A Soldier's Long Road To A Degree

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Reggie Manuel is a United States Army Veteran who was critically wounded in Iraq. He plans to complete work toward his OCC degree this December.
Reggie Manuel is a United States Army Veteran who was critically wounded in Iraq. He plans to complete work toward his OCC degree this December.

Reggie Manuel has vivid memories of the day when his life changed forever. "The whole thing is like a frozen moment in time for me." It was June 7, 2007. He was a member of the United States Army on patrol in Baghdad, Iraq. The temperature was a sweltering 114 degrees. It was 4:35 in the afternoon. Manuel was in an area called the "Green Zone," which was the center of the military's international presence in the city. His assignment was to monitor all activity on a road. He was stationed in a truck behind a low wall and had just slung his weapon over his back when he peaked over the wall. All of a sudden there was a bright flash coupled with a powerful explosion. An improvised explosive device, or IED, had detonated. "The concussion of the blast blew me off the truck 20 to 25 feet in the air. I landed directly on my head."

He would spend much of the next two years in the hospital recovering from injuries to his spine and his right eye. He needed to learn how to walk again while dealing with a traumatic brain injury, post-concussive syndrome, and post-traumatic stress disorder. "As I look back on it all now I'm just so happy to be alive."

Manuel was born and raised in Central New York. He lived in downtown Syracuse's Townsend Towers until age 6 when his family moved to the northern suburbs. He would graduate from Cicero-North Syracuse High School in 1990 and enter the Army later that year. A short time later he saw combat as part of the Gulf War, code named Operation Desert Shield. "It was probably the scariest time of my life. It changed my view of the world and how people could really hate another country and how people could hate another people by doing certain things."

Manuel would eventually leave active duty, serve his country as a reserve, then decide to return to active duty in 2006. "I wanted to help the younger soldiers who had to fight in a battle that I had known years earlier. I had experience and knowledge from a previous war I wanted to share. They were wide-eyed and really didn't know what was going on." One year later he would be critically wounded.

While recovering Manuel decided to return to Central New York and in 2009 he enrolled at Onondaga Community College. Complications related to his injuries made college too difficult. "I hoped going to college would heal my brain. I would sign up for class, then realize I had short-term memory loss. There were also health repercussions which would force me to withdraw from class."

In the mid-1980s Manuel had begun collecting records and sound equipment to make mix tapes. He would play parties and loved the feeling of connecting with people. After his first try at college, Manuel decided to return to his music roots and pursue a career as a DJ. He performed under the name "DJ Highlander," cris-crossed the country from New York to Los Angeles, and played massive events with more than ten thousand people. "When I'm DJ'ing there's a certain connection I have with people and I really loved it."

Reggie Manuel at work as DJ Highlander.
Reggie Manuel at work as DJ Highlander.

While listening to music production online he met a woman in Slovakia named Jana. They struck up a relationship and married a year later. "She made my life the best a man could ask for. She learned to live with my injuries, nightmares, and constant appointments that she never asked for. After marrying Jana I feel I am the happiest man in the universe." 

In 2013 Manuel returned to OCC and focused on classes in the Electronic Media Communications degree program. His favorite class was Sportscasting, taught by CNY Central Sportscaster Niko Tamurian who is an OCC alumnus and one of the College's distinguished Alumni Faces honorees. Manuel enjoyed doing play-by-play of basketball and lacrosse, and improved his public speaking as a member of Toastmasters. He also discovered his true passion, coaching youth basketball. "I volunteered coaching at the YMCA and really liked it."

After 2014 Manuel left OCC, then returned in 2019 where he is now pursuing a degree in Liberal Arts. He's learned to manage taking two to three classes per semester. In the spring of 2020 he earned a 4.0. "There were times when I would get as sick as a dog. On days when I felt good I really cranked out a lot of work."

Before the pandemic interrupted the spring 2020 semester, Manuel enjoyed spending time and receiving assistance in OCC's Office of Veterans' Affairs. "I love it there. They are a great help. Steve (White, office Director) is like an uncle. We email back and forth, he calls me, I bring paperwork there and they know if I've done it correctly. It's a wonderful place for Veterans to go and get answers, or just to go there and relax."

Manuel will turn 49 in August and begin his final semester at OCC. He plans to earn his degree this December, then pursue his dream of becoming a coach. "I want my mother to see me walk across the stage. I'm grateful to OCC. It has helped me refocus on life even though I am still healing from my injuries. Everyone has provided a safe and wonderful school environment. My time at OCC has been outstanding."

Reggie with his wife Jana.
Reggie with his wife Jana.



Onondaga Community College