A Marine from birth
Capt. Matthew Manoukian knew he wanted to be a Marine as far back as age 8, according to his father. At first, Manoukian speculated, his son was probably drawn to the heroic portrayal of Marines in the movies and on TV, just like many young boys. But as he grew older, he never gave up on his childhood goal.
"For him it was always like a calling," his father said. "He just knew that's what he wanted to do."
It was just a matter of whether he ought to join straight out of high school or go to college first, Manoukian said of his son.
The younger Manoukian originally decided he would go through college before enlisting but things changed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11., which rocked his conscience shortly after he began his undergraduate studies.
He immediately went to enlist, but was delayed because of an issue with his knee, which he had injured playing football at St. Francis High School. After surgery to replace his knee and another procedure to remove a benign tumor discovered on his spinal chord, he finally enlisted and began training at the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va. — finishing his studies at the end of 2006 and shipping off to Camp Pendleton in Southern California to prepare for deployment.
Capt. Manoukian deployed for his first tour of duty in 2007, shipping off to a town called Anah in the Al-Anbar Province of western Iraq.
According to his father, Manoukian was passionate about helping the locals rebuild after the fall of Saddam Hussein — working hard and taking risks in an effort to show that he and his men were not there simply as an occupying force.
He got his men out of their Humvees and on foot patrols more often and would often take his helmet off when meeting with locals. "If you want to be friends with people, you have to show you trust them," he said, explaining his son's rationale.
During his tour in Iraq, Manoukian saw security increase, a police force established and a judge installed to punish those who broke the law. But things weren't perfect. He suffered a concussion when a roadside bomb exploded while he was on a patrol.
In the ensuing chaos, and despite his concussion, he demonstrated quick thinking and calm under fire, helping tie a tourniquet on a fellow Marine's leg — likely saving his life, according his father. Dedicated to the men under his command, he quickly returned to his deployment after a brief stint in the hospital. "It was always about his guys first; it was never about him," the elder Manoukian said.
After another tour in Al-Anbar, some time off and training with the Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC), Manoukian joined up with MARSOC's 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion and was deployed for his third tour, this time to Afghanistan's Helmand Province. There he was charged with unifying local tribal leaders with Afghanistan's government.
When he returned from his third tour, Manoukian was put up for a promotion. He was told he would be assigned as the special operations battalion's executive officer. Though his father said the position would have put him on track for further promotions, he said his son felt strongly about seeing through his previous mission in Helmand. In a somewhat unorthodox move, he was able to convince the higher ups to allow him to return to his previous assignment, helping set up a structured legal system in the province.
"That's the way he was," his father said, explaining his son's resolve to finish the job he had started. "A lot of Marines are like that."
It was a fateful decision.
Death and remembrance
The local Marine returned to Helmand in May 2012 to resume working with tribal leaders. In August, just a few months after returning, an Afghan man — whom Manoukian and his troops had been working with for a few months — came to talk to Manoukian about something. It was about 2 a.m. in the morning, local time, but he was insistent that he speak with the soldier and became upset when he was told he needed to take up his query through other channels. According to Manoukian's father, this angered the man, who began shooting. A brief fire fight ensued and Manoukian was killed. He died on Aug. 10, 2012.
A week later, Manoukian was remembered in a memorial ceremony held at St. Francis High School. Local authorities issued traffic warnings that traffic and the gym at St. Francis was packed that day as hundreds of friends, family, soldiers and other community members showed up to honor Manoukian.
The military will remember the fallen Marine once again on Aug. 8, when they dedicate the Ceremony Room at Moffett Field in his honor. According to 1st Sgt. Angelo McLaurin, senior enlisted advisor with the San Jose MEPS, a display case featuring some of Manoukian's medals, his dress uniform and memorabilia from the Marine's life will remain on display inside the ceremony room.
According to Manoukian, his son was not the type to talk up his accomplishments, though he had many — including two Purple Hearts and two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals. However, he added, considering that the memorial to be put together in his son's honor will have the potential to inspire future military recruits, the younger Manoukian just might be able to tolerate the praise.
"Our Matthew would not have wanted all this attention, but, on the other hand, I think his feelings would be that if his life were an inspiration to others to do good things, he be agreeable to that," Manoukian said, noting that the memorial is also "meant to serve as an inspiration to future men and women who go through those doors."
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