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A Vet Remembers Vietnam, but Hates to Dwell

By Daniel Bejarano • Sep 14th, 2011 • Category: People

By Daniel Bejarano

According to Roger Manning, a retired sergeant from the U.S. Army,  his life is boring. “I am a vanilla,” he says. But scratch the surface, and you’ll find that his time in the military during the Vietnam War proves just the opposite.

Manning sports a short beard and wears his long, silvery hair in a pony tail. Every other Wednesday you can find him, cigar in hand, reading the New York Times, a nonfiction book, or a magazine outside Cranky’s, a Long Island City café. He comes all the way from Parkchester, in the Bronx, to read or watch the many foreign films the café screens. For years, it has been Manning’s “favorite hang-out.”

Born in Manhattan in 1944, Manning knows his history, and he loves to share both his family’s and his own. He’s eager to weigh in on just about any topic you might suggest. Marbury v. Madison, world politics, World War II, or just his latest read are fair game, leading to a conversation at once stimulating and edifying. Manning’s enthusiasm is vividly displayed through his laughter, which punctuates his storytelling, even about experiences from long ago.

In 1962, at age 18, Manning joined the army and was soon shipped to Vietnam. It wasn’t until the end of his first tour that he became a paratrooper in Airborne Division 101st, one of the most prestigious units and believed to be one of the most feared by the Vietcong, who called the paratroopers “chicken men” because of the bald eagle emblem on their uniform.

Manning returned from Vietnam at 25 and became a cop, a “boring position,” he says. The most action he experienced, he says, was being attacked by a dog. He wound up going to college at 32, talked into it by a girlfriend of the time. But it was the army, he says, that provided the real adventures.

“Initially, I was having fun. I wanted to know what it was like to be a soldier, do something unusual and adventurous,” he says. “But it was also a sense of duty,” he adds, explaining why he lengthened his initial two-year tour to almost a decade.

One of Manning’s most adventurous jobs was in the Arctic working for the Department of Defense. In the summer of 1971, after coming back from his last tour, he helped deliver oil to maintain U.S. radar stations across northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, which guarded against a potential attack of Russian missiles. “I worked in a team of guys who, using cold weather SCUBA gear — even though it was summer, the water was near freezing — strung hoses across the bay of Thule, Greenland,” he says.

Despite the adventures, however, Manning is reluctant to talk or even learn about the what happened in Vietnam. “I don’t like to read about the things we did there,” he says. “I like to talk about the strategy. We could have easily won that war.”

“I never got used to it,” he says about shooting the enemy. “There were many that got used to it but not me.” He treats war cautiously, clearly not sharing more than he needs or wants to. “There was a lieutenant who once, while we were patrolling, blurted out, ‘Baby, if you see something, shoot!’” Manning says of a memory that stands out among the rest.

Recollections like these allow him to talk straightforwardly about his first time killing one of the “Gooks,” a nickname for the North Vietnamese. “That time we were patrolling, when I was told to shoot, I didn’t see one of them perched on a tree, but I sprayed the tree with gunfire anyway,” he says. “Later on I was congratulated because they said I had hit one.”

War for Manning doesn’t have any of Hollywood’s glamour. “Shooting someone is dramatic, and it is not like in Saving Private Ryan,” he says. “I don’t like the idea of taking a human life.” He reassures, though, that it was about survival, too, that “it was either them or us.”

One of his most compelling moments in Vietnam was in 1967. “I was on a helicopter. I fired off two rounds, but the machine gun jammed; it was somebody else’s. I had to take it apart and reload it, so I lost the opportunity to shoot them, and they got away,” he says. “But I’m glad I don’t have that on my conscience.” Manning insists how gratifying it felt after the two Vietcong got away, that he didn’t have to kill them.

“It wasn’t all bad,” Manning says. “A lot of good things—things which had nothing to do with all the nastiness of the war—also happened,” he explains.

Manning’s laughter becomes exuberant while reminiscing about a jump he made as a paratrooper. “At this jump no one else but the colonel landed on a tree. He realized it was safe to cut the strapping harness from the parachute to disentangle himself.”  Manning takes a deep breath to stop laughing. “It was very dark and he had to get going anyway.” His laughter grows wild. “The colonel started walking, but shortly rolled over a 40 feet slope. He came away OK; he injured himself but didn’t die.”

It’s not uncommon for soldiers to come back home from war-torn countries filled with regrets, or for veterans to struggle with old memories. Manning, on the other hand, says, “I’m glad I did go. It was one of the most important things in world history and I was part of it.”

And despite the doubts, Manning insists that his life isn’t special. “I’m just one of billions of guys on this planet slipping and sliding through life, hoping for the better life in Heaven we have been promised.”

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