The coronavirus almost killed Jerry Salas, a 69-year-old Vietnam War veteran. But he survived.
Now he wants to give back to help and honor struggling veterans with his music. Salas, a guitarist and rock singer who has performed with groups like the pioneering Latin rock band El Chicano, Michael Jackson and the Temptations, will be on stage on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, but in a much different venue.
He will lead the first Rock for Vets Virtual “Music is the Remedy” Telethon Concert from the Scottish Rite Theater near downtown Long Beach from 3 to 5 p.m.
Because of the coronavirus epidemic, the concert will not have an in-person audience but will be performed for free online. Though the concert is free, organizers are requesting donations to help support veterans.
Performing with Salas will be singer Alphonso Boyd, known as “Mr. Shakey Ground” for the hit song of the same name when he was with the Temptations, and soul singer Erma Varnado, a retired administrative assistant with the city of Long Beach. Other musicians include bass player Charles Rick Roche and saxophone player Brian Grace, both veterans, and drummer Frank McIlquham, co-founder of Rock for Vets with Salas.
Salas is still recovering from his near-death experience with the coronavirus, but he said he is “about 90%” back to normal.
“I’m alive and kicking and just thankful for every day I’m around,” Salas told me last week in a phone conference call with McIlquham.
Salas contracted a severe case of the coronavirus in late March and ended up in intensive care at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. He had underlying health conditions, including diabetes and recent radiation treatments for cancer, which, he said, was related to exposure to Agent Orange when he was serving as a 19-year-old, driving armored personnel carriers in Vietnam.
In the VA hospital, doctors performed a tracheotomy to keep Salas breathing. He was put on a dialysis machine for kidney failure. While he was treated, patients on each side of him in his room died.
After 48 days of treatment and isolation, Salas was released from the hospital. He was dubbed “The Miracle Man” by astonished and admiring doctors and nurses. Since his release, Salas has been working on recording songs for a future album and preparing for the Rock for Vets concert on Veterans Day.
“I lost 42 pounds during my ordeal with the coronavirus, but I’ve gained most of that back and then some,” said Salas, who weighs about 230 now.
Salas met McIlquham in 2009 when McIlquham was operating a music program helping kids at Cabrillo High School. McIlquham said he needed a music coach to help him, and Salas was recommended to him.
They joined up and soon after that they started Rock for Vets, a nonprofit organization to help veterans suffering from mental or physical wounds. The program provides veterans an opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument or sing and become part of the band guided by former or current professionals from the music industry.
McIlquham said music was a great vehicle to help veterans increase their self-confidence and self-esteem. He said Rock for Vets has helped about 300 veterans since it started 10 years ago. McIlquham’s wife, Katherine, is the Rock for Vets manager.
Salas said Veterans Day has always been a special day for him.
“There are so many vets who are struggling. I want to give back all I can to help them,” he said.
Salas said he will always remember a moment he had with the wife of a soldier who had returned from Afghanistan where he had accidentally killed a child in a firefight. The soldier, suffering from anxiety and depression, had heard about Rock for Vets and wanted to play the drums. Salas was his coach.
One day, Salas said, the man’s wife thanked him for helping her husband overcome his depression and getting back to his old self. Moments like those make his work with Rock for Vets worthwhile, Salas said.
Salas said he felt his “love of God” got him through his coronavirus scare.
“I am blessed with faith and hope,” he said. “I thank the Lord every day I wake up. Some people take life for granted. I don’t. My message to everyone is to enjoy your family, especially during these uncertain times. You never know what might happen.”
If you watch
What: Rock for Vets “Music is the Remedy” Concert
When: 3 to 5 p.m. Nov. 11
How: Visit musicistheremedy.org and enter your email address to receive a link for the virtual concert.