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Lee County's Billy Manning trained soldiers for combat

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

LEESBURG, Ga. -- As Billy Manning looks back over his 40-year military career, a career that saw him rise to the position of command sergeant major of the entire Georgia National Guard, it's easy to see the great measure of pride he takes in that service.

Now 74 and slowed only a bit by a recent battle with cancer, the steely-eyed Manning talks with relish about a career in which he "put on the uniform every day."

"I don't know if there's anything I would have done differently; maybe work a little harder," he says after considering a visitor's question.

Pressed, though, Manning admits there is one regret that haunts him to this day.

"My job was to train our soldiers to fight and win," he says wistfully. "But every day I feel that I missed out by not being involved in the action myself. I feel cheated out of that part of my life.

"I asked to go, but the boss said he needed me more here than he did fighting in the battles."

Known -- and respected by the men who served under him -- for his motto "Make It Happen," Manning made it clear that those words were more than some cheap slogan.

"One of the things I've always preached at every school or every graduation I've been asked to speak at is that you don't see the results (of your actions) sometimes until the bus has gone by," Manning said. "You want to be prepared for when that bus comes, have your ticket in hand.

"The world needs people willing to make it happen. I've found there are three kinds of people in the world: those who make it happen, those who let it happen and those who wonder what did happen."

A Lee County native, Manning joined the Army National Guard's Albany-based 2nd Batallion, 121st Infantry division in 1954.

"I wanted to give it a try, plus I could work and serve in the Guard," he says of that decision.

In 1959, just after the end of the Korean Conflict, Manning went on active duty. He served at Fort Bragg, N.C., Fort Sill, Okla., Fort Chaffee, Ark., and Fort Jackson, S.C. He trained soldiers on the dynamics of the heavy artillery weaponry. At Fort Bragg, he trained a unit of the 18th Airborne Corps on the only piece of conventional weaponry that had nuclear capability.

Manning left active duty in 1961. He was out of the Army for one day before he came back to Albany and became a full-time trainer for the Guard's mechanized infantry battalion here.

He served with the Albany Guard unit, for which he became the command sergeant major in 1979, from 1961 to 1985. In '85 he was named Georgia's first full-time state command sergeant major.

"The Guard took on more responsibility for the nation's defense," he said. "Just before Dessert Storm, our training really picked up."

Manning trained Guard units at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., and even at age 50 he again asked to serve in the active military. Again he was told his greatest service was as a trainer of the fighting men and women.

In 1993, Manning left his position as command sergeant major of the Georgia Guard and served three years as commandant of the NCO Academy in Macon, where he trained on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

In 1996, Manning retired to his farm in Leesburg to spend more time with his wife Pat, his daughters Mitzi, Veronica and Monica, and his grandchildren.

Current Georgia CSM James Nelson of Sylvester was one of the men who served under Manning. Nelson sings the praises of the long-time Guard leader.

"In studying under Command Sgt. Major Manning, I found him to be one of the most charismatic leaders I've ever met," Nelson said from his office in Atlanta. "He's the kind of NCO all soldiers want to grow up to be like. He was a stern individual when it came to discipline and standards, but at the same time he was very personal.

"He's one of the two or three people I've known in my career that I've tried to emulate."

The women in the Manning household developed a sense of humor about their husband and father's military career.

"I was put in his service more than 50 years ago," Pat Manning says, a twinkle in her eye. "And I'm still a private."

The Mannings will celebrate their 50th anniversary in January.

"Yeah, once you get one of them trained, you might as well keep 'em around," Manning shoots back in response to his wife's jab.

Daughter Veronica Johnson, who is Lee County's elections supervisor, said she got an idea of what her daddy's away-from-home life was like when she spent the night with a friend as a 7-year-old.

"My friend had an older sister, and her brother-in-law came home from summer (Guard) camp when I was visiting one day," Johnson said. "My friend's parents pointed to me and asked 'Do you know who this one belongs to?'

"When they told him I was Billy Manning's daughter, he said, 'Your daddy is a mean man.' Of course, I defended my dad; I told him, 'He is not mean'."

Billy Manning's not a mean man; he's a military leader. Always has been, always will be. And you won't get him to utter a negative comment about the country's current war efforts.

"The Guard is vital to our defense now; they have to be because we've gotten in over our socks," he said. "But I believe in them -- they're good people -- and I believe in what they're doing."

Pressed about America's two-front war, Manning diplomatically says, "Decisions like that are made by people above my level. I only have my personal opinion, and it changes daily."

Asked about Gen. Stanley McChrystal's comments about American civilian and military leaders in a recent Rolling Stone magazine article that eventually led to his removal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Manning had a ready reply.

"I don't know Gen. McChrystal or Gen. (David) Petraeus (who will replace McChrystal) because I haven't served under them," Manning said. "But I do know one thing. It doesn't matter what the president's race, religion, creed or credentials are, there's got to be a boss and only one boss.

"And you don't talk about the boss without your hand getting slapped ... especially in a rock and roll magazine."

Spoken like the true Army man that Billy Manning will always be.