By Tom Sileo
By Tom Manion
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Four weeks after Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden, the President of the United States stood in Arlington National Cemetery. In his Memorial Day address, he extolled the courage and sacrifice of the two young men buried side by side in the graves before him: Travis Manion, a fallen US Marine, and Brendan Looney, a fallen US Navy SEAL. Although they were killed three years apart, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, these two best friends and former roommates were now buried together–“brothers forever.”
Award-winning journalist Tom Sileo and Travis’s father, former Marine colonel Tom Manion, come together to tell thisd intimate story, from Travis’s incredible heroism on the streets of Fallujah to Brendan’s anguished Navy SEAL training in the wake of his friend’s death and his own heroism in the mountains of Afghanistan. Brothers Forever is a remarkable story of friendship, family, and war.
CALL TO ARMS
Brendan Looney was heading out to football practice at the US Naval Academy in the spring of 2001 when he heard the quiet strumming of a guitar as he walked by a room. Travis Manion was playing the opening chords to the Dave Matthews Band song “What Would You Say.”
“Hey, man, that’s pretty good,” Brendan said. “I saw them at Nissan Pavilion—it was one hell of a show.”
“That’s in Virginia, right?” Travis asked, laying the guitar on his lap while looking up at Brendan. “You from around here?”
“Yep, Owings, Maryland, and now Silver Spring,” Brendan said. “What about you?”
“Philadelphia,” Travis said. “About forty minutes away in a place called Doylestown.”
“Uh-oh,” Brendan said. “Eagles fan?”
“Yep,” Travis responded.
“Shit,” Brendan said as the young midshipmen shared a laugh. “’Skins all the way.”
The die-hard Washington Redskins fan knew this Philadelphia Eagles supporter was on the wrestling team, but he couldn’t remember his name, so Brendan decided to introduce himself.
“I’m Brendan Looney,” he said.
“I’m Travis Manion,” said Travis. “Great to meet you.”
“Good to meet you, too,” Brendan said. “I gotta get to practice.”
“Me, too,” Travis said. “Football?”
“Yep,” Brendan answered. “You’re wrestling, right?”
“Yeah, I had to retire from football,” Travis said. “I knew I’d never be good enough to make the Eagles, and I didn’t want to end up on a team like the Redskins.”
After another laugh, the varsity athletes headed to separate practices. The Naval Academy freshmen (or plebes, as members of the youngest class are called) might have played different sports and rooted for different NFL teams, but each had just made a new friend.
Few wanted to line up across from Brendan at Navy football practices. As a slotback for the Midshipmen, who famously specialize in running the option, Brendan’s job was to blast anyone trying to tackle the ball carrier with a crushing block. He wasn’t a starter, but in practice, he was among the team’s most feared players.
Before Navy and the Naval Academy Preparatory School (NAPS), Brendan played high school football at DeMatha Catholic High School. In the Washington, DC, area, “DeMatha” was synonymous with “powerhouse,” as the Hyattsville, Maryland, all-men’s school has been a force in high school athletics for decades. Two of its most notable football players are Brian Westbrook, who starred for many years on Travis’s Eagles, and his brother, Byron Westbrook, who went on to play for Brendan’s Redskins.
Ben Mathews, a Navy linebacker, became friends with Brendan after observing his almost superhuman work ethic in the weight room. After introducing himself and quickly realizing that Brendan was a warm, friendly guy, Mathews wanted to see if he could keep up with his teammate’s workout regimen, which included countless squats.
The experiment ended with Mathews throwing up on the weight room floor. Brendan was an impressive physical specimen, and few could keep up with him in any setting involving athletic challenges.
On one particularly hot, stuffy day Mathews, exhausted after studying all night for an exam, was going through the motions during team drills. The first teammate to notice his lack of intensity was Brendan, who would never give anything less than 100 percent on the practice field. He reacted fiercely when he saw anyone not doing his part to prepare for the next game.
As the whistle blew, Brendan, the slotback, ran straight toward Mathews, the linebacker. While Mathews trotted toward the tailback, Brendan came seemingly out of nowhere and hammered his friend, who hit the ground almost as quickly as Brendan reached out to help him up. With blood spraying from his broken nose, the confused, disoriented linebacker took the hand of the teammate who had just embarrassed him with a bone-crushing blow.
Brendan was a man of deeds, not words, and while helping the injured player off the turf, gave him a look that Mathews interpreted as “if you want to be first team, play like it.”
Mathews wasn’t happy about the blood streaming down his face, but he knew it was Brendan’s way of helping him become a better player. Although many jocks would have started a fight over the incident, Mathews later thanked his teammate for the wake-up call.
Like Brendan, Travis believed being the hardest worker was the key to success. On the wrestling mat, Travis was always the guy with the black-and-blue face. His ears usually looked like they’d been crumpled inside somebody’s fist. But the La Salle College High School standout was strong, determined, and always one of Navy’s toughest outs.
“You may never be big enough to play football or fast enough to run track,” Travis once told kids at a local wrestling clinic in Doylestown, at an event covered by a local newspaper. “You work through the hardships and (you can) be successful, whether it’s on the wrestling mat or in battle. (Wrestling) lays the foundation for what it takes to be a good officer.”
Although some on the Navy wrestling team struggled to balance long practices and trips to away meets with academics, passing exams was never an issue for Travis, who absorbed lectures like a sponge. He attended classes, studied, and wrote his papers, but always thought wrestling would best prepare him for being a warrior and leader on the battlefield. This belief was reinforced by the qualities he saw in Captain Doug Zembiec, a two-time All-American wrestler at Navy who attended as many practices and meets as he could and frequently sparred with Travis.
“Be a battle-ax,” Zembiec told him. “Hurl yourself into your opponent.”
Zembiec, a 1995 Naval Academy graduate, had a big impact on Travis. In the young wrestler’s eyes, the gritty, tough, seemingly invincible warrior embodied everything he wanted to become: a skilled Marine officer who used the wrestling mat to develop himself into a leader who commanded respect.
Travis was a high school and college wrestling star. After a strong junior year at Navy, which featured several epic matches against nationally ranked opponents, he was presented the Naval Academy’s Weems Award for dedication and leadership.
As a preseason Top 20 wrestler going into his senior season, Travis didn’t want to simply win matches and meets. He wanted to dominate and help lead the Midshipmen to a championship.
In December 2003, Travis won the Penn State Open in his 184-pound weight class. He won four straight matches that day, including a 6–4 victory in the title contest against a formidable Rider University opponent. Travis’s parents, Tom and Janet Manion, never missed one of his matches and drove up to State College, Pennsylvania, for the meet. Nothing gave Travis more satisfaction than making his parents proud.
The Penn State Open was hard for Travis’s mom and dad to watch. During the day’s first match, Travis let out a terrible scream while grappling with his opponent. Their son’s right shoulder, which he had injured during his junior year, was now a greater source of pain, especially after an unsuccessful operation left his arm practically unusable.
After he cried out in agony, Travis’s right arm felt like Jell-O for the rest of the tournament. He won it anyway.
Travis knew that if he was also going to prevail in an upcoming wrestling tournament in Arlington, Texas, it would have to be with one arm, just like at Penn State.
At the January 2004 tournament, when Travis knelt on the mat before squaring off against a tough adversary from Purdue, he channeled Captain Zembiec’s words and hurled himself into his opponent. On this day in Texas, however, the battle-ax had no blade.
“Come on, Trav,” Tom yelled from the stands.
“Bear down!” shouted Tom’s brother, Chris Manion, a former wrestling star who was almost always in Travis’s corner.
The Purdue wrestler slammed his struggling opponent to the ground for a takedown, with Travis’s injured shoulder thumping squarely onto the red-and-yellow mat. His right arm was already numb, and this first blow left Travis with almost no strength to attempt an escape. In a sport built on hand-to-hand combat, one hand is almost always no match for two.
“They should stop this,” Janet said to Tom, who was silent as he watched his son being thoroughly dominated.
The match ended in an 11–0 shutout. It was by far the worst defeat of Travis’s illustrious high school and college wrestling career and left the varsity athlete despondent as he watched the rest of the meet from the bench, clutching his injured shoulder.
Back at the Arlington Hilton after the worst meet of his life, Travis, a brawny, good-looking twenty-three-year-old with a buzz cut, sat outside the hotel talking to Navy assistant wrestling coach Joel Sharratt. Although the senior athlete and his mentor were close, this was the first time Sharratt had ever seen Travis, who insisted that he had “let everyone down,” overcome by emotion. Travis knew his wrestling career was over and worried aloud that he had disappointed his parents.
“That’s bullshit,” Sharratt said. “Your parents support you 100 percent.”
After a brief moment of silence, the assistant coach gave Travis a reason to perk up, telling the future military officer that though his senior wrestling season was over, it was now time for him to devote all his energy to becoming a Marine.
Travis understood what his coach was saying, but giving up wrestling was almost inconceivable. He loved the sport and wanted desperately to be the best at it.
He was still standing outside with Coach Sharratt when his parents got back from the match. After the coach had greeted Tom and Janet and excused himself to head upstairs, Travis hugged his mother.
“I’m sorry you guys had to come all the way down here to see that,” he said.
“Travis, you tried your best,” Janet replied.
Putting his hand on Travis’s healthy left shoulder, Tom, the Marine Corps colonel, gave his only son some encouragement, telling him that many great things were still ahead. Regardless of how many wrestling matches Travis won, what truly mattered was that he would soon graduate from Navy and become a leader of Marines.
The fourth day of 2004 may have felt like his lowest point at the academy, but the senior midshipman had barely made it that far to begin with. Just over four years earlier, as a first-semester plebe, Travis had done something he’d never done before in his life: quit.
Just before Thanksgiving 1999, Travis was clearly agitated as he sat across from his Naval Academy battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Corky Gardner, a career Marine with many years of leadership experience. The young midshipman was fed up with the early morning classes, drills, and strict rules about always staying on campus. He had only given it four months, but to a stubborn eighteen-year-old, plebe year felt like an eternity.
If Travis had been with his sister Ryan at their dad’s alma mater, Widener University, or almost any other institution of higher learning, he could have simply filled out a withdrawal form. But at the Naval Academy, where dozens of midshipmen succumb every semester to a rigorous mix of academics and military training, Travis had to complete a packet full of intentionally difficult, tedious paperwork explaining why he planned to leave Annapolis. Then he had to separately inform his squad leader, company commander, and company officer of his intention to resign, before he could even get inside the battalion commander’s office.
For Travis, the final meeting presented a dual challenge. Lieutenant Colonel Gardner wasn’t just his battalion commander; he was a close friend of Travis’s father and had begun serving with Tom almost a decade earlier. When Travis showed up for “plebe summer,” a grueling training session that results in many dropping out before the academic year even starts, Gardner was there to cut off Travis’s first lock of brown hair during the ceremonial head shaving that serves as each freshman’s “oh shit, high school really is over” moment.
As battalion commander, Gardner had been reluctantly accepting the resignations of plebes since summer. He wondered why Travis wanted to see him, but never imagined that this day could be one of Travis’s last as a midshipman. This young man wasn’t the quitting type.
Travis was disappointed about missing out on the freedom of college life. He would spend his weekends on academy grounds, which sometimes felt like a prison, and listen longingly to his sister’s stories about constant parties and road trips. “It must be nice to be out there having all that fun,” Travis once told Ryan, his only sibling and most trusted female confidante, during a phone call.
Chasing female midshipmen was frowned upon, and every time Travis talked to his high school buddies about their coed adventures, he was naturally envious. Of course, those same stories almost always involved alcohol, a substance that was nearly impossible for Travis and his fellow plebes to obtain.
One Friday night, a particularly desperate group, which included Travis, bet each other about how many double shots they could do of Virginia Gentleman whiskey, the only bottle of liquor they could get their hands on. In a notably futile attempt to prove his manhood and catch a buzz, Travis won the bet, but threw up violently the rest of the night and most of the next day.
Once Travis made up his mind about almost anything, there was little chance of his changing it. Given that Gardner was preparing to challenge his decision, Travis was an irresistible force about to meet an immovable object on the historic Annapolis campus.
“Sir, I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I’ve decided to leave the academy,” Travis said. “I know this might surprise you, and I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, but I think this is the best thing for my future.”
Gardner was shocked. He always tried to talk midshipmen out of resigning, even those he wasn’t sure were the right fit for the academy. In this case, however, he would do everything in his power to keep Travis from leaving. As he cleared off his desk, Gardner was convinced he was sitting across from a young man who was about to make a serious mistake.
“Travis, I appreciate you being up front about this,” he said. “But I have to ask why you think you’d be better off somewhere else.”
“It’s a bunch of things, sir . . . wrestling, schoolwork, missing my friends back home,” Travis said. “But I thought about this a lot, and this is what I’ve decided to do.”
“Have you talked about this with your parents?” Gardner inquired.
“No sir,” Travis replied.
“But I thought you said you’d thought about this a lot?” the battalion commander asked.
“Well, I have, sir,” Travis said, growing frustrated as he realized his decision was being contested. “I’m going to talk to them as soon as I get home.”
After thumbing through Travis’s withdrawal packet, which included the midshipman’s excellent grades, Gardner looked directly at his friend’s son.
“Well, I’m sorry, Travis, but I can’t accept this,” he said. “While I understand you’re having a hard time, like many others do, I think you’re about to do something you’ll regret for a long, long time.”
“But sir . . . ,” Travis began.
“And either way, there’s no way I could let you do this before you speak to your parents,” Gardner continued. “I think you owe it to your dad, especially, to talk to him about a decision of this magnitude.”
“Sir, he will never agree . . . ,” Travis said as tears began to well up in his brown eyes.
“I want you to go home for the holiday, relax, talk to your folks, come back and we’ll chat again,” Gardner said. “Just get away from this place for a little while, enjoy yourself, and I think you might feel differently.”
“I’ve made up my mind and don’t need time to think about it,” Travis responded. “I was told all I have to do is talk to you and that’s it.”
“Have a good Thanksgiving, Travis,” Gardner said. “Please give my best to your mom and dad.”
Travis jumped out of his chair, snatched his resignation packet, and hurried out of the lieutenant colonel’s office. Although he had too much respect for Gardner to slam his door, he couldn’t help but mutter “this is ridiculous” under his breath when he was far enough down the hallway.
While most Americans were thinking about the “Y2K” computer scare and the coming dawn of a new millennium, Travis was enduring his most difficult Thanksgiving ever. Just as he had expected, his dad was angry when Travis told him he was leaving the academy.
“Look, this is your call and your decision,” Tom told his son, who he always believed could excel at the Naval Academy and beyond. “But I think you’re making a big mistake.”
Ever since running around his house singing the Marine Corps hymn with his sister, Ryan, when they were little kids, the academy had seemed like the most logical step to Travis. But once he actually got there, he was introduced to the daily routine: wake up at 5:30 a.m., get your room inspected, eat breakfast at 7:00 a.m., start class at 7:55, and then sit in lecture halls all day before a grueling 3:00 p.m. wrestling practice. After a full day of physical and academic challenges, Travis and other midshipmen would spend most of the evening studying and preparing for the next day’s classes.
It was an exhausting routine for any college student. Travis couldn’t imagine returning from vacation and starting the grind all over again.
The holiday was gloomy for Travis, who barely touched his Thanksgiving dinner. As sounds of laughter filled the living room, where his mom and dad, Ryan, and other relatives were socializing, Travis knew his time at the Naval Academy was over. A few days later, he returned to Lieutenant Colonel Gardner’s office with his completed resignation packet.
“I’m really sorry to see you go, Travis,” Gardner said. “I wish you the best, but I also want you to know that if you ever want to come back, I will put in a word for you.”
“I appreciate that, sir,” Travis replied. “But this place isn’t for me.”
Travis, who had made good grades at Navy, had no problem gaining admission to Drexel University in Philadelphia, where he contributed significantly as a freshman Division I-A lacrosse player while planning to join the wrestling team.
Travis didn’t hate Drexel. But after spending a semester away from Annapolis, his appreciation for what Navy stood for, as well as the bonds he had forged with several academy friends, made him regret his decision to leave. There was only one place for Travis Manion, and if he could get another chance, it was time to go back.
Neil Toohey came to the Naval Academy straight out of high school without any exposure to military life prior to the fall of 2000. After getting his head shaved during “I-Day,” induction day for incoming midshipmen during plebe summer, Toohey was rushing back to his room to finish unpacking his belongings before his room was to be inspected for the first time. He had already seen another plebe being berated for screwing up and didn’t want that to happen to him on his first day.
Toohey arrived in his room to find a muscular, brown-haired guy going through his clothes. At first he thought it was one of the upperclassmen doing an inspection, but this guy was wearing a plebe’s uniform. As Toohey was pondering the possibility that someone was going through his underwear, the young man quickly dispelled that fear by introducing himself.
“Hey, I’m Brendan Looney, your new roommate,” he said. “We’ve got to get all your clothes folded before the inspectors get here.”
Grabbing Toohey’s shirts and socks from his duffle bag, Brendan quickly folded them as he heard footsteps coming down the hall.
“You’ve got to fold ’em like this,” Brendan said. “Make the socks smile.”
“Oh . . . thanks, man,” Toohey said. “But just one thing. . . . You mixed up my shirts.”
“Shit, that’s my bad,” Brendan said. “I’m colorblind.”
After Toohey thanked him a second time, Brendan, an imposing figure even at age nineteen, responded with a nod and a grin. It was already clear to Toohey that his new roommate was looking out for him.
“Man, I just have no idea what I’m doing around here,” Toohey complained.
“Relax,” Brendan said. “You’re not supposed to. . . . It’s our first day.”
Though Brendan was also a plebe, he was more prepared for I-Day than most others after spending ten months attending the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island. With a grueling academic, physical, and military training regimen, NAPS had given Brendan the chance to play football against junior college and junior varsity opponents while preparing to join Navy’s Division I-A team.
About 15 percent of the incoming class came from NAPS, and each of those 177 students, including Brendan, had a head start. As Brendan demonstrated by helping Toohey pass inspection, the “NAPSters” were seen as big brothers by many plebes, who felt clueless and frightened while getting hollered at for making the smallest of mistakes. Although Brendan still had a lot to learn himself, he knew not making his bed in thirty seconds or forgetting to shine his belt buckle wouldn’t get him kicked out of the academy. His sheer physical presence gave him the appearance of a natural leader, but it was the calming smirk he often gave the other plebes that really demonstrated that quality.
Of the four plebes in Brendan’s room, three had gone to NAPS. After experiencing ten tough months together, the first signs of military-style brotherhood were evident in the NAPSters, who usually stuck together. Toohey gained inclusion by virtue of being their roommate.
As the first-year midshipmen adjusted to the academy’s grueling routine in the fall and spring of 2000, Navy’s class of 2004 was beginning to take shape. Unbeknownst to Brendan and the other plebes, however, a key member of their social circle was not yet with them.
When Travis told his father he wanted to reapply to the Naval Academy after one semester at Drexel, Tom, still unhappy over his son’s decision to drop out in the first place, was skeptical.
“That’s your decision,” he said. “If you want to go back, you’re going to have to do it on your own.”
“I will,” Travis said.
A few days later, Lieutenant Colonel Gardner was sitting in his Annapolis office when a surprise visitor walked in.
“Travis?” he said. “It’s good to see you again.”
After asking how his good friends Tom and Janet were doing, Gardner welcomed the former midshipman into his office and asked him to have a seat. Travis explained that while he had given Drexel a try, it had only taken him a few months to realize that Gardner had been right. The Naval Academy was indeed where he belonged.
Gardner was thrilled by Travis’s epiphany, but also cautious in his response. He agreed that Navy was the right place for Tom and Janet’s son, but he stressed that getting into the academy a second time was very rare. Gardner told Travis that while he would do everything possible to help, it would be a challenge to convince the Naval Academy that he deserved a second chance.
Though he understood that the odds of getting back into Navy were probably against him, Travis was undeterred. For the next five months he worked exhaustively to win the hearts and minds of a skeptical Naval Academy admissions board.
Because Travis had immediately enrolled at Drexel and participated in a varsity sport during his lone semester on the Philadelphia campus, his readmission request was taken seriously. His academic record was strong, before and after leaving Navy. But what made his application stand out was a cover letter from Gardner, who wrote that he had “absolutely no doubt” that Travis would be a fine midshipman and even better military officer.
For the class of 2004, 10,296 young men and women applied to the US Naval Academy, of which only 1,224 were admitted. Travis, a second semester addition, was one of them.
"[A] heartfelt and loving tribute...The school years, service and sacrifice of two young men instill awe, inspire humility and introduce tears."
"This moving story is told well...and it succeeds as a testament to the courage and dedication of two young men who are now buried next to each other at Arlington National Cemetery."
"Inspirational...Readers will undoubtedly respect the dedication of the book's subjects...Enthusiasts of military heroics should enjoy this grueling account of valor."
"This is a tale of two lives, and more than tow lives. It is a heart-touching story."
"I particularly recommended the just published book, Brothers Forever. It's an account of the friendship of U.S. Marine 1st Lieutenant Travis Manion, killed in action in April 1007 in Fallujah, Iraq, and U.S. Navy LT (SEAL) Brendan Looney, killed in action in September 2010, in Zabul province, Afghanistan...A gripping account of friendship, war, sacrifice, and valor."
—The Weekly Standard
"Will grip readers---even after they've finished the book...A fitting tribute to the lives of these two fallen warrior brothers. They were among America's best. This well-written, well conceived book will hit you hard in the gut."
"Travis Manion and Brendan Looney accepted the call to defend their country. They rest beside each other now at Arlington Cemetery. Their story is worth your time."
"A profoundly moving story--of two valiant and courageous young men who gave their lives for their country."
—Wsahington Independent Review of Books
"A tragic, yet somehow also uplifting story of two young men, two warriors, who lost their live son the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and now lie together forever at Arlington National Cemetery."
"Brothers Forever is a horrific yet gripping and engaging story of two American soldiers--two heroes--whose courage on the battlefield was astonishing...This memorable account truly and finely honors the bravery of the late servicemen."
—San Francisco Book Review
"A story about duty, honor, friendship, family and above all trying to do the best you can to help. For some that may very well lie in places far outside the military life, but they can still employ the lesson s from Looney and Manion."
- On Sale
- May 13, 2014
- Page Count
- 312 pages
- Da Capo Press