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Bridget Wingert: Happy to Be Here

Reprint: Would we know what to do?

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This column was published Nov. 7, 2009. With the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center it is reprinted here with some alterations. The subjects were all directly affected by the events of 2001.

Three young women, Ryan Manion, Heather Kelly and Amy Looney Heffernan, have written a book they’ve called “The Knock at the Door.”
The title is a figure of speech – only one of the women, Heather Kelly, experienced an actual knock on her door. That was when her husband, 2nd Lt. Rob Kelly, had been killed in Afghanistan.
Marines knocked on Heather’s door, at 3 a.m. in California, at the same time Rob’s parents, in Washington, D.C., were informed. Rob’s father was Gen. John Kelly, commander of the Marine Forces Reserve and Marine Forces North, and later, President Trump’s chief of staff.
Ryan’s mother, Janet, answered the knock then slammed the door so hard she broke one of the hinges. When she saw the Marines, she knew her son, 2nd Lt. Travis Manion, had been killed. She would not, could not, listen to the message.
Amy Looney was not at home when the Navy knocked on her door on Sept. 21, 2010. She was busy on the road, working in her sales job. When she arrived at her office she was told that naval officers would meet her at a hotel 25 minutes away.
Driving to that hotel, Amy made wrong turns, chose the wrong roads and arrived an hour and a half later. She ran into the hotel to hear that her husband, Brendan Looney, a Navy SEAL, had been killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. He had been Travis Manion’s roommate at Annapolis, the U.S. Naval Academy.
Ryan Manion, married to Dave and mother of a 10-month-old daughter, rushed to her parents’ home after receiving a frantic phone call. She collapsed on the driveway when she saw her father, Tom, a retired Marine colonel, talking to the Marines who had knocked on the door. It was April 29, 2007.
Janet Manion found a way to cope with the loss of her son. She created the Travis Manion Foundation to help families deal with the loss of a loved one in military service and veterans returning to civilian life. The organization grew swiftly, spreading across the country and catching on at military bases around the world. “She had a big vision,” Ryan recalls.
The Manion family had another setback when Janet was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died April 24, 2012, almost five years to the day after Travis.
When news of Travis’ death came, Ryan had just signed papers to open a clothing shop in downtown Doylestown. She filled her life with activities, took over as executive director of the foundation, ran the Marine Corps Marathon, hosted the Christmas party her mother had always done.
“I believed I had it all figured out,” Ryan said in the book. But then – anxiety. “I had dealt with some minor anxiety before, initially when Travis was deployed ... but nothing like this.”
It took six months to reach a point where she could slowly and carefully change her life. “The previous five years had been marked by endless, furious motion: always moving to a new target, striving toward a new ambition, crushing my body and exhausting my mind to reach some meaningful goal,” she wrote. In many ways, it was the right way to grieve, but it did not last.
Travis Manion and his friend Brendan Looney were buried next to each other in Arlington National Cemetery. Before she died, Janet Manion asked Brendan’s wife, Amy, a longtime family friend, since Annapolis days, to join the Travis Manion Foundation. She opened a California office and began programs there. She married Joel Heffernan and moved to Washington, where she leads the foundation office.
The two young widows suffered as Ryan had, months of depression, not wanting to do anything, making changes to their lives. It took years for them to understand and accept their new roles.
Rob Kelly stepped on an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) in Afghanistan on Nov. 9, 2010. Heather Kelly, met Rob when she was 17 and a college freshman. He joined the Marines when she was still in college. They married after Heather finished college.

“No one believes they’re going to receive the knock at the door,” Heather said. “You don’t believe it could ever happen to you. No one does ... there was simply no way to prepare myself to receive the news I feared the most.”
Heather’s mother stayed with her after the funeral at Arlington, where Rob is buried near Travis and Brendan.
“Thank God my mom was there to push me along. She forced me to actually do something with my time, when all I wanted to do was watch it disappear,” Heather wrote. Her mom made a plan for Heather to accomplish one thing each day.
“In the beginning, that meant simply taking a shower. Even that effort seemed daunting.”
Then she was angry.
An Army financial adviser connected Heather with Amy Looney Heffernan. At Amy’s invitation, Heather began volunteering at the Travis Manion Foundation San Diego office. When a full-time staff position opened, she applied for the job. Today, she runs the San Diego office.
And the three women, tied together by husbands who are buried close together in Arlington National Cemetery are close friends.
The foundation was formed with the vision of some of Travis Manion’s last words, “If Not Me, Then Who?” Today there are regional offices and employees across the country. More than 100,000 veterans, service members, families of the fallen, and inspired civilians have joined the movement.
“It is one of the leading veteran service organizations in the country,” Ryan said, “and it’s centered in Doylestown.”
Volunteers, many of them veterans, lead education programs. They have presented character development programs to about 400,000 boys and girls. Transition seminars and leadership programs for veterans are offered throughout the year.
The foundation’s 9/11 Heroes Runs take place around the world and of course in Doylestown, where they started. This years rund had thousands of participants.
The foundation sponsors cleanup programs for civilian volunteers. Cleanup projects in Philadelphia and volunteering for storm recovery efforts are regular efforts the Travis Manion Foundation makes.
The website describes its activities: “The Travis Manion Foundation strives to unite and strengthen communities by training, developing, and highlighting the role models that lead them. We develop programs, training opportunities, and events designed to empower veterans and families of the fallen, and then inspire them to pass on their values to the next generation and the community at large.”
The authors viewed “The Knock at the Door” as a valuable guide for anyone who experiences a traumatic announcement. In the book, they talk about their own grieving and ways they have pulled their lives together – never easily but with steady effort and reaching beyond themselves.
“The Knock at the Door,” released in 2019, is still available online.


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