest. Moreover, he works hard to ensure that it doesn’t take combat veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq 21 years—or even longer—to seek help and arrive at some point of spiritual healing.
“Vietnam vets barely received any recognition for the trauma they endured,” said Salois, who served in Vietnam for a year with the U.S. Army 199th Light Infantry Brigade. “We were supposed to come home and immediately integrate into normal life on our own. Nowadays, the military is a lot smarter. We get returning combatants in here as quickly as possible and begin addressing a whole host of issues. We’re much more proactive. So much of the lingering trauma relates to a veteran’s need to reconcile with God.”
“Just by looking at my lapel, they’ll know that I saw action, that I was not serving as a chaplain over there, but that I was in the thick of things, just like they were,” said Salois. “It’s an instant ice breaker. They’ll see that I was a veteran first and a priest later. Just that, in and of itself, helps us to begin talking and opening the way toward spiritual healing.”
How, exactly, is one healed of brutal memories and nightmares of the battlefield? According to Salois, it differs for each person.
“Spiritual healing must be tailored to the person’s individual story of trauma,” said Salois. “For them to be able to articulate their individual story is crucial, and my listening to that story is essential. Only then can we proceed on their specific path of healing.”
For many suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the process can often begin by opening up the Bible to the story of Cain and Abel.
“I often show them where ‘PTSD’ (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) exists in the scriptures,” said Salois. “For the most part, they are amazed to find stories of trauma in the Bible. They had never read it in quite that way before. And the Psalms! The Psalms are full of trauma. We pray them together repeatedly.”
Very often, says Salois, as part of the individual healing process, he asks his counselees to write two letters—one to the person or persons they killed during the war, and one written to themselves from the point of view of ther person or persons killed.
“I ask them, ‘do you think that child or that person you killed would want you to be caught for so long in your suffering?’” said Salois. “And then I ask them to write it out. What would that dead person say to them? So often it is the release they didn’t even know they needed.”
The whole point of reconciliation and spiritual healing, says Salois, is to break down the walls that hold us in bondage—from ourselves, from others, from God.
“It’s about taking risks in loving again,” he said. “Healing is all about getting involved in other peoples’ lives. It is a communion of souls. It’s not anything I could have learned at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, my Alma Mater. I had to learn it on the battlefield. I had to realize it with my patients.”
Salois says that the biggest challenge of his job is staying in the present moment with his counselees.
“Sometimes their stories of trauma and loss are so close to what I experienced that I shut them out. I zone out,” said Salois. “I’ve had to learn to tend to my own healing as well.”
In recognition of this, Salois participated in an experiment to determine if returning to the battlefield would be therapeutic for veterans suffering from ‘PTSD.’ Salois accompanied a group back to Vietnam in 1990 for the purposes of trying to put aside his own lingering mistrust and hatred of Asian people.
“It was through the Vietnamese children that I learned to let that go,” said Salois. “I asked myself how I could ever hate a child? Well, I couldn’t. I was then able to connect to the men those young boys would become and I could see them in their humanity, for who they really were.”
Salois’ journey also included celebrating Mass at the cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City (which Salois still refers to as Saigon). Salois preached in French, the only language he had in common with the pastor.
“I told the parishioners I had come seeking healing and their acceptance and forgiveness,” said Salois. “The pastor translated my message into Vietnamese. The positive response of the people was absolutely amazing, overwhelming.”
It was because of his return to Vietnam twenty years after he had served there that Salois developed the courage to locate his buddy Herb’s parents in Dayton, Ohio, and go visit them—finally letting them know how their son had died.
“Herb’s mother told me she would never hold anything against me for the death of her son,” said Salois. “It was all I needed to hear.”
|Salois, M.S., MDiv.’82 is a board certified expert in traumatic stress from the American Academy of experts in Traumatic Stress. He founded the national Conference of Vietnam Veteran Ministers in 1989. Last year, the organization changed its name to the International Conference of War Veteran Ministers. As part of his work with this conference, Salois conducts spiritual retreats throughout the country designed specifically for returning combatants.|
This Article was written by Barbara R. Bodengraven,editor of "Light & Life", The Magazine of Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Summer 2006, Pages 8-9,Reprinted with permission.)
LA SALETTE AMERICA, JANUARY 2008, PGS. 4-6.