LEESBURG — To the scores of men and women who trained under and with him, Billy Manning — the first command sergeant major of the Georgia National Guard — was a soldier’s soldier, a man who held a special love for those who served their country in the military, and a man who was revered by those soldiers.
Pat Manning, who was married to the top man in the Georgia Guard for 52 1/2 years, until Billy Manning succumbed to illness on Nov. 4 of last year, always knew she would have to share the man she loved with his beloved Guard. But he was still, first and foremost, her other half.
“As much as he loved the Guard, loved the soldiers who served under him, he never let his duty carry over at home,” Pat Manning said. “We decided this together early on, and he always left his job in the truck when he got home.”
To the Mannings’ daughters — Mitzi Conners, Veronica Johnson and Monica Miller — and the sisters’ six children, this man so highly revered by the many whose lives he touched was simply dad and granddad.
“Our dad had something he always told us girls when we’d go out: ‘Act like you belong to somebody,’” Veronica Johnson, Lee County’s elections supervisor, said. “Like every girl, we grew up thinking we had the best dad in the world, and, of course, he just became a mush bucket when he was around his grandchildren. Since he passed away, though, it’s been so humbling to hear stories of the kindnesses he did for so many people.”
On Monday, due largely to the efforts of fellow soldiers like Frank Mills, Billy Manning’s name, like his service, will forever be indelibly linked to the Guard. The Georgia Army National Guard will hold a 1 p.m. ceremony at which the 1500 N. Monroe St. Albany National Guard Armory will be renamed the Command Sgt. Major Billy G. Manning Readiness Center.
Expected to attend the ceremony are Brig. Gen. Joe Jarrard, the commanding general of the Georgia Army National Guard, and Command Sgt. Maj. Philip Stringfield, the current senior enlisted adviser to the state Guard’s commanding general.
“He’d be so humbled, so happy to see this day,” Pat Manning said of her late husband. “But he wouldn’t want it to be just about him. He’d want to include all the soldiers he trained over the years.”
Walter Kegley, a retired brigadier command sergeant major who still serves as a civilian contract trainer for the Guard, said the honor, while unique, is perfectly suited to Manning.
“He definitely is deserving of this honor,” Kegley, who now lives in Tifton, said. “In addition to being a super guy, you always knew that Billy was in charge. He would not only monitor and supervise the soldiers under his command, he would mentor them. He believed in being with the soldiers out in the field. He was a born leader.
“Billy’s motto was ‘Make It Happen,’ and that’s something he truly believed in. I’m pretty sure that this is the first state armory that will be named for an enlisted soldier. That honor usually goes to generals and high-ranking officials. I can’t think of anyone more deserving.”
A native of Lee County, Manning joined the Army National Guard’s Albany-based 2nd Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment shortly after graduating high school in 1954. He served active-duty from 1958 to 1960 at Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Chaffee, Ark., and Fort Jackson, S.C. Manning rejoined the Georgia Guard as a full-time technician in 1960, one day after he left active duty.
Manning served in the Albany Guard unit, for which he became command sergeant major in 1979, until 1985, when he was named the Georgia Guard’s command sergeant major and was senior enlisted adviser to the adjutant general. He trained Guard units at the Fort Irwin, Calif.-based National Training Center while heading the Georgia Guard and in 1993 was named commandant of the NCO Academy in Macon. Manning retired in 1996.
“Billy loved soldiers, and he loved being a soldier,” said Mills, a retired E7 who also does civilan contract training for the Guard. “He set the example that so many soldiers followed.
“I kind of started this idea to name the Albany National Guard Armory for Billy. I made a suggestion in an email that was passed up the chain of command to the adjutant general, who agreed that it was a fitting tribute. One of the great things about this is that, even if the decision is made to move the Albany armory to the Marine (Corps Logistics) Base, the name will remain. My only regret is that we couldn’t get this done before Billy got so sick.”
In talking about the honor set to be bestowed upon Manning, and reminiscing about the man who had been their adored husband and father, Pat Manning and Johnson frequently become emotional, the pain of their loss just below the surface.
Johnson said she is thankful that her father got to spend the final years of his life at a place where he was happy.
“It’s really hard to be out at the farm during springtime,” Billy Manning’s middle daughter said. “Every time I turn around, there’s something that makes me think of him, and I just expect him to walk through the door. But I wouldn’t give anything for the joy he got being at the farm the last three years of his life. He was so happy.”
A lot of that happiness, Pat Manning says, came from the knowledge that her husband had served the Guard and its soldiers so well.
“I was going through a scrapbook we have last night, and I came across a letter that I think says so much about Billy,” she said. “One of his men wrote, ‘You were such a hard-ass, but you made me a good soldier.’ I think that’s the kind of thing that always meant the most to him.”