Recruiter stands strong with family during tragedy
January 3, 2012
FORT MEADE, Md. (Jan. 3, 2011) -- When Angeline Utanes took the oath of enlistment at Fort Meade's Military Entrance Processing Station, many in the room were reminded of the fatal accident that kept Future Soldier Conrad "CJ" Utanes from fulfilling his dreams of becoming a Soldier.
For Staff Sgt. Josefino Manahan, the recruiter responsible for enlisting both Utanes siblings, the ceremony signified a rewarding chapter in an otherwise painful story, while his commitment to the family serves as a standard for recruiters in all military branches.
Manahan, recruiting for three years now with the Baltimore Recruiting Battalion's Towson Station, still remembers the first time he met CJ, 17, at Macy's Department store, where CJ's mother worked. At first glance, CJ didn't quite strike him as the military type, with his shoulder-length hair and quiet demeanor. But anyone who knew CJ knew a different story.
Since early childhood, CJ had dreamed of becoming a Soldier. There's even a photo in the family album showing a 7-year-old CJ wearing Army fatigues.
"Everyone knew he wanted to become a Soldier," said CJ's sister, Angeline. "Since he was a kid, he'd play like a Soldier, or dress like one for Halloween, or watch Soldier movies. For an elementary school project, he told the class he wanted to be Soldier."
Despite CJ's enthusiasm, Manahan, who served as an Air and Missile Defense Crewmember prior to becoming a recruiter, still had his work cut out for him. CJ's mother attended Manahan's first conversation with CJ about joining the Army and insisted on having heaps of information and face-to-face time with Manahan before giving her consent. Manahan admits that their shared cultural backgrounds as native Filipinos helped him establish a rapport with the Utanes family.
"I could relate to CJ and his mother," Manahan explained. "The mother needed to trust me. She was very protective and, coming from a Filipino background, I understood that. I had to sit down with the family every step of the way."
Friendly and warm was how Angeline described her first impressions of Manahan during those first house visits.
"He was patient with my mom," said Angeline, "and she had lots of questions. She was always drilling Manahan about what would happen to CJ. But even then I knew I could trust him."
Eventually, they reached an agreement, and CJ set his sights on basic combat training. But his dream never came to pass. One afternoon on his way home from Dulaney High School, CJ started across the road when a car blindsided him. He was immediately rushed to Maryland Shock Trauma Center. The moment Manahan learned of the accident, he hurried to the hospital to comfort the family.
"Manahan came to the hospital not long after the accident happened," said Angeline. "He stayed all day, and the next, and the next. He was there until the end."
CJ passed away in January of 2009 as a result of a traumatic head injury. In the days following his death, Manahan became a true friend to the Utanes family by helping with funeral arangements.
He first contacted Dulaney High and persuaded them to hold a memorial for CJ at the school. He then contacted an Army veteran with the Baltimore County Police Department and arranged a two-hour police escort through CJ's hometown, highlighting a multitude of places important to CJ. Manahan even rallied his fellow recruiters to pitch in for an Army Combat Uniform so CJ could be buried as a Soldier.
Finally, Manahan served as one of CJ's pallbearers.
"His death really affected me," said Manahan. "When you put someone in the Army, you mold them. You shape every individual, and you spend a lot of time with them. So I had built a good rapport with Conrad."
For the next few years, Manahan maintained a relationship with the Utanes family by calling periodically and attending, and sometimes even hosting, various memorials for CJ. So when CJ's surviving sister Angeline approached him about joining the Army, Manahan listened from the standpoint of a family friend, and he didn't like what he heard.
"Angeline didn't convince me that she wanted to join for the right reasons," said Manahan.
Angeline admits that she let anger and disappointment shape her initial decision to join. Devastated by CJ's death, and knowing how much he had wanted to become a soldier, Angeline felt almost obligated to carry the torch for her brother, regardless of her own hopes and dreams.
"CJ was so excited about joining the Army," said Angeline. "He kept saying, 'You guys will be so proud of me!' And then all of the sudden, he just passed away. So I felt like I would join because a part of him still lives in me -- in all the people he affected -- and I wanted to make sure his dream came true."
"But Manahan wanted me to do it for myself," she recalled. "He said, 'You won't be happy if you do it for the wrong reasons. The Army's not an easy task. You've got to really think about it.'"
With her plans temporarily thwarted, Angeline, 19, enrolled at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland, where she joined the ROTC. After her first semester there, she learned several things about herself: First, she could endure the challenges required of a Soldier. Second, she could join the Army for her own development in addition to CJ's memory.
Once she arrived at this final conclusion, she didn't have a problem convincing Manahan that she wanted to join the Army Reserves. Still, he insisted on making one last phone call.
"I instantly called Angeline's mother to clear it," said Manahan. "I wanted to make sure Miss Utanes was comfortable with the decision."
Now preparing to leave for Basic Combat Training at the end of May to become a Watercraft Operator (88K), Angeline feels confident in her decision to join the Army and takes pride in knowing that she is doing this for the right reasons.
"In a way, I'm still doing it for my brother," Angeline admitted. "But I'm relieved because I'm also doing it for me. I think I'll feel really accomplished when I do this. A lot of people are scared, but I'm really excited. This is a new chapter in my life; not an ending but a beginning."