ABOARD USS BONHOMME RICHARD -- One 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit sergeant, and former grunt, is itching to get trigger time again, but for now, he'll settle for helping to plan missions instead of executing them.
Brandon A. Manning remains hopeful, despite the urge to be a ground-pounder again, that he can contribute to any engagements the 13th MEU may be called upon in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Manning and the 13th MEU are in the last stages of the workup phase for a scheduled six-month deployment to the Western Pacific and Arabian Gulf region in January.
Manning, a sergeant and one of two enlisted Marine Air-Ground Task Force planners for the 13th MEU, may have traded his pack and Dragon missile system for a laptop computer and a proxima, but he believes helping plan missions is essential to the overall success of the men on the ground.
Being one of only 200 MAGTF planners in the Marine Corps is a source of pride for Manning, and he goes about his job now as fervently as when he was a young anti-tank assault guided missileman, digging fighting holes and hiking many miles, said the 26-year-old, who hails from Amarillo, Texas.
"I still have the desire to be on the ground, especially since (the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.) Sept. 11," said Manning. "It tweaks me and hurts that I'm not an 'oh-three' anymore, but I say to myself, 'Let's see how I can facilitate our special operations.'"
Sporting subtle gold-rimmed glasses, straight brown hair, brown eyes and protruding ears, some onlookers may say "POAG" (Person Other than A Grunt), but Manning is no stranger to a combat environment. The father of two deployed with the 13th MEU from 1994-1995 when he was with Weapons Company, Battalion Landing Team 3/1, taking part in Operations Desert Storm Cease Fire in Kuwait and Restore Hope in Somalia.
At seven years old, Manning started watching what he calls "killer Marine movies," like "The Sands of Iwo Jima," and had an instant desire to be a Marine. By age 15, he had asked a Marine recruiter to save him a spot in boot camp in 1993 and that he wanted to be an infantryman.
Upon graduating high school, Manning headed to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego to start his career. By the time he graduated recruit training with E Co., 2nd Battalion, then continued training with Gulf Co., Marine Combat Training, and Alpha Co., School of Infantry, Manning knew there was something special about his choice to be a Leatherneck.
"The letters of each company I had been with in bootcamp, MCT and SOI added up to spell EGA, which everyone knows is the symbol of Marines - the Eagle, Globe and Anchor. Chesty has risen," Manning proclaims.
Leaving SOI is another experience Manning has not forgotten.
"Our whole company stood on the grinder at SOI. Back then, units didn't get sent to an infantry unit together. We watched everyone get split up with people going to cool places like Camp Lejeune, Security Forces, Silent Drill Platoon, etc. There was about 10 of us and they said, 'You guys are going to 3/1 about three miles down the road.' I got to meet all the guys who had been heckling me on the humps during MCT and SOI."
It didn't take the new Marine long to get his sea legs or his feet wet in action.
During Operation Restore Hope, Manning's unit was one of the last to leave as part of the United Nations effort there. While manning (no pun intended) his machinegunner's post with other Marines, Brandon earned the combat action ribbon for taking sporadic enemy fire on several occasions.
"I remember filling sandbags with another Marine when we saw the dirt kick up a few feet from us," Manning explained. "We jumped behind the berm and started shoveling ourselves into a crevice for cover. Our first sergeant was a crusty Vietnam vet and he just started laughing in a weezy smoker's voice and said, 'You can never fill enough sandbags when rounds are coming downrange."
Manning also recalled seeing a platoon of Marine light armored vehicles to his right flank engage a bunker full of Somali rebels armed with rocket-propelled grenades. Somalis were warned to leave immediately, but continued stocking the bunker. Manning said he couldn't understand how rebels took casualties and kept going back to the bunker.
The impact of those days in Somalia didn't hit Manning until a while after the confrontations.
"While we were there, we were just 20-year-old lance corporals, smokin'-n-jokin.' But when we got back to the ship, it sunk in that people had died. Nobody was depressed, but it was an odd feeling. I'd never seen anyone die before."
After Somalia and the MEU, Manning gathered his experiences and moved on to 1st Marine Regimental Reconnaissance Platoon, where he learned how to "stop being a lance corporal among lance corporals" and got a lot smarter about life in general.
Pulling his military identification card out of his left breast pocket (the only place acceptable for grunts), Manning described leaving the active duty ranks to join a reserve tank battalion. Regretting the decision, he decided to follow his calling - graduating the Marine Corps with at least a 20-year degree, he said.
So he returned to active duty, and after a year of on-the-job training and a three-week course in Little Creek, Va., he was born-again hard as the 13th MEU's enlisted MAGTF planner.
Manning's job consists of managing information in the form of a web page, tracking "enemy" units on a database and supervising the development of briefs during the Rapid Response Planning Process for the MEU's missions, said Capt. Mike Roach, assistant operations officer, 13th MEU.
"On the busiest day, Sgt. Manning might be handling six briefs simultaneously," Roach explained. "Sergeant Manning is the type of Marine who can handle multiple tasks and still serve as a mentor to his junior Marines. They look up to him as a former infantryman who earned a Combat Action Ribbon in Somalia. But he doesn't task his Marines with anything he's not willing to do himself."
While balancing several crucial tasks for the 13th MEU, Manning still finds time to keep the mood light in the operations office - a knack he learned from his dad.
"He's very high-spirited," said LCpl. Matthew G. Pebley, 22, from Covington, Wash., and an operations clerk with the 13th MEU. "He makes you want to come back to work despite some of the frustrations you face. He'll usually quote something out of a movie - stuff you just wouldn't think of when you're all stressed."
When asked to give an example of one of Manning's humor tactics, Pebley replied, "What hour of the day do you want?"
Whether it's relieving tensions at work, accomplishing missions or trying to fulfill his dream of a career in the Corps, Sgt. Brandon A. Manning has gone before and is helping those about to go.