By GEOFF CUMMING and PAUL YANDALL
From his early teens, Len Manning had one clear goal in life - a career in the Army.
The country boy who loved shooting and the great outdoors followed his dream, joining the Territorials after leaving school and enlisting in the regular force in January 1997, aged just 21.
On Monday in East Timor's rugged and treacherous border region, he became the first New Zealand soldier to be killed by enemy fire since the Vietnam War.
Private Leonard William Manning, dead at 24, is also the first combat casualty of the UN peacekeeping mission in East Timor, which began last September. Private Manning, the lead scout of his patrol of five, was shot in the head and right shoulder near the border village of Nanu.
His body appears to have been abused after his death at the hands of pro-Indonesian militia, believed to have slipped across the border from West Timor.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab last night condemned the killing and said his nation would help to investigate the incident.
Asked if Indonesia would actively pursue the killers, he said: "Yes, let us see first who is the actor."
Private Manning's grieving parents yesterday asked the news media to respect their privacy, although they allowed release of his photograph. But his former college principal, who spoke to the Herald with the parents' permission, remembers the "bright, outward-going" youngster as someone with a mission in life.
"From his early teens onwards he was really, really interested in doing one thing with his life and that was joining the Army," said Bill Barwood of Te Kauwhata College.
The young Len Manning liked hunting, shooting and fishing and got his rifle licence as soon as he could legally get it.
"When he went to our outdoor education camp in 1990 he and two other boys had their camouflage gear. They were really interested in a military career and that's what he pursued when he left school.
"He was a very well-rounded young man."
One of his hunting companions, Bill Andrews, said the skills Private Manning learned tracking deer in the local forests made him an ideal scout for the Army.
"He was outstanding in his riflery too, an outstanding hunter."
Private Manning's parents shifted from Te Kauwhata to another Waikato town a few years ago but retained links with the community.
Private Manning's first employer, Dick Teklenburg, said the soldier last visited the town six months ago.
"He was complaining about missing out on going overseas for the Army - he didn't want to miss East Timor too. At least he got to go this time."
Brigadier Jerry Mateparae, joint commander of New Zealand's 660-strong East Timor force, said Private Manning had been an exceptional soldier.
"He was [lead scout] of a tracking team and that is a skill and responsibility that only a very few get."
Brigadier Mateparae said three investigations were under way - the preliminary examination at the scene, an inquiry into the death and its surrounding circumstances, and a UN investigation.
Private Manning's body is expected to arrive at the Whenuapai Air Base in West Auckland on an RNZAF Hercules at midnight tonight or early tomorrow.
Last night, his family had yet to indicate whether they wanted a full military funeral to farewell him.
The acting senior national officer in East Timor, Colonel Phil Gibbons, said a short service was held in the southern town of Suai, where the bulk of the New Zealand peacekeepers are based.
The body was flown by Hercules to Darwin last night where it was met by Defence Minister Mark Burton.
Prime Minister Helen Clark said the Government was very upset about Private Manning's death and concerned for his family.
New Zealand had been widely applauded for its contribution to the UN contingent in East Timor.
"Unfortunately, the problems we went there to resolve are still there."
Colonel Gibbons said the troops were grieving and shocked.
"I think all New Zealanders are feeling the loss, but certainly the closer you get to the group Private Manning was part of the more intense it is."
An Australian psychologist would offer counselling to the soldiers.
Colonel Gibbons said the investigation into the death was continuing and troops were searching for the militia believed to be responsible. If found, the protocol would follow the rules of engagement. "We would attempt to arrest or detain them in some way."
At the Te Kauwhata RSA late yesterday, it was left to club secretary and Second World War veteran Jock Cullen to lower the NZ flag to halfmast.
"Back in Europe [and in] the Middle East, I was surrounded by guys his age who didn't make it home. It's sad to see this happening 50 years later."