Telling the stories of a son fallen in combat, and also veterans who returned

RETIRE28P
"Brothers Forever" tells the story of Travis Manion and his best friend, Brendan Looney. They died at war, and are buried side by side at Arlington National Cemetery.

For Tom Manion, a retired Marine Corps colonel and Johnson & Johnson executive, Memorial Day is more than just a holiday to remember veterans who didn't make it home.

It's yet another day that he thinks of his only son, First Lt. Travis Manion, who was killed in action in 2007.

Telling Travis' story - and those of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - is the focus of what Tom Manion calls his "third chapter."

Travis Manion was raised in Doylestown, graduated from La Salle College High School and the U.S. Naval Academy, and entered the Marine Corps. He was killed April 29, 2007, in Iraq's Al Anbar province, fatally wounded by an enemy sniper while aiding and drawing fire away from his wounded comrades. His actions allowed his patrol to survive, for which he was awarded the Silver Star and the Bronze Star.

After Travis was killed, Tom's wife, Janet Manion, established the Travis Manion Foundation in his honor and based the nonprofit in Doylestown. Then 2012 brought more loss: Janet, the foundation's chairwoman, died of lung cancer.

"Her grief over Travis' death definitely had something to do with her getting sick," Tom Manion said. "Everything came apart. It's been nine years since Travis was killed, and I lost my wife four years ago. It's been a lot of change for us."

In 2014, Manion cowrote the book Brothers Forever, a story of Naval Academy roommates: Travis and his best friend, Brendan Looney, who was killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan. They are buried side by side at Arlington National Cemetery.

Manion, 62, said that although he's officially retired from the military and business - in January 2015, he left Johnson & Johnson, where he had worked for nearly 25 years - this is "just the third chapter of my life. Now, I travel a lot and share the story of these two guys, their friendship and their character. It's all about Travis' saying, 'If not me, then who . . .' "

Brothers Forever has drawn Hollywood's attention, Manion said, and he is in discussions to turn the story into a movie.

He travels about 10 days a month and speaks before executives or groups such as the FBI Academy at Quantico, Va., the Minnesota Vikings, the law firm Pepper Hamilton, Monument Bank, and his former employer.

Manion said he wants his mission to counteract the stereotypes of veterans.

"Yes, they're missing limbs, they have traumatic brain injuries and PTSD. But we've been at war longer than at any other time in our nation's history. In a selfie world, we can use veterans to combat all that's not positive."

In Washington in June, Manion said, he will address Western Pennsylvania Republican U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus (R., Beaver) and some lobbyists.

"One event leads to another. I didn't realize the book would lead to years of speaking, and there's still a lot of interest," he said.

Then there is the Travis Manion Foundation, which is growing so quickly that it has opened offices on the West Coast, in Texas, and in Washington.

Tom Manion doesn't work for the foundation, which is headed by his daughter, Ryan Manion Borek, but he serves on its board. The foundation trains veterans to speak to high school students about "why character matters."

"We want to put veterans in front of the next generation. It's all about telling them about having a purposeful life, and they see what selfless heroes are all about," Manion said. "There's a narrative out there that people are in uniform because they have no other choices, and that's just not true."

The foundation (www.travismanion.org) has made 136 presentations in this area at 85 schools and institutions including the Boys and Girls Club of Philadelphia, reaching more than 44,000 students, according to Manion Borek. Widows, fiancées, and girlfriends of fallen veterans come together to do foundation service projects and heal.

"It's about getting people to step forward, contribute, and be of service," she said. "It's about being big in the little things."

Manion Borek spoke at a high school in Arizona, and one of the football players was moved by the story of Travis' death.

"Apparently, after that he took an interest in a mentally challenged girl in his high school who was being bullied. He and the rest of the football team sort of adopted her, ate with her, invited her to the sidelines at games. The bullying stopped," Tom Manion said.

He has been living in Doylestown with his daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren. But he's mulling a move to Center City.

"It's time. I continue to be inspired by my son and his roommate Brendan. That's what gives me the inner strength to spread the word. Those that lose someone and are grieving usually just lock the door. We as a family decided to keep talking - write the book, start the foundation. As a family, we've been talking ever since."

earvedlund@phillynews.com

215-854-2808@erinarvedlund