Susan Katz Keating attended the funeral of Brendan Looney at Arlington on the 4th of October. She captured well the moment when Brendan’s fellow warriors said their last goodbye: “Until the day I die, I never will forget the sight and sounds of 82 SEALS removing the Tridents from their uniforms and one by one, pounding them into the coffin with their fists. Brendan Looney, RIP” more here
In April of 2007 1st Recon Battalion’s Lt. Travis Manion was killed on patrol in Iraq. He was buried near his hometown in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Three years later, on the 21st of September, Travis’ best friend, Navy Special Warfare’s Lt. Brendan Looney was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Now these two best friends, college athlete standouts, Naval Academy roommates and American warriors have been laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, together.
Their story has touched so many because it transcends our individual differences and reminds us of our national similarity: that we are a free people whose country was founded on the belief that a great life is given to strenuous endeavor.
We lose sight of that unifying similarity as our lives become easier and more convenient. We forget what it means to sacrifice something we love for a greater good and as we enjoy the fruits of labor past, we too often forget our nation’s best and strongest remain overseas, at war.
Knowing the kind nature, strong character, good humor, and deep humility Travis and Brendan shared, I’m certain they’d ask us to forgive those that forget we are at war and that have mistaken a life of “ignoble ease” for the good life and instead ask we focus on the well-being of the men they led and lost. I’m sure they’d insist that any word spoken or written about their own memory address only what was always at their heart’s center: their family, their men, their mission and their country.
But I also know that the Reconnaissance Marines and Navy SEALs they fought with adored them and would demand we celebrate the life they lived, not mourn the life they lost.
And so I remember how Travis used to ball me up on grappling mats or how he was Kate and Mike Geiger’s perpetual third wheel or how Brendan would help us all handle the pressures of Annapolis by reminding us to relax and keep our eyes on the prize or the way he always laughed at one of Matty Midura’s jokes even before he finished them, and I find myself as I always was in their presence, smiling and happy.
When I think about who these men were, what they accomplished and what they will forever mean to their family and friends, comrades and country, I realize something very important – I realize Travis and Brendan have given us the blueprint for a man’s life lived, complete.
In a world of prevailing self-indulgence, gluttony, and short-cuts, contemporary man has gravitated towards weakness. Spirits are fragile. Character is a burden. Hearts are hollow. Souls are empty. Physical labor is offensive and intellectual exploration, uninteresting. Man’s great passions have been replaced by material enthusiasms. While our forefathers regarded the road less traveled a career choice, we look upon it as little more than some romantic distraction from…whatever the hell it is we’re all supposed to be doing with our lives. But not Travis and Brendan…
They chose to ignore our generation’s plague of weakness and fight the war waged on manliness in the only way they knew how: stoically and by example. Brendan and Travis remind us that the spirit of adventure, responsibility, duty, wit, honor, love, sacrifice, imagination, strength, and courage that defined the men who built this country still exist today – and in so doing proved there is hope for man after all.
When Theodore Roosevelt delivered his famous ode to the strenuous life before Chicago’s Hamilton Club in 1899, he was doing more than delivering a foreign policy stump. Roosevelt’s speech was about what it meant to be a man.
When he spoke about manhood, he said, simply, that “the highest success comes not to the man who desires easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”
The splendid ultimate triumph being, of course, that a man “showed by their lives that they recognized the law of work, the law of strife; they toiled to win a competence for themselves and those dependent upon them; but they recognized that there were yet other and even loftier duties – duties to the nation and duties to the race.” When Theodore Roosevelt described the noblest nature of man, he foretold the lives of Travis and Brendan.
In the opening lines of his great sermon, Roosevelt invoked the essence of American virtue by addressing the character of her citizens. He exhorted that our tradition of a life of hard work and strife were our greatest national qualifications to lead the free world forward.
When asking the crowd what they would want of their America, he asked them first to consider what they would demand of their own sons, and then to regard them the same. And then I think of Travis’ and Brendan’s parents and how proud they must be that they raised men whose souls were so rich that they were willing to step forward to serve their country in a time of war and that they not only decided to be leaders of other great men, but decided to do so in the ranks of our military’s most elite tribes.
And yet I also imagine that with this deep pride comes an avalanche of sadness that must bury the divine emotional medicines of art, music, poetry, literature, and philosophy under a cold blanket of pain. Burying even Shakespeare: Your cause of sorrow/Must not be measured by his worth, for then/It hath no end.
But the Looney and Manion people are two great American families. To help their sorrow they have the strong love of one another, their faith in God and the devotion and gratitude of their country.
As part of that gratitude, we must honor what the Marine and SEAL warriors demand of us: that we celebrate their lives so significantly lived.
We celebrate the love that continues from their beautiful families, the devotion that endures from their dearest friends and mates, and the lasting legacy of strength, kindheartedness, service, good humor, loyalty, and bravery they have left to this world.
And we celebrate their story, which provides a blue print not just on how to be a good man, but on how to be a superior man; not just on how to be a good friend, but on how to be a best friend. In their lives they demonstrated a love for the ideas and values this country was founded upon, a love for the men they served alongside, and a love for their families that treasured them back. In this we see what so few men have ever felt even in one hundred years of life…that their lives that ended too soon in war are defined forever by love.
Brendan Looney and Travis Manion departed us from the darkest provinces in this world amid violence and bloodshed with a supreme moral distinction between their sacrifice and other men’s deaths. They lived great lives of strenuous endeavor, doing what they chose to do: defend their countrymen as Navy SEAL and U.S. Marine. And so they left those wretched places in the Anbar and Zabul, nobly, and with the happiest of hearts, and will rest forever in Arlington as they belong in our memory, together.