By Skip VaughnMay 26, 2015
Henry Phillips will someday finish writing the book he's already started but has been putting off working on. He wants to write it for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren so they'll have an idea of who he is. "I think I'm going to entitle the book 'All the Wrong Decisions,'" he said.
This Vietnam veteran and Hazel Green resident has certainly made his share of misguided decisions. But his book will have a happy ending: He became a Christian, he became a loving parent and husband, an educator and a coach and a mentor to young people.
Phillips dropped out of high school as a senior in Tacoma, Washington. He joined the Army for patriotic reasons in 1963 and went on to serve 27 years, retiring in 1991 as a sergeant first class and senior chaplain's assistant at Bicentennial Chapel.
He taught history and coached for 15 years in Madison County schools. For the past three years, he has taught two hours a day at Bethlehem Christian Academy, a private Christian school in Hazel Green. He teaches seventh-grade world history and eighth-grade U.S. history.
The Seattle native served three one-year tours in Vietnam: 1964-65, 1967-68 and 1971-72. The first two tours were with the Special Forces, and the third was split between the 101st Airborne Division and the 1st Cavalry. In the first year, he spent six months in Saigon and then went to Nha Trang. The second year he attended MACV Recondo School, a reconnaissance school operated by the 5th Special Forces Group in Nha Trang. A harrowing weekend of firefights in Nha Trang in 1967 changed his life.
"That's when I became a Christian because I almost got killed three different times in one operation," Phillips said. "That was time to convert."
He became a chaplain's assistant, particularly proud of leading the youth ministry. And along the way, after two failed marriages, he learned the importance of putting priority on family.
"I learned a big lesson that way; that was: ministry comes second, your family comes first," he said.
In Vietnam, he said, he experienced some combat but not a lot. "I saw some death -- troops killed, people killed," he said. Phillips received the Bronze Star for meritorious service and the Meritorious Service Medal.
"I'm certainly not a hero," he said. "I've seen too many good men, I've known too many good men, that have given their lives. They were the true heroes."
Phillips, 70, thanks God that the shots aimed in his direction in Vietnam missed their mark. And he is grateful for his experience there.
"I loved every minute of it. I thought we were there for a greater purpose -- to free these people, to liberate them from all the crap they were involved in," he said.
When he returned to the U.S., he didn't personally experience the mental or physical abuse from antiwar protesters like many of his fellow veterans during those times. Perhaps the former high school football player's imposing size had something to do with that. He was the sixth of eight children; and all four boys joined a different branch of the military -- Marines, Air Force, Navy and Army. The eight siblings are expected to gather for the Phillips family reunion Aug. 13 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Phillips and his third wife, of 32 years, Edith, share eight children, 20 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He proudly pointed out that one of his former seventh-grade students married one of his grandsons.
"It's been a rough ride," he said of his life. "But if it weren't for the grace of God … It has been hard."
Each year he participates in a Spiritual Warfare Camp, a youth retreat led by retired Marine Louie Barnett, pastor of the Eagles Nest Church in Monroe, Michigan.
Phillips shared his view of this nation's commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
"I think it's long overdue," he said. "All the wars, all the people that have given their lives so we can be free, the moment we take it too lightly it's going to come back and slap us in the face.
"I'm not looking for any appreciation (for Vietnam service), I did it because I believed in what I was doing."
Editor's note: This is the 19th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.