MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) _ Ralph Bodenner and George Price were combat infantry soldiers in Vietnam and military instructors after that. They say that helped prepare them for their new mission - facing third-graders in the classroom.

They are among the thousands of soldiers mustering out of the armed forces following the end of the Cold War. And since they spent so much of their careers instructing soldiers, the education field seemed like a logical next step.

''I bring the advantage of being a 45-year-old with hard knocks and common sense and the ability to deal with stress,'' said Bodenner, a lieutenant colonel at Fort Leavenworth who plans to retire next summer. ''But I know that third-graders are a different kind of stress.''

To help prospective soldier-teachers, the Army has set up a hot line for information about teaching jobs. In the past two years, it has received more than 14,000 calls, says Patricia Hines, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for education and training in Washington, D.C.

''We've found that individuals who call want to serve the country,'' she said. ''They're looking to do something worthwhile. They're not just looking for a check.''

Robert S. Silberman, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, says soldiers make good teachers - about 3,000 former soldiers have been placed in teaching jobs in the last two years.

''So much of the Army is about training and teaching. They take and give instruction and do so in areas where there's no margin for error, like tank training for combat,'' Silberman said.

By the end of this fiscal year, there will be nearly 300,000 fewer men and women in uniform, and 100,000 fewer civilians employed by the Defense Department than three years ago.

Price, 42, retired from the Army last year as a sergeant first class.

''I spent the biggest part of my career in some kind of instruction,'' he said. ''It was something I really enjoyed doing.''

Bodenner graduated from many of the Army's toughest training schools during his 23 years of service and has spent the last four years teaching young officers.

He has a bachelor's degree but is attending St. Mary College part time to complete requirements for certification as an elementary school teacher.

Price spent most of his career in the infantry, with assignments in Berlin; Fort Hood, Texas; and Fort Riley. As a squad leader, platoon sergeant and drill sergeant, he was responsible for educating and training soldiers and making sure they met testing standards.

He took a few college classes during his 21 years in the Army and now is attending Kansas State University full time. He plans to graduate in May 1994 with a degree in elementary education.

Bodenner and Price are using veterans' benefits to help pay for their schooling, although they are not receiving money from the military earmarked for retraining.

Kansas State University professor James B. Boyer encouraged Price to consider teaching. ''These men could provide a phenomenal image and role model for young males who simply don't know how to relate to adult males,'' he said.

Then there are women like Regina Freyberger, 29. She spent four years in the Army, including service in the Persian Gulf War. She had taken a few college courses before enlisting and now is working on an elementary education degree.

Freyberger credits the Army with teaching her the importance of discipline and hard work. ''I know if I can go through a war I can go through anything.'' Bodenner and Price acknowledge teaching third-graders will be different from teaching soldiers.

''Kids will test you,'' Price said. ''It's in their nature. But when you interact with kids and learn about their home situations, you understand why they have problems in class. I feel those things more than anything else.''