Bill Phillips grew up as the son of teachers in Chenoa, Illinois. In 1969, following his first year of teaching in Pontiac, he was drafted, and soon received training as a medic. Assigned to the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam, Phillips spent time with an armored battalion, then was transferred to a medical evacuation unit, where he rode to the evacuation of countless American casualties. He finished his time in Vietnam serving as a company medic in an Infantry unit. That unit participated in the invasion of Cambodia. During R and R in Hawaii, Phillips contracted malaria, and spent the rest of his tour working as a clerk at the Tripler Army Medical Center.