The Things Dennis Mannion Carried

Staples is not a military campus.  Recruiters don’t walk the halls, and if they did they would not see students in ROTC uniforms.

Yet our high school hardly ignores reality.

Vice principal Richard Franzis — who served as a reservist in Iraq — talks often about his experience there.  Guidance counselors help students apply to the service academies, and encourage others to think about the military in lieu of college.

Then there are special events, like Dennis Mannion’s visit last week.

The Connecticut native earned a measure of fame when his photo appeared on the cover of “Dear America:  Letters Home From Vietnam,” the 1987 documentary in which people like Matt Dillon, Tom Berenger and Michael J. Fox read letters written 20 years earlier by people like Dennis Mannion, his company mates, and some of the other 2.1 million Americans who fought in that long-ago-but-just-yesterday war, halfway across the world.

Dennis was invited to Staples — where he’s spoken before — by English instructor Dan Geraghty.  Dan is also a former reservist.  When his sophomore students (like all 10th graders) read The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien’s harrowing, haunting and ultimately empowering tales of life in Alpha Company — he helps them examine every facet of war and peace.

They read, discuss, think about and try to make sense of concepts like honor and integrity, brutality and horror, good wars and bad wars, and everything in between.

It’s heavy stuff.  But there’s nothing like hearing about war from someone who’s been there.

Dennis warned the students:  “I’m not a hero.  This is not glamorous.  It’s not an adventure story.”

And then — for nearly 2 hours — he talked.

He described his youth:  Skating through high school caring only about football and girls; somehow making it to Notre Dame, only to flunk out; enlisting in the Marines.

He arrived in Vietnam in the fall of 1967.  One photo shows a young man wearing all new gear — except for his old, worn boots.  To avoid blisters, Dennis explained, Marines went to a huge tent filled with coffins, and found boots that had been discarded before their dead colleagues were shipped home.

He told the students what it’s like to wear 100 pounds of gear in 105-degree heat.  What he feared most:  Making a mistake that would get other people killed.  What it felt like to have explosive diarrhea while crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with other Marines, in the middle of a truck convoy.

There were moments of M*A*S*H-like levity:  trading whiskey for a parachute, under which he and his tentmate escaped the cold and wind.  A fellow Marine learned to catch dragonflies, sew their wings to his helmet, then luxuriate as the dragonfly snapped up the bugs and flies that tormented everyone else.

But those moments were overshadowed by a harsher reality.  Sometimes Marines killed water buffaloes — a Vietnamese community’s prized possession — out of frustration, or sheer boredom.

Sometimes mortars landed inches away.  Sometimes they killed, maimed or blinded his friends.

And sometimes Dennis fought brutal battles.

He was at Khe Sanh.

In a siege lasting nearly 3 months, 8,000 Marines faced 50,000 North Vietnamese.  Dennis took shrapnel.  Today — nearly 40 years later — doctors still monitor his wounds.

Yet he was lucky.  Twenty-eight of his friends were killed at Khe Sanh.

Dennis finally flew home to Connecticut.  His seatmate — a man in a business suit — asked where he’d been.  Vietnam, he said.  The man rang for a stewardess, and requested a seat as far away from Dennis as possible.

“In 1968 this country was nuts,” Dennis told the Staples students.  “I can’t even describe how crazy things were.”

Dennis Mannion

After briefly describing his life since then — he went to UConn, taught high school English for 30 years, and coached football — Dennis opened the floor to questions.

Someone asked what he thought about war today.

“Sending kids to fight anywhere should be the absolute last option — not the 2nd or 5th or 10th,” Dennis replied.  “Afghanistan I might buy.  Iraq, there’s no reason we should have gone in.”

After nearly 2 hours, Dennis was almost through.  Looking back on his own life, he had a few final words.

“As you move on from here, you’ll make choices,” Dennis told his Staples audience.

“Whatever you choose, some doors will open.  Others will close.  But those choices are yours — and yours alone.  You’ll live with them for the rest of your life.”

8 responses to “The Things Dennis Mannion Carried

  1. The Dude Abides

    Bravo to Dennis for his service and his eagerness to talk about it to the youth of today. Unfortunately our country did not, as Dennis did, learn that war is hell. Literally. I recently had dinner with a young couple and Vietnam came up. I said I had been there (DaNang ’69-’70). Their response? “Did you go during the summer or winter. We hear that it is beautiful during the winter to visit.” I had to leave the table. 58,000 died. So sad. Thanks Dennis and Dan for reminding a new generation that it was/is more than a tourist destination.

  2. it will be great too to read here about lecture-visits to Westport from any one of the thousands saved, quality of life improved, etc., by US soldiers during vietnam, iraq, afghanistan, etc.

  3. The Dude Abides

    Well Anonymous, that might be a long wait. I know you are a big State Department advocate but most of those who have found some benefit from our invasion of their countries are now living in the United States. At least 1 million Vietnamese, over 2 million Iraqies and I guess there will be a new wave of Afghans soon. You won’t see too many in Westport though. As to the good deeds of our servicemen abroad, you don’t find too many on the lecture circuit. I wonder why that is???

  4. Rich Franzis

    I am very thankful that one of the take-aways from the Vietnam War was not to “Mistake the War with the Warrior”, based on another fairly unpopular war.

    It’s one of the great tragedies in the history of this country how returning Vietnam vets were often treated by their fellow Americans, who did nothing more than do what their country asked of them.

    Having heard Dennis speak a number of times, I can’t help but think of how he was treated on his airline flight back to Connecticut from California as he returned from Vietnam.

    It’s quite a different plane ride that I had from Atlanta back to Connecticut when I returned from Iraq.

    Dennis tells of sitting on a plane next to a “business man” in a suit, with a briefcase on his tray.

    The man turned to Dennis, flying in uniform and asked :”Where are you coming from?” Dennis replied “Vietnam” The man then asked :”Did you see any action?”

    Dennis replied: “A little”. That was the end of the conversation until the airplane reached cruising altitude, and the man turned on the “flight attendant light”.

    When the stewardess (now flight attendant) responded to the man and asked: “Can I do something for you sir?”, the man with the briefcase replied: “Yeah. I want you to get me a seat as far away from this guy as you possiblycan”

    I also returned to Connecticut from Iraq via Atlanta in uniform with one other Soldier on Southwest Airlines.

    Before we took off on a packed plane, the captain came on the intercom and made the announcement :”Before we take off, if you’ve slept in your own bed last night and were free from fear, there are two Untied States Soldiers on this plane returning from Iraq that you should thank.”

    The plane erupted in a thunderous applause that went on for a good 30 seconds.

    All I could think of was the road that was paved by another generation of Americans in another fairly unpopular war.

    My thanks to all the Vietnam vets who after a hard-fought battle, finally influenced America’s collective conscience about how to treat and not treat it’s returning warriors.

    Welcome home, Dennis!

  5. Carl A. Swanson

    Thank you Rich for your service and comparative poignant stories. I also returned from Vietnam right after Kent State in 1970 and found most either apathetic or downright nasty. I am not sure if the popularity of either war is the determining factor. I think the draft had much to do with the perception of the American soldier and I am not sure my brethren did much to correct that view. Many of us were pretty screwed up returning to a nation in a culturiological transition. Certainly the patriotism following 911 added to a country’s
    appreciation of those who now serve. However, rarely do you see now frontline coverage of either war or those lost. A comfort level has returned to ADD America. So while they cheer your return for thirty seconds, they go right back to reading their newspaper and (I believe) whisper to themselves: “Damn, I am glad that ain’t me.” I am happy you made it home safe.

  6. I am not impressed with Dennis…he lied to me about my father and only when I got ugly (which I am not!!) did he finally respond,..I have no respect for you…I have all the respect for Doug Sykes as he is an honest man…you sir are a Liar and I will tell you again…never speak my father’s name again..because you..sir are a liar!!!!

  7. Mr. Mannion (Dennis these days) was my high school English teacher, and my football coach. He wasn’t your normal English teacher. He cared about his students in a way not many other teachers showed and truly enjoyed what he taught. When it came to football, like his teaching in English class, he coached with an enthusiasm that not many coaches bring to the table. Now I’m 37 and have children of my own. I coach my sons baseball and basketball teams and the ideals and enthusiasm he showed me I’ve held onto to this day and bring those to my teams when I coach. He truly is ‘the man’ in every sense of the word/phrase.

  8. Oh, to ‘anonymous’, if you were any type of real man, you would have given your real name. Instead, you decided to go on the attack and most likely come to this page just to troll and be a douchebag. You sir are nothing more than an empty head dolt. Call Dennis a liar, but give no examples of his ‘lying’? You should be ashamed.