From poverty to priesthood; a journey of service

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Taylor Bourgeous
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Military members come from all types of backgrounds and many different life paths. Father Juan Salonga, 92nd Air Refueling GS Catholic Priest, at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., has seen it all - from growing up very poor in the Philippines, to serving in the United States Navy and, most recently, becoming a chaplain.

Salonga joined the U.S. Navy through the U.S. - Philippines Military Bases Agreement that allowed Filipino citizens to join the U.S. Armed Forces between 1947 and 1991.

"It was not easy to be accepted into this program in the Philippines," said Father Juan. "To apply, we needed to complete two written exams and two interviews. I mailed in my application when I was 23 years old. I didn't receive anything back until right before my 25th birthday. The cut off age in the Philippines is 25."

Before entering the military, Salonga earned just $50 a week teaching history, communication and economics to high school and college students. He taught these classes in Filipino, the national language of the Philippines. In addition to teaching those subjects, he taught Catholic religion in six different public schools.

Father Juan began his Navy career in the aviation department. Shortly after, he changed careers and began working in the personnel section. While working personnel, Father Juan met multiple Sailors going through separation due to problems like personality disorders.

"During the process of discharging them, I would ask what made them decide to separate," said Father Juan. "Many Sailors would comment on the advice they received from their chaplain. It made me wonder - were they receiving accurate advice and counsel?"

One could say it was the sign he needed to become a chaplain, which was something he'd thought about since he was young. As a child, he would play "priest," by dressing in bed sheets.

"When I joined the Navy, I never thought I would function as a catechist or activist in the church," said Father Juan. "But I was wrong."

Throughout boot camp Father Juan volunteered with the church as an Extra-ordinary Minister of Holy Communion. Further on in his career he worked side-by-side with the Catholic chaplain, and helped the Protestant chaplain set up for the services.

"Sometimes the chaplain assistant wouldn't show up, so they'd ask me," said Father Juan. "He knew I was capable to set up for the services. At that moment, I knew I could be a priest."

In 2000, after 14 years in the Navy, Father Juan got out of the military and worked for 10 years to become ordained. Prior to leaving the military, he helped his family back in the Philippines buy a five bedroom house, a vehicle and a small grocery store.

Once ordained he served four years in a New Jersey church before applying to become a military chaplain.

"I think they chose me to come here because of my military experience," he said. "I have the same type of experiences, I know their problems and I know their language."

Father Juan finds fulfillment when sitting down with people, talking to them and trying to help them find an ideal solution to their problems.

"I am really happy I get to serve in the military again by being a chaplain," said Father Juan. "It is like a dream come true."