The Knock at the Door

Three Gold Star Families Bonded by Grief and Purpose


By Ryan Manion

By Heather Kelly

By Amy Looney

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Three Gold Star women, linked forever by unimaginable loss, share their inspiring, unlikely journey that began on the worst day of their lives.

What happens when tragedy knocks on your front door?

For us, it was a literal knock, with two men standing in crisply pressed uniforms. They had news. News that gutted us to the core — the death of our loved ones, a brother and two husbands — in combat zones. The thing about those moments is that it’s almost inconceivable that they can happen to you. That is, until they do.

This book is for anyone who has ever received a knock at the door. And if you live long enough and have the courage to love others, you will. Maybe it’s a cancer diagnosis. Maybe it’s the death of your best friend. The betrayal of a spouse. The loss of a child. The implosion of a professional career. Or any tragedy that takes the person we love the most away from us too soon. Life is not without its challenges. The key is how you respond.
This is our story. The story of three women, bonded by grief and purpose. Grief because we lost our best friends in war. Purpose because we resolved — together — to do something about it. To turn loss into inspiration for others and to channel the love that we had for the men in our lives into love for others through service. It was the only way we could escape the trap of despair and inaction, and we believe it offers a roadmap for anyone else who has ever had to answer a knock at the door.


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The Knock at the Door

Like most Americans of a certain age, I remember exactly where I was just before 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001. I was in bed in my apartment at Widener University, just outside Philadelphia.

I woke up to a panicky call from my mom, who was at my childhood home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. She had just heard from my brother, Travis, who was a student at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. He had called to tell her that he was okay and that he and the rest of the student body were being moved to an undisclosed location and would not be in contact for a bit. One minute she was listening to his intense but measured voice, and the next—click—the voice was gone.

As a mother now, I can’t imagine receiving a call like that. My mom had first tried to reach my dad, but after a few failed attempts, she called me instead. I was still groggy from sleep and couldn’t make much sense of what she was saying, but it was clear that she was upset. She instructed me to turn on the nearest TV. I did, and a minute later we watched together in horror as the second plane struck the World Trade Center. We spent the next several minutes in silence, each watching the events unwind on the television in front of us.

A few minutes later, I hung up the phone and wondered what I was supposed to do next. When I think back to that terrible day, I remember the horror and sadness the most. Those are the strongest feelings that have stayed with me through the years.

What I often forget, until I reflect a little, were the feelings of total and utter confusion. You have to remember that this was a totally unprecedented national event. I literally thought the world was coming to an end. I looked to others helplessly for some direction on how to respond. There was no playbook for this.

I tried to think rationally about what my next move should be. Do I go to my parents’ house? Do I keep watching and try to understand the severity of the incident? Do I call around and see who else knows what to do next? How can I help? I took my cues from the other students around me. While most were dumbstruck, none of them appeared personally threatened. So I decided to go to English class.

When I got there I saw that my professor had the TV on and was listening intently to the reporters. They were saying that the attack was an act of terrorism. At the time, I barely knew what that word meant. Since then, of course, the term terrorism has become a ubiquitous presence in our national lexicon.

Then my professor asked each of us to pull out a blank piece of paper and write down whatever thoughts were going through our heads in that moment. I exchanged glances with a few nearby students, and their expressions seemed to confirm what I was feeling: History was unfolding around us.

I took a deep breath and, as instructed, allowed my thoughts to pour out onto the paper. I wrote about how scared I was for my dad, who was then serving in the military, and for my brother, who was about to serve in the military. I wrote about my fear that what was happening—whatever it was—would lead to war and that they would have to play some role in that.

A few years ago, while cleaning out an old box packed with textbooks and notebooks from college, I found that piece of paper. I scanned it and remembered the confusion we all felt that day. We wondered what these horrific acts meant for our futures, both as individuals and as a country. My eyes moved to the last line that I had written: “I just hope nothing happens to my dad or Travis. I don’t think I’d be able to go on if it did.”

After his graduation from the Naval Academy, Travis was commissioned as an officer in the US Marine Corps. Six years after I wrote down my worries in that English class, they were realized. Travis was killed in Iraq on April 29, 2007.

The news of Travis’s death started with a knock at my family’s front door. Outside stood a uniformed service member who had been tasked with telling a family that their son and brother was dead. It’s one of the hardest jobs I can imagine. I’m one of thousands of family members who have learned of their loved one’s death in this same way. None of us saw it coming. All of us were gutted to the core. After the uniformed messengers leave and the families and friends go back to their lives, we’re left to pick up the pieces; to use my phrase from college, we’re forced to find a way to “go on.”

And I’ll tell you what, it’s not always pretty.

The struggles and triumphs of life never are, though. This book is for those of you who have ever had to answer a life-changing knock at the door—real or metaphorical. You know how ugly things can get. And if you haven’t yet answered one, I promise you, you will.

You may not experience the gut-wrenching loss of a loved one to war, but knocks come in all different forms. Maybe it’s a cancer diagnosis. Maybe it’s the death of your best friend. The betrayal of a spouse. The loss of a child. The implosion of a professional career. A car accident or natural disaster that takes the person you love the most away from you.

In each case, the circumstances are different, but the principles are the same. We are unexpectedly robbed of something or someone we loved. We are stripped down to the rawest versions of ourselves and forced to take a look in the mirror.

As we seek to cope, to respond, to “go on,” we inevitably come to a point where we determine what kind of person we will be: the kind who is broken by tragedy, the kind who is defined by it, or the kind who is strengthened by it. Grief is a process, of course, and at times we’re all three. The trick is remembering that we control this process, and that our experiences can teach us something critical, if we let them.

It took me several years to figure this out. That is, I finally learned to accept grief as a fluid process and not a hurdle I had to push through. And I came to understand that I actually got a say in its outcome. Fortunately, I’ve had the help of a few good friends to push me along toward the other side. Two of those friends have chosen to co-author this book with me and have shared what they learned from their experiences of tragedy as well.

We are three women whose loved ones were torn from us before we reached the age of thirty. I’d like to be able to say that we’re unique and that our experiences are isolated, but that’s not true. Thousands of people have suffered the loss of a loved one in service, and millions more have experienced some other unexpected and tragic knock at their front doors.

This book is for them. It’s for anyone who has negotiated struggle, grief, and pain, and emerged stronger as a result. It’s for anyone who is fighting that battle right now and may be tempted to give up.

Neither I nor my co-authors, Amy Looney Heffernan and Heather Kelly, pretend to have all the answers. We’re very much a work in progress ourselves. But we think we’ve stumbled on a few good pieces of wisdom. And if by sharing that hard-earned wisdom, we can help just one person find comfort, growth, or affirmation in a difficult time, then we’ll consider our time more than well spent.

Amy, Heather, and I have a friendship that goes back several years. We’re an unlikely trio in a lot of ways, and in an alternate universe, we may never even have become friends. But tragedy brings with it unintended consequences. Travis’s death deprived me of my best friend, but it also provided me with new and meaningful relationships I couldn’t have anticipated and for which I am exceedingly grateful. Amy and Heather are two examples of this. The three of us are bound by grief and by loss, and by the special relationship we have with a small plot of land outside Washington.

In the southeast corner of Arlington National Cemetery lies Section 60, where the remains of those who have died most recently in the service of our country are laid to rest. It is an especially peaceful place. Whether it’s an early spring morning and the grass is still wet with dew, or a crisp autumn afternoon and leaves, caught by a gust of wind, swirl among the white marble headstones—there is a tranquility here that can be found nowhere else.

This is only fitting. The men and women who lie buried here have earned their right to peace. They chose war as their profession. When the dead of Section 60 signed up to fight, they knew they weren’t fighting for any politician or political agenda. They were fighting for a nation, for a set of ideals, and for principles that they knew were bigger than themselves or any party or leader. They signed up to stand guard over their fellow Americans’ rights to vote, to pray, to learn, and to love in safety.

That’s what our loved ones signed up to defend, and that’s what they died defending. Amy and Heather lost their husbands, and I lost my brother. Today the three men lie within a couple rows of one another in the quiet confines of Section 60. My brother, Travis Manion, and Amy’s late husband, Brendan Looney, are buried next to each other, honoring the bond they forged together at the US Naval Academy. After they graduated, Travis became a Marine and Brendan became a Navy SEAL. Travis died in a firefight in Iraq; Brendan died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Now they rest side by side.

A few rows away is Heather’s husband, Rob Kelly, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a Marine. Rob didn’t know Brendan or Travis, but there is a cold logic to his burial nearby. He was killed less than three months after Brendan, and the graves were filled in order of casualties received.

The three of us have all spent time below these sloping hills, both together and alone. At first, these visits were solemn and tear-filled. We’d spend hours sitting in the grass by their graves. Some bystanders would stare blankly; others would look on in sorrow.

We each had our own rituals. We brought mementos to place on their headstones—pictures of us together, a Marine Corps Marathon medal, rocks from a trip to Hawaii. In the early months and years, we visited in order to make sure we checked in with Travis, Brendan, and Rob, to include them in our lives as they went on. For a long time, it was a formal ritual of somber reflection.

Visiting the graves in Section 60 is no longer as ritualistic to us as it once was. These days, when we make the trip, it’s not so much a ceremonial rite as it is a comforting visit. And it isn’t as somber anymore, either. It’s an occasion to gather with friends and family to celebrate our loved ones. We still feel them around us there, but in the years since we lost them, they have inspired us to go on living our lives, to do so much more.

This book details the unlikely routes that our three lives took, and the even more unlikely ways in which our lives came to intersect. It’s the story of what happens after the flag-draped caskets come home from battle, and what becomes of the families who are left behind in the wake of war.

But more than anything, it’s the story of what is possible when you commit to living your life with a resilient spirit—whatever the struggle you may be facing, and whatever the difficulty that may be knocking at the door. Because hurt is hurt and pain is pain. There is no point in comparing our tragedies. Who wants to measure one person’s cancer diagnosis against another’s addiction against another’s trauma? As if that’s a game that anyone wants to win anyway. We all have difficulties to overcome, and in my opinion, they are commensurate with the absolute maximum we can handle. Whatever you see as your limit, you will be pushed to it. In most cases, you will be pushed over it. So then what do you do?

That’s what happened to each of us, and this book is our attempt to answer that question.

Nearly a year ago, Amy, Heather, and I were asked to share our stories of loss and struggle in a very public forum. We were invited to interview together on CBS This Morning for a news piece that would be aired to millions of viewers across the country.

Each of us responded in a way that aligned with our personality. I, of course, was the most gung ho of the group, ready to jump in and start tackling some hard-hitting issues and eager to share with America our stories and those of Travis, Brendan, and Rob.

Easygoing Amy was amused at the prospect. I think she laughed out loud in disbelief when the idea was proposed.

And humble Heather was reluctant to participate at all, though she eventually came around to the idea when she thought about how her story could affect other people in similar positions.

Fast-forward several months. At an Airbnb in La Jolla, a beach town in Southern California, the three of us are seated around the kitchen table. It’s been uncharacteristically wet and gray these past few days, but the serene view of the ocean from the porch is no worse for it. We’ve left our loved ones, jobs, and responsibilities to spend a week together: to reflect on how far we’ve come, and to identify the tools and resources that have helped us grow during these last several years.

None of us know how to “do grief right,” and none of us believe there’s only one right way to do it. We know how to do it wrong, though, because we’ve all erred at various points. We’ve lashed out at loved ones and checked out of daily life; we’ve drunk and self-medicated heavily, slept too much, and exercised and eaten too little. We’ve known anger and depression; we’ve abandoned friendships and self-care. You name the tragic flaw or unhealthy coping mechanism, and we’ve all done it at one time or another.

But we’ve grown, too. We’ve found forgiveness, healing, and peace. We’ve realized just how much fight there is left in us, and how much opportunity has been afforded us.

We’ve challenged each other to embrace these moments of opportunity, and we fully expect to continue to learn. Our individual journeys don’t all look the same, and they won’t look like yours. But despite our differences, we have all learned one universal truth that applies to each of us:

Every human will struggle in this life. Our challenge is to struggle well.

Because after all, struggle is the antecedent of growth. It is only when we embrace the pain, heartache, and discomfort that punctuate our lives that we can ultimately find the strength we need to grow from those moments.

This is a fact of human existence, and it’s as true at the molecular level as it is at the celestial one. Our muscles don’t grow unless we literally damage our muscle fibers by exercising them strenuously. Only when those fibers have broken down can our body go through the natural process of repair and strengthening.

The same can be said for our planet. Earthquakes that rupture the earth’s surface give birth to mountains. Damage, breakdown, disruption—these are the prerequisites for growth. If this is true for the cells we’re composed of, and it’s true for the planet that supports us, then why shouldn’t it be true for the lives we lead?

The notion that struggle leads to growth, and pain to strength, is widely accepted—in theory, anyway. The tricky part is translating this theory into practice. How do we live our daily lives in a way that embraces this philosophy? What is the best way to deal with the aftermath of a tragic knock at the door? Can we build enough resilience to prepare ourselves for the next knock?

We don’t offer a manual to answer these questions for you. Instead we humbly submit a wealth of raw personal experiences from which we hope you will glean some insight. Some are ugly and some are beautiful, but they are all very real.

We challenge you to take the opportunity to reflect on the knock you’ve received at your own door, and to identify the areas in life where you can experience growth as a result. If you have the courage to love someone, to devote yourself to your craft, or to demonstrate passion, then—we promise—you, too, will receive a knock. Prepare yourself to open the door and greet whatever awaits. Because unfortunately in this life, opportunity isn’t the only thing that comes knocking.



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Chapter 1

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

I was in downtown Doylestown, Pennsylvania, scouting locations for a business I was opening. Doylestown is a quaint little suburb north of Philadelphia that evokes a different time. With a historic downtown brimming with shops and restaurants, it seemed like the perfect spot for a second location of my high-end women’s and men’s clothing store, Pale Moon Boutique.

Several years before, I had opened the first store in Avalon, New Jersey, a tiny resort town on a barrier island called Seven Mile Island. The business had been mostly seasonal, since Avalon was largely empty between September and May. The store had become a labor of love for me, and I was thrilled to be selecting its newest location in the neighborhood where I’d grown up.

I had left my daughter, Maggie, with my parents while I and my business partner drove a few minutes away to look at a vacant store right in the heart of town. As soon as I saw it, I knew it would be perfect. As the landlord was putting the lease in my hand for me to sign, my cell phone rang, and I saw that it was my mom. Thinking she was just checking to see when I would be back, I ignored the call.

When my phone immediately rang again, I knew something was up. My initial fear was that something had happened to my ten-month-old daughter. My mind went to the worst place, and at the time, I didn’t think anything could be worse than that.

When I answered the phone, all I heard on the other end were muffled screams. It was clearly a noise made by someone who was so broken up and in such a state of shock that he or she couldn’t even cry properly. I didn’t know how to prepare myself for whatever news I was about to receive.

I starting shaking uncontrollably. “Tell me what happened!” I cried. I was terrified that something horrible had happened to Maggie. Had she tripped and split her head open? Choked on something? My mind was running wild with the possibilities. Not knowing was almost worse than knowing at this point.

“Have you called an ambulance?” I yelled.

“Yes,” answered the voice on the phone before the line suddenly went dead. The call had come from my mom’s phone, but it wasn’t until later that I learned that her sister, my aunt Annette, had been the caller. At the time, I had been too stunned to notice it wasn’t my mom’s voice on the other end. I knew that I was too upset to drive. I asked my business partner to take me home, a five-minute drive I had traveled countless times before. But this time, those five minutes felt like an eternity. And while the car was crawling through the streets, my mind was racing at a thousand miles a minute.

My husband was at work, about an hour away. While I wanted the comfort that his voice would bring, I decided not to call him until I got to the house and could figure out what was going on. I didn’t want to upset him if I didn’t have to.

As we pulled onto my parents’ street, my heart started racing as fast as my mind. I didn’t see an ambulance anywhere in sight. For a moment, that gave me a sense of relief. Maybe things weren’t as serious as I had led myself to believe.

My dad was standing in the driveway next to a friend, Lieutenant Colonel Corky Gardner. He and my father had served together in the Marine Corps, and he was a dear friend of the family. He and his wife lived about forty-five minutes away, so it struck me as odd to see him standing there, especially since my parents had not mentioned he would be coming over.

I jumped out of the car while it was still moving.

“Where is the ambulance?” I screamed.

My dad stared at me with a blank look. Then in a very measured tone, he said, “Travis was killed.”

I heard those words loud and clear, but they didn’t make any sense to me. It took me a few seconds to process what I was being told. Since the moment I hung up the phone, I’d known something was wrong, but this was far worse than I could have imagined. I had thought my daughter was in imminent danger, and here I was being told that my brother was dead. He was twenty-six years old.

Travis and I had been born only fifteen months apart, so to say we were close would be an understatement. The fact that ours was a military family also brought us closer than most siblings. Like many military families, we’d had to adjust to new situations very quickly until I was twelve, when my dad left active duty. Before that, we had moved almost every two years.

We knew that, no matter where we moved next, no matter what school we ended up in or which sports teams we’d be the new kids on, we always had each other to depend on. Travis had been my built-in best friend at every stage of my life.

I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. I collapsed in a heap right there on the driveway. I remember thinking that the asphalt felt unnaturally warm for a mid-April afternoon that had been mild.

“It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” I screamed over and over into the sky. I wanted to make sure that everyone—even God himself—knew that he had made a terrible mistake. As I screamed, my parents’ neighbors spilled out of their houses to find out what was happening.

My dad didn’t rush to my side to comfort me. He let me get those tortured screams out of my system before I went about the hard work of trying to understand what had happened and pick up the pieces.

As had always been the case with my dad, he knew exactly what I needed before I did. I have no idea how long I lay on the ground screaming. I just know that it was long enough to get the rage out of my system. At some point, one of the neighbors helped me up and walked me down the driveway toward the house.

As I walked, I turned around and saw an unfamiliar car parked on the road in front of the house. In my shock, I hadn’t even noticed it earlier.

Inside sat a young man, about my age, in full military dress blues. His forehead was resting on the top of the steering wheel, pressed between two folded arms that cradled his head. His eyes were closed and he looked dejected, or perhaps unconscious.

I later learned this poor Marine—twenty-six years old at most—had been charged with the unfortunate task of sharing the news with the people closest to First Lieutenant Travis Manion that he had been killed in Iraq.

Captain Eric Cahill, as I later learned was his name, had been assigned to carry out the job since he was local and had graduated from the Naval Academy the year before my brother.

Lieutenant Colonel Gardner had also been called, since the military knew that he was a family friend close by. Together, while I had been out scouting sites for my boutique, they had approached my parents’ door and knocked. My mother opened the door, took one look at Corky and the young Marine in uniform, and slammed the door in their faces.

She simply couldn’t face what was on the other side.

I wasn’t sure that I could, either. When I reached the front door with the help of my neighbor, I stopped. I had walked through that door thousands of times before, but this time I wanted to turn the other direction and run away. I knew, deep down in my soul, that once I passed through that door this time, the life that I had known was over and there was no going back.

Inside was pure pandemonium. My parents had been hosting a family barbecue when they received the knock at the door. Now, moments later, family members were scattered throughout the house, loudly sobbing, making hushed phone calls, and racing aimlessly back and forth.

I walked into a swarm of tumultuous and confused activity, but my brain was still processing slowly. In all the chaos and furious movement, I locked eyes with my grandmother, who was seated alone in a wheelchair in the dining room, tears streaming down her cheeks. She was receiving neither comfort nor attention from anyone. My heart broke in that instant; I’ll never forget that image.

The rest of that day is a blur. I floated between feelings of painful shock and dark emptiness. I finally emerged to a lucid state sometime later that night to inquire about my daughter’s whereabouts. It had been hours since she even crossed my mind. Apparently, a friend had taken her from the house during the afternoon, and I hadn’t even thought to ask until nightfall.

In the days that followed, it was as if I myself were a child. I couldn’t care for my infant; I could barely care for myself. I lost ten pounds in seven days, from the day I learned of Travis’s death to the day we held his funeral.


On Sale
Nov 5, 2019
Page Count
288 pages
Center Street

Ryan Manion

About the Author

Ryan Manion is the surviving sister of Marine 1stLt Travis Manion, who was killed in Iraq on April 29, 2007. His death served as the inspiration for establishing the Travis Manion Foundation, a nationally recognized veteran service organization. Today Ryan leads the foundation as President, and as a highly regarded advocate for the military community, she addresses national audiences frequently. She lives in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Amy Looney Heffernan is the surviving spouse of LT Brendan Looney, a West Coast-based Navy SEAL who was killed in Afghanistan on September 21, 2010. Brendan was also the best friend and Naval Academy roommate of Travis Manion. Amy has a Masters in Public Administration and serves as the Vice-President of the Travis Manion Foundation. She lives in San Diego, California.

Heather Kelly is the surviving spouse of Marine 1st Lt Robert Kelly, who was killed in Afghanistan on November 9, 2010. Serving as the West Region Program Manager for Travis Manion Foundation, Heather works closely with veterans returning to civilian life, the surviving family members of those who make the ultimate sacrifice, and fostering America’s next generation of leaders. She lives in Washington, DC.

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