war on the rocks

Brothers Forever at Rest in Arlington’s Section 60

January 6, 2015

Tom Sileo and Tom Manion, Brothers Forever: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy Seal that Transcended their Ultimate Sacrifice (Da Capo Press, 2014)


Warriors, shipmates, battle buddies, wingmen: words often used to describe those that have served with us on the battlefields, flight lines, and decks of the U. S. armed forces. The ultimate title is that of “brother.”

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother…  — William Shakespeare, King Henry V

Brothers Forever is the story of Travis Manion and Brendan Looney, two midshipmen from similar backgrounds — both athletic, competitive, and natural leaders. They met at the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis before the country was attacked on 9/11, became roommates, and were commissioned as officers — Travis in the Marine Corps and Brendan in the Navy. They went on to lead sailors and Marines on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. In the end, they made the ultimate sacrifice and now rest next to each other, with others who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery.

In the summer of 2002, I visited Annapolis with a group of Navy chief petty officers. We walked past the midshipmen learning to march during Plebe summer and had lunch with a group of senior midshipmen and the Commandant of the Academy, who was then Marine Colonel John Allen. As I read General Allen’s forward to this book, I realized I might have walked past these two future leaders on that summer day. With our troops already at war in Afghanistan and talk of a war against Iraq in the air, I recall thinking what lay in the future for the young men and women once they joined the fleet.

After finishing the book, I was drawn to visit their graves in Area 60 and ventured out to Arlington. Hearing the twenty-one gun salute of a nearby funeral service, I approached their headstones, spotting a Christmas tree set between them. Many of the gravesites throughout Section 60 were adorned with holiday greenery. A bottle of Saint Brendan’s Irish Cream liqueur sat next to Brendan’s headstone. The trees in Area 60 held notes with holiday greetings from family members and comrades to their fallen heroes.

Tom Manion, Travis’s father, a retired Marine colonel, and noted military writer Tom Sileo tell the story of these two young men as they bonded at Annapolis and demanded only the best from themselves and their fellow midshipmen. Colonel Manion tells how Brenden showed his dissatisfaction with a friend who was just going through the motions during Lacrosse practice rather than giving his all. “[Brenden] came out of nowhere and hammered his friend.” Just as fast as his teammate went down with a broken nose he reached out to help him to his feet with a look that Manion described as “…if you want to be first team. Play like it.”

Graduating in 2004, Travis followed his father into the Marine Corps and joined other Marine officers at The Basic School at Quantico before deploying to Iraq as an infantry officer. Deploying a second time to Anbar Province as an advisor to the new Iraqi Army, he gained the respect of the Iraqi officers who called him “assad,” or lion. “If not me, then who…” was how Travis described to a friend why he felt it was his duty to go a second time to one of the most dangerous places on earth.

While on patrol in Fallujah with a joint U.S. and Iraqi Army patrol, he was hit by a sniper and evacuated to a field hospital, where he died. At the hospital, his former commandant and now commander of Marines in Iraq, General Allen learned of his fate.

The American people must know we too lost a close friend and brother this day. May his family know we too lost family, and we share their loss, our loss.  — Iraqi Army Colonel. Ali Jafar, CO, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Iraqi Brigade

Brenden, commissioned as a naval intelligence officer, served in Korea and Iraq. But wanting to be more directly in the fight he applied to become a Navy SEAL. He maintained a ferocious training routine while deployed to Fallujah as an intelligence officer. Even though he knew the odds of making the cut were slim because of his color blindness he was selected for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S). Hours before reporting, he would receive the message of his former roommate’s death on the battlefield.

Facing the start of BUD/S, Brendan’s first reaction was to return for his friend’s funeral. But on the phone with Colonel Manion, he realized Travis would want him to press on with his training. Motivated and challenged by Travis’ death, he graduated from BUD/S with the distinction of being named “Honorman” — top of his class. He was a “beast” on a ruck march. Each trainee was required to carry 40 pounds of weight, but running late, he grabbed a rock from the beach, tossed it in his ruck and set off to lead the class. Afterwards they weighed the rock to find he had carried 55 pounds while those behind him carried the required 40 pounds. Brenden deployed once to Fallujah with SEAL Team 3 and returned to the states to marry before leading a SEAL team in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, the SEALs faced a different enemy on terrain that was less urban and uniquely challenging and where Brendan led his SEALs by never asking anyone do anything he would not do himself. As the team’s deployment was ending, Brendan and a team of SEALs flying with soldiers from 101st Airborne Division heard a “piercing sound” and the helicopter fell from the sky. On his wrist, he wore Travis’s memorial bracelet, “Spartan, Hero, Leader.” He died in the crash.

The film 300, about the Battle of Thermopylae, was popular while the two were at the Academy. Travis often referred to it to describe his emotions. Before his last deployment, Travis spoke to his father saying, “Dad, for the Spartans, there was no greater honor than to fight and defend your country and its freedoms.” Travis was a Spartan.

When Brenden was killed, the families decided to ask that they be buried next to each other in Arlington. Three days before Branden’s funeral, Travis was moved from a cemetery in Doylestown, PA and the families buried both in Arlington.

As the fighting continues in both Iraq and Afghanistan, General Allen writes, “All of us who fought in these wars now pray that in the end the outcomes will justify the cost to America and its allies. Those of us left behind must ensure these lives lost were not in vain, and that these lives lost will have meaning and purpose, now and in the future.”

In virtually every sense they had become brothers in life, and now in death they rest together…brothers forever. No regrets.  — Gen. John Allen, USMC (Ret.)

David A. Mattingly is retired from the U.S. Navy as a Master Chief Petty Officer and served in Iraq and a number of other deployments. He is now a consultant on National Security issues.