David Manwiller poses with his rifle in Vietnam in the late 1960s. He was wounded twice in battle. (Courtesy David Manwiller)
David Manwiller poses with his rifle in Vietnam in the late 1960s. He was wounded twice in battle. (Courtesy David Manwiller)
At 19, David Manwiller found himself in the same dilemma as did so many men of the 1960s and ‘70s: be drafted into the Vietnam War or evade it. Manwiller, now a member of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Southeast Portland, carefully thought it over and felt he had a responsibility to join up.

“I thought these people (i.e., the Vietnamese) deserved a chance at democracy,” he says of his decision. And so, in July of 1967 he enlisted as a Marine.

Growing up in Bend, Manwiller was raised Baptist. However, at that point in his life, his faith held little import for him. He immersed himself in the task at hand, reveling in the Marines’ esprit de corps and performing so well at boot camp that he was selected as squad leader.

In the rainforests of Vietnam, Manwiller encountered his share of battles. He was wounded the first time while on patrol. A sniper hit him below the radio he was carrying on his back. As he recovered in a Japanese hospital, he found himself surrounded by other men who had lost legs and arms after stepping on landmines. They were much worse off than he.

“David,” he said to himself, “you must have a guardian angel looking over you.” Still, faith had only superficial meaning in his life.

When he was discharged from the hospital, Manwiller was once again confronted with a choice: return to the same outfit or be reassigned. He chose to return. Back in the jungles of Vietnam, he and his unit slogged through the days sometimes engaged in battle, sometimes simply covering ground, constantly aware that they could be ambushed or gunned down at any moment. The worst part of his enlistment was passing through villages that had been attacked. He struggled deeply when he saw, time-after-time, inhabitants lying dead. Especially, he said, “the innocents”; children mowed down, casualties of a war they had no say in. At these times, he questioned divinity: “How could God allow this?”

In September 1968, Manwiller again took a bullet. This time it just missed his femoral artery. A corpsman on the field saved his life that day and once again Manwiller found himself in a hospital surround by men whose futures would be forever altered by their injuries. As a soldier, he had always thought, “I’m a Marine. I can take care of myself.” But now he realized, “I also need some help from God.”

The Marines discharged Manwiller since he’d been wounded twice. Happy and relieved, within a short time he was able to walk into his dad’s telegraph office at the Bend train depot, surprising him with the gift of his life. Finding work on a survey crew, he traveled to cities all over the U.S., including Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he met Gail, whom he eventually married. They moved to Oregon where Manwiller found employment as an electrician. His life may have continued along, normally, just as many lives do. However, something more was in store for Manwiller. He and Gail met Perry and Elaine and became friends with the couple, with whom they had much in common. One day, Elaine, who was Catholic, asked Gail if she would like to attend Mass. Manwiller could have let Gail go on her own but agreed to attend with her. They accompanied Elaine and Perry once, and then again, and eventually decided to start RCIA.

This decision provided Manwiller with a brimming measure of peace that helped him resolve a conflict simmering within his soul: his role in the much-contested Vietnam War. At one point after accepting the Catholic faith, Manwiller had a conversation with Father Rick Sirianni, a reserve officer in the Air Force. The two discussed how the Vietnam War was challenging for all of America.

Manwiller, whose moral compass had directed his choice in 1965, now wrestled with the thought that he may have been involved in a conflict that was not morally just. Was he culpable? All the images of carnage, especially of “the innocents” burned his memory. Father Sirianni explained to him that the rationale for the Vietnam War was murkier than those of other wars. The important issue was that Manwiller had enlisted thinking he was doing the right thing, regardless of the actions and reasoning of those in power. He had let his conscience guide his decision.

Manwiller is thankful his own unit was not involved in carrying out atrocities. He knows God is a loving and forgiving God, that God sees our souls, plumbs our hearts. And, if the choices we make are undertaken with personal truth and honesty, then we are on the right path. God, Manwiller believes, will be there with us.

Boris is administrative assistant at St. Joseph the Worker and a parish ambassador for the Sentinel.