Faculty member anticipates another Middle East trip as USO photographer

Some people eagerly anticipate their summer vacation, counting down the days until they spend time with family and friends -- possibly on a beach and positively away from the demands of their job.

Some people have a different view, and Steve Manuel knows he’s among a minority. He likes vacation but anticipates what happens afterward even more. 

Manuel, who has a family beach vacation scheduled  (and he’s excited to see his children and grandchildren), has already packed for his trip the week after vacation. That’s when he’ll make another trip to the Middle East as the official photographer for a USO tour to combat locations.

“Vacation’s great, but going on these tours is special,” Manuel said. “It’s an honor to be part of something that gives the people who are serving over there, who volunteered for duty, some respite. They don’t get a vacation. When the USO comes to town it literally provides an oasis in the middle of the desert.”

A former public affairs officer for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Marine Corps spokesman, Manuel joined the Penn State faculty in 1996 and serves as a senior lecturer in the College of Communications. He teaches introduction to public relations, public relations methods and problems, crisis communications, and first-year seminars in war reporting and ethics in photojournalism. 

He has participated on tours to Afghanistan, the Balkans, Guantanamo Bay, Okinawa/South Korea, Iraq and Kuwait for the past 18 years. He’s traveled with a wide variety of USO celebrities and special guests, including comedian/actor Dane Cook, PGA golfers, boxer Oscar de la Hoya, comedian/TV host Stephen Colbert, NFL coaches, and singers Toby Keith and Kellie Pickler.

Still, Manuel remains most impressed by the troops and the conditions in which they live and work. He appreciates working in the nearly front-line positions and USO officials enjoy having him as a tour photographer in part because of his military background. “That’s one of the reasons they’ve told me they like having me,” Manuel said. “Because of my experience, I’m familiar with the dos and don’ts. Basically, I know how to not get killed.”

Manuel packed weeks ago for the trip because he has a separate set of clothing for his travels. That includes loose fitting long-sleeved shirts and pants, and no clothing with any corporate logos. He knows to pack light, except for his camera equipment. Once on site, the military provides tour members with body armor to wear.

In the days before the trip, he “over hydrates,” drinking as much water as possible to get his body ready for the 100-degree-plus heat. Once on site, they’re encouraged to drink a quart of water every hour.

This year he’ll again be abroad this summer. “Many of the trips have come at that time, and with my teaching duties that’s when I can go,” he said. “Honestly, there’s not a more fitting place that time of year.”

Manual, who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Penn State, Manuel has won numerous photographic and writing awards. He continually sharpens his photojournalism skills with assignments from the Penn State Alumni Association, The Associated Press and other news organizations. His photographs have been featured in more than 115 publications, including The New York Times, Time magazine, Sports Illustrated and USA Today.

During the USO tours, Manuel sends a series of images back to Washington, D.C., every night. He also captures video and works with military public affairs personnel as well as the publicists for guests on the tour. Even with his varied experience, shooting photos of everything from action-packed sporting events to faculty portraits, the overseas assignments pack an unrivaled emotional punch for him.

“Even if you were shooting a national championship game, the raw emotion does not compare. What happens over there is not a game,” he said. “I don’t get emotional at games. With the USO tours, I know I’m going home in a few days and most of the people over there are not. It’s a much more emotional environment.”

Before he retired from the Marines, Manuel’s primary duty was writing public affairs guidance for field commands of all the military services for response to any questions from the press on exercises, operations and specific events. He was responsible for the Western Pacific region, which included China, the Korean Peninsula, Japan, the National Security Agency and POW/MIA (Prisoner of War/Missing in Action) Affairs. He served in many locations throughout the world, including Hawaii, Vietnam, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and New York.

Last Updated June 24, 2014