Josh Manning, a 29-year-old junior at Elon University and former American Army Ranger, recalls a mission while on deployment as what was meant to be a typical “cut and dried” operation — the work done and the “bad guys” gone. 

It wasn’t his worst day — it was one day. With 116 confirmed dead on Afghani soil, only one was an U.S. soldier.

“We went out on this one mission, and there was a cave,” Manning said. “We were just going to drop a bomb on it, clear and walk through to make sure everyone died or we would go in and ‘clear’ the rest.”

But that’s not what happened in July 2011, 11,000 feet high on a mountain in the Paktika province of Afghanistan. 

“No coalition forces had been there in six or seven years,” Manning said. “We made contact as soon as we landed, but got shot at so we ran.” 

Twenty three and a half hours later, Manning and his battalion were still running.

“We got to the top finally and dropped a bomb in the cave,” Manning said. “A lot of people had dispersed because of radio activity. We started clearing it. Every time we rounded a corner we got into direct contact, it was pretty much non-stop.” 

It wasn’t his worst day, he said. But it left him lying against a stack of bodies just for a backrest, death as a reprieve from life. 

Choosing the army

Manning never planned to get into a life full of this kind of trauma.

When he graduated high school, Manning knew he didn’t have the financial means to attend college. So, he turned to construction and worked alongside his dad, a sub-contractor, after graduation.

“I felt a big void in my life, though,” Manning said. “I needed something different, and I didn’t know what it was.”

Partway through Manning’s first year out of high school, one of his friends returned home from basic training and talked to Manning about it. Within the following days, Manning went to talk to a recruiter in Greensboro.

“It caught my attention because I felt the sense I would be doing something worthwhile,” Manning said. 

Plus, he only needed to fulfill the minimum three-year contract in order to leave and have the funds to pay for college.

Five days later, he left — not telling his parents or current girlfriend — and didn’t look back.

Once he completed his basic training and first 15-month deployment, Manning’s commander approached him and asked if he had any interest in doing something different by becoming a ranger.

“I didn’t even know what a ranger was,” Manning said. “But I went to selection, passed and became one. Between 2009-2013, I was a team squad leader and up for my second enlistment.”

To become a ranger, Manning had to graduate from ranger school. Ranger school is 61 days of intense physical and mental tests, from maneuvering mountainous terrain to swamps, building bridges to climbing cliffs — all on one or two meals a day and often only 30 minutes to an hour of sleep per night.

“You realize you can go so much farther than you ever thought possible,” Manning said.

But ranger school gives graduates a small taste of deployment. Manning said it is a respectable feat and a premier leadership school. But he completed the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP) as well, which is what made him a member of the elite 75th Ranger Regiment. 

With Ranger Battalion, Manning endured eight weeks of tests and shooter tactics.

“They would play a lot of games on us,” Manning said. “We would go to sleep and wake up being thrown in the water. They would set up tents and say, ‘Anyone that wants to quit can go to the tent and get sleep and eat’ — there was even a keg. Everyone was flying over there.”

Everyone except Manning. He stayed, learning to blow gates in and breach doorways, doing tasks from sun up to sun down with little to no breaks.

Deploying for relief

“Deployments for us are actually a break,” Manning said. “We might be up all day and night but then we get a ‘day rest’ — we come back from mission, and it’s your time to do whatever you need to do to decompress. It’s not time with our families, but it’s our time.”

Deployments at Manning’s caliber as a ranger typically last four to six months because of their mentally challenging aspects.

“Every night we have contact — fire fight. We fast-rope in from a helicopter or walk seven kilometers, carrying 100 pounds of equipment by yourself, we’re each our own fully-functioning unit.”

Missions, Manning said, would include blowing doors and going directly into the target area, getting whomever was present, interrogating them and finishing any other duties. Then they would come back to camp, debrief, sleep and start over.

“I know he’s had a lot of gruesome, unimaginable experiences abroad — the kind that don’t necessarily make national news,” said close friend and senior Kathleen Hupfeld. “Through getting to know him better, I’ve developed a much deeper, more personal appreciation for all of the sacrifices that our military makes for us.' 

Returning to ‘normalcy’

But Manning didn’t always believe he would get better when returning home. In fact, during his deployment part of him believed he wouldn’t make it home at all. 

“The hardest thing was coming back,” Manning said. “In the moment when you see your friend get shot, you have to walk over him and eliminate the threat. Then you come back to the United States and have to get in the swing of things, there is no time to decompress.”

Manning said he saw friends of his die. Some were married or had kids. One, he said, had a child due two weeks later.

“I don’t really term it ‘survivor’s guilt,’” Manning said. “But I struggled with the idea of why couldn’t it have been me. Here I am, a single guy, I was just doing my job — it could’ve been me.”

Manning was determined to reverse that negative thought, recognizing that he should take advantage of the things in place for him.

He went to counselors, addressing thoughts of suicide and working to unblock emotional pain. Upon returning home, his emotions switched on and off uncontrollably.

Manning shut down, quit going out socially and pushed people away. He equated past pain to a stigma of weakness, and it was difficult to open up. His initial step in receiving help was going to the Department of Veterans Affairs, but the aid he received didn’t prove to be enough. 

“The first thing they want to do is throw a bunch of pills down your throat,” Manning said.

He took medicine but stopped on his own accord and sought counseling, breaking down walls and, though it was uncomfortable, reflecting on the trauma he experienced.

But Manning said he would not alter his past, no matter its present pain.

“All in all, it did make me a different person,” Manning said. 

Becoming a Phoenix

Two years later, he came home. Manning, 27 at the time, enrolled as a freshman at Elon just down the road from his childhood home — a place he never believed he would return to.

“I was originally going to go to [North Carolina State University] for engineering,” he said. “I had been out of school nearly 10 years at that point, and the small class sizes attracted me to the idea of private school, and, after talking to a few people, I realized I liked the idea of computer science instead.”

Manning said two summers ago in 2013 he ran into Elon’s Delta Upsilon chapter president and, through their discussions and subsequent friendship, Manning knew Elon was the right choice for him. He found a home once more in the roots he left behind.

“Josh handled the transition just as well as any new student would,” said senior Andrew Mitchell. “People gravitated to him quickly because they found him interesting and different, which I think kind of shocked him at first. The change in lifestyle between the army and Elon is ridiculous, as expected, but he did great, and is still doing great.”