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He's still running, but not away from the memories

For a quarter-century, Lt. Philip Maniscalco repressed his wartime memories.

He had just turned 25 when he arrived in Vietnam in September 1968 and was assigned as a platoon leader in D Company, 1st Battalion, 11th Infantry, 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division, leaving a wife and two young daughters at home.

The carnage and horror he would witness in the ensuing year as he led search-and-destroy and reconnaissance missions, earning both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, each with an oak leaf cluster, would forever change his psyche.

“Nearly every day, someone was going to die or get wounded — we just never knew who, or where or how,” he said.

Like Pfc. Thomas Walker, who was in line in a file formation on Dec. 26, 1968, as Lt. Maniscalco moved his platoon late at night into ambush position. The lieutenant was third in line, but it was Walker, 23, from Wisconsin, who had arrived in South Vietnam just three weeks earlier, who put a foot down on a booby-trapped mine and died immediately.

“I wept for Pfc. Walker and have never stopped weeping,” said Maniscalco, now 77. “In my nightmares, I see myself stepping on the landmine and not Pfc. Walker. In the pitch of dark, we walked past the same space. There were about 25 of us in the file and it was Pfc. Walker in the seventh position that landed on the mine.”

Maniscalco, who served six years with the Army and seven more later with the Connecticut National Guard, would go on to have a 26-year career in banking in Connecticut, followed by a stint as a financial analyst at Pfizer Inc., before retiring in 2007. A native of Norristown, Pa., he lived in Connecticut for decades, making his home in Mystic for many years, but now lives in Westerly.

He would have one more child, a son, with his first wife, but that marriage ended in divorce within a couple of years of his return from Vietnam, one more casualty of the nightmares and flashbacks he brought home with him.

The Vietnam memories were too difficult and painful for Maniscalco and he pushed them deep for a quarter-century.

“I just locked them up, I didn’t talk about it, and if I did, it was just for brief moments,” he said.

But in 1995, at a D Company reunion in Branson, Mo., with about 30 guys from the 11th Infantry, something clicked for Maniscalco. He left the reunion changed.

“It was wonderfully emotional,” he said, explaining that meeting with other Vietnam veterans made him realize how much better he had fared both physically and emotionally. Right then he decided he would convert his passion for running, something he had long enjoyed, into a tribute to other soldiers.

“I thought, ‘I run all the time and thank goodness I can still run. For the rest of my life I will run a marathon every year to honor all those guys that didn’t come home and to honor those that came home broken.’”

And he did just that, for 17 years, until 2012, when a 26.2-mile run became too challenging for him. Now, he does the equivalent, two half-marathons every year.

“When I’m running, oftentimes they are with me in my mind,” he said. “They are with me and I recall things. It just comes back and I am at peace with it all. They all left at such a young age.”

He still chokes up when he talks about the men who were killed. Joseph Russo, 21, and three others in Maniscalco’s platoon died March 7, 1969, in a surprise ambush while Maniscalco was away. Russo used to share pepperoni, which his mother sent in care packages, with his lieutenant.

“I believe to this day, that if I were there with them, they may have lived another day,” Maniscalco said. “I cry every time I think of these young men.”

He remembers the exact dates and circumstances of the deaths and injuries. In 2015, as part of the 50th anniversary of the commemoration of the Vietnam War, Maniscalco authored, with assistance, a PowerPoint presentation of the 514 soldiers of the 1st Brigade, 5th Division, who died in the war from August 1968 to September 1971. It is deeply personal for him.

Military a good fit

For Maniscalco, growing up as the oldest of four children in a working-class, Italian family, the service was a way to get an education. His freshman year at Drexel University, he worked construction days and went to school at night. But a half-credit ROTC military history class was a requirement his freshman and sophomore years, and he learned he didn’t only like history, but that the military was a good fit for him. Plus, there was the $40 monthly ROTC stipend that paid his way.

“I liked the discipline, and the structure, and the polished shoes, and the respect for rank,” he said.

He graduated with degrees in business administration and finance in June 1967 and entered the Army that September as a 2nd lieutenant. He would attend Infantry Officer’s Training School in Fort Benning, Ga., and his first assignment was to Fort Carson, Colo., including deployment as part of backup forces at the 1968 Chicago riots, sparked in part by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

It was a tumultuous time and when Maniscalco finally got his orders to go to Vietnam, he recalls that he wept.

“No, I wasn’t afraid,” he said. “It was just that it was finally my turn. I guess maybe I was naïve.”

He arrived in Vietnam in September 1968, at the height of the U.S. buildup, when there were about a half-million other American service people there. More than 58,000 Americans would die in the war, many of them in 1968-69.

In an email to his son-in-law a few years ago, Maniscalco wrote, “My Vietnam combat experiences from September 1968 to September 1969 are always present with me. The flashbacks that I have learned to manage over the years include the guilt of coming back home when many others have not, the nightmares of the firefights and rocket and mortar attacks, and the anger and periods of rage.”

Volunteer service has been a way to help ease his pain. Since 2002, he’s been active in the Society of the Fifth Division, U.S. Army, and served as its president from 2005 to 2007, including organizing the 87th reunion in Mystic in 2007. He remains involved on the society’s executive board as its national judge advocate.

A lifetime member of the VFW, since 2007 he’s been engaged with the Amancio-Falcone-Gacchione Post 8955 in Westerly, currently serving on the color guard and as a post judge advocate.

Last year, when he attended the funeral of a fellow veteran, he was able to wear his original Army uniform with some minor tailoring adjustments.

For several years, Maniscalco volunteered at Community Acupuncture for Veterans in East Lyme, and served on the historic Westerly Armory Board. He also assists his wife of the past 44 years, Sandy Maniscalco, with activities of the Terri Brodeur Breast Cancer Foundation, which she helped to found and still helps to run.

After the war, Maniscalco earned his MBA from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Today, he and Sandy are a blended family with five children, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Counseling and running

When he came to Connecticut in 1974 and started working in banking, he also started running. Maniscalco said it was for fitness and to restore his mental health. But then, in 1995, after the reunion, running took on a more important purpose.

Now, closing in on the age of 80, Maniscalco runs four days each week, about 6 miles every time he goes out. It is his therapy and his medication, he said.

It wasn’t until 2010, after The Gulf War in the early 1990s and later U.S. entry into Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that Maniscalco sought out help from the Veterans Administration for counseling, which he continues with today.

He’s documented some of his memories and, given the right audience, he will talk about his Vietnam experiences. He keeps running and when the memories flood back, he’s able to process them now, and put one foot in front of the other and go the distance.

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