Ryan Manion: Harnessing Grief to Do Good
“It didn't feel right for me to be diagnosed with PTSD. What did I experience that was worthy of me getting a diagnosis like that? These men and women are over there dealing with incredibly complex issues. I'm just over here sitting in my middle class suburban house and I'm told my brother’s been killed. But like, it didn't feel right.” - Ryan Manion
Ryan Manion talks about losing her brother to war, about her own PTSD diagnosis, and about harnessing her brother’s memory to do good.
Ryan Manion is the president of the Travis Manion Foundation, an organization that aims to empower veterans and the families of fallen heroes to “develop character in future generations”. Learn more about TMF at travismanion.org. You can find Ryan on Twitter at @rmanion and follow the Travis Manion Foundation at @TMFoundation.
Ken Harbaugh: Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.
Ryan Manion: It didn't feel right for me to be diagnosed with PTSD. What did I experience that was worthy of me getting a diagnosis like that? These men and women are over there dealing with incredibly complex issues. I'm just over here sitting in my middle class suburban house and I'm told my brother’s been killed. But like, it didn't feel right.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
Today I sat down with Ryan Manion, president of the Travis Manion Foundation and co-author of The Knock at the Door: Three Gold Star Families Bonded by Grief and Purpose. Ryan sat down with me to talk about losing her brother to war, about her own PTSD diagnosis, and about harnessing her brother’s memory to do good.
Ryan Manion, welcome to Burn the Boats. It's an honor to have you on the show. You are, of course, the President of the Travis Manion Foundation, and more recently, the coauthor of The Knock at the Door, a book about coming to terms with the loss of your brother, Travis. The proverbial knock at the door which for you came in the form of a phone call.
RM: It did. My knock came on a Sunday afternoon, April 29th 2007, and interestingly enough I was living in New Jersey, and had come to the Philadelphia area to sign a lease for a store that I was opening right by my parents, and on the same token, my mom woke up that morning, it was a beautiful April morning and decided to invite our friends and family over for an impromptu bar-b-que. And I had driven into our local town, I was sitting with the landlord about to sign the lease on my new store, and my phone rang, I saw it was my mom and I didn't answer it, and then it rang immediately afterwards and I just heard screaming on the other end of the line, and I drove the mile home, five minutes, my friend actually drove me back to the house because I knew something terrible had happened.
But the whole time for me, I thought that something had happened to my daughter who I had left at the house. You know, I wasn't even thinking that anything had happened to Travis. The entire time Travis was in Iraq, I think I was a little bit naïve to think that I didn't think anything was going to happen to him. I certainly knew men and women were giving their lives each and every day, but I had the mindset that it's not going to be my brother. And, so, I just pulled up and my dad was standing in the driveway with his friend who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps. I stepped out of the car, and my dad just looked at me and told me that my brother had been killed. And it was, certainly the worst moment of my life.
KH: Something struck me in how you recounted that story in your book and it was the demeanor of your father. Because it reminded me of way too many stories like it that I've heard of how families receive that news. And, how military fathers in particular receive it. The stoicism, the way they seem to shut down. Have you thought about that, in the way families receive that news, and the way dads in particular, who have served, have such a, an almost automatic reaction, like they've been bracing for it.
RM: Yeah. You know, I wasn't at the door when the knock came, but my dad had since shared with me that when the knock came, my mom opened the door and it was my dad’s friend who they sent to the house with the CACO officer, and my mom opened the door, and saw both of them, and she knew as soon as she opened the door and she slammed the door on their face. And, my dad opened the door and my mom was just screaming, and my dad said, "Janet, you've got to let this young man do his job."
And my dad still talks about just this poor young man who was a Marine that actually graduated with my brother at Navy. And, he had been sent to deliver the worst possible news, and my dad understood that. Being a Colonel in the Marine Corps at the time himself, he knew the job that this young man had to deliver, and the magnitude of what that was, and I think my dad was definitely still processing things when I pulled up five minutes later. But, I'll never forget when they brought Travis to Willow Grove Air Base Willow Grove from Dover and when they brought him out of the helicopter, my dad was standing next to me in his dress blues, and he broke down in tears. And, it was the first time in my life that I had ever seen my dad cry. At that moment everything was so real because you know, to see your Marine Colonel father breaking down in tears, in uniform, it was, that was very hard, very hard.
KH: I'm so glad you shared that, because it's so important to me to acknowledge that that stoicism that I've seen too many times and read about even more times is really a veneer of strength. It is hiding something as painful as anything imaginable, and your family dealt with that with grace that I think is admirable. You mentioned something in your telling of that knock on the door about the CACO officer, that's the casualty assistance calls officer, the Marine in your case, who was trained and then I guess deployed to deliver the worst possible news to your family. Can you explain that, that program, because I want people who aren't in the military to understand the seriousness with which the military takes that, takes on that role of bringing the news to these families. It's not done with a telegram anymore. It is not done cavalierly.
RM: It's not. And, it's a process. And, you know my dad wrote a book several years ago about losing Travis. And, he talked about in his story when Travis was killed, one of my dad's best friends, a General in the Marine Corps, Dave Paypack, this is a man that we grew up with. He was "Uncle Dave," he woke up that morning and he'd gotten to work and he saw the casualty list, and he saw Travis' name on it. The first thing he did was pick up the phone. He said he picked up the phone and the first thing he went to do was to call my dad, and he said as soon as he did it he realized, I can't. So, he put the phone down and then that set into a course of actions to make sure that there was somebody close enough to my dad, that could be with the notification officer who delivered the news. Hence, our friend Lieutenant Colonel Gardner, who showed up with the casualty assistance officer.
And, like you said, it is a trained position. That's a role that you volunteer to do. It's incredibly hard. And, this young man signed up to do it and the first time he had to deliver the news that a man or woman had given their lives in service to this country, it was for somebody that he knew. So, you imagine the gravity of that. But they walk you through that process and actually, interestingly enough, my co-author, Heather Kelly, when her husband was killed, she was stationed at Pendleton. Her, and her husband were at Pendleton. Her husband was on deployment, and so she went to all the meetings. They have the spouse resource meetings that tell you what happens, if something were to happen, this is how the process would go. So, they are prepared.
And, she said she'll never forget hearing that they said if your loved one is killed, you will receive the notification between basically business hours, 9-5. Beyond that, they will wait until the next day. And, so when the marines knocked on her door, it was three in the morning, and she said she got up and she walked to the door and she looked through the peephole and she saw two marines standing there and she said, and I thought well nothing happened to Robert because it’s three in the morning. They wouldn't come and tell me that. What she didn't realize is that her father-in-law, General John Kelly, was one of the most senior marines, and they knew that as soon as he woke up that morning and read the casualty report, he would see his son's name on it. And so they had to notify her at three AM because it was six AM on east coast time. So, they went off procedure, and she said that that threw me for a loop because I thought as soon as I opened that door, I thought they are looking for someone. Or maybe Robert was injured because they said sometimes that'll come in the middle of the night but, never did I think that he was going to be dead.
And, so there is a very ritualistic approach to how they perform these notifications, and not only that, once you receive that knock, it's not ‘OK we shared the news.’ Your CACO officer is there for you to support you. Not just in the week ahead, but, but even in the months and years ahead. I know people that still have maintained very strong relationships with the young man or woman that delivered the news that their loved one was gone.
KH: I was a CACO officer when I was on active duty, and as you know, you go through a lot of, a lot of training, mandatory training of all sorts when you are in the military. And, there is a lot of goofing around at a lot of it but not for this. I mean,it is a deadly serious obligation and everyone takes it that way and it's probably the most important training I ever received. Even though nothing can prepare you for having to deliver that kind of news. So, I want to ask you a little bit about Travis because he was of course a Marine, and an incredible Marine, and sounds like the more responsible younger brother to you, but his legacy lives on. And, now in the Travis Manion Foundation, you're doing extraordinary work to keep his legacy alive. Tell me about how his example lives on in the work you're doing today.
RM: You know, we started the Travis Manion Foundation pretty shortly after he was killed. My mom wanted to make sure that she could find a way to continue his legacy and that was very important to her as the mother grieving the loss of her only son, she wanted to make sure that somehow his legacy continued. And when I look back to that time, for us it was a small family affair. It was a group of family and friends that were just reeling at the loss of our son and brother. And where we are today is Travis's name represents this generation of men and women that have served and sacrificed. The work we're doing today is reflective of this incredible group of men and women. You know people ask me a lot about, "what do you think Travis would think of the Travis Manion Foundation?" I'm very quick to say that if he were here, I think he'd be serving right alongside me. But the one thing I think he would not like is that it's named the Travis Manion Foundation.
So much so, that I think it was just a few years ago that my dad said, "you know, I think we should change the name." And I said, “dad, we're in way too deep at this point like we can't change the name.” But, what I would say in rebuttal to Travis is that listen, your name is representative of this generation of men and women who have sacrificed their lives, it's more than one individual. and we have a responsibility as a nation to make sure that their stories are told. And that their stories are remembered. And that is ultimately what we do at the Travis Manion Foundation. We work with veterans and gold star families across the country to bring back to the forefront of people's mind that these are civic assets that are out there, each and every day, whether they are in uniform or out of uniform. They're doing things to help strengthen our nation's character. And it's important that we provide the right support and empowerment to our returning veterans that do make it back. And to those that don't, it's even more important that we learn their stories and we pass them on to our next generation.
KH: Agreed. How did you choose the logo? One of my favorites in the entire constellation of veteran service organizations.
RM: Oh, well thank you. Well, the logo story is actually pretty funny. So, when Travis' foot locker came back from Iraq, it came back with a copy of "Gates of Fire" in it. And -
KH: For those who are not familiar, Steven Pressfield right? The Battle of Thermopylae right?
RM: Yes. It literally had notes, and highlighted passages on every page. And then we got back a video from Travis memorial in Iraq. And one of the marines told the story of how they had a bootlegged version of the movie "300." And none of them could watch it because Travis watched it every night. So, we knew that Travis was definitely borderline obsessed with the Spartan culture, and the Spartan way of life, and for him there was no greater honor right? Then to fight for your fellow man. And so, when we started the Travis Manion Foundation we said well we have to have a Spartan logo. And so I was the creator of the first logo and that was me going online and Googling Spartan helmets. And so our original logo, and I actually still have a shirt with it on, it was basically a Trojan helmet. Like sideways Trojan helmet. For about two or three years, I think it was probably to about 2009, that was our logo. And, we linked up with an advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson and their COO was a Marine. And, one of the first things they said to us, is that they wanted to help us, like, rebrand. And, they wanted to take a crack at redoing our logo, and I was super offended. I'm like what do you mean? This logo is perfect, I got it off Google Images, like, you know, it's great! And so they put this presentation together, and they actually made a video to present our new logo to us and, you know our logo is a forward facing Spartan helmet. But what many people don't realize, it's also a "T" and an "M." And so, when they did the video they brought the T and the M together and they formed it into this Spartan shield. And, I like looked over at the team, I'm like OK I guess that's better than mine. You guys win.
KH: There is a subtext to me though, and it raises a concern that I think Travis Manion Foundation addresses but I'd love to tease it out, and it's an allusion to the very Spartan idea that there is a warrior class. And, that there's that class of soldiers who bear the burden of defending the rest of us. But at the cost of isolating themselves. Have you given that much thought in the context of where we are today, with the war that your brother fought in in its 19th year. And the fact that the vast majority of Americans have forgotten. That there isn't this sense that we're all in it together. The warrior class has assumed this burden alone.
RM: I mean, there is no way to get around that we are a disconnected society. There is less than 1% of our population that is serving in the military. And that percentage is only going to go down. But, I think that what we try to do at the Travis Manion Foundation, you talk about this warrior class. We call every member, that's a part of our organization, a Spartan. Whether you're a civilian, whether you're a kid, whether you're a veteran, whether you're active duty, gold star. We are the Spartans. And for us it's about working together. And what we always say is that what an incredible opportunity we have, as a nation, to look at this grand experiment that we call the military, right? You have this population that is possibly more diverse than any group you can think of in the country. And they've all come together to accomplish a mission. And how can we take the ideas that the military provides in terms of that leadership training, that comradery, that sense of brotherhood. And how can we push that out to our country as a whole, and that's, that's what we are trying to combat here.
I mean, at the end of the day we are a veteran serving organization. First and foremost we wanna make sure that we're empowering veterans. But more than that, we wanna make sure that we are bridging that divide. And, it's, it's cliché. You hear the "civ/mil divide" but as cliched as it is, it exists. And it's important as this war does stretch into its 19th year. It is so important for us to make sure that we are putting it back in the forefront. Not so people understand the geo-political conflicts and I don't care about all that. I don't care what you understand from there. I just need you to know that there is a group of men and women that, regardless of the mission, they have raised their right hands to say, "whatever you need, we will be there." And we have to understand as a country how incredibly important that is.
KH: Your book, it seems, is an attempt as well to bridge that gap, in some ways very deliberately by communicating to folks who have not received the kind of knock at the door that you did, what it's like. But, then to make the point that it's not an experience exclusive to military families. You have something to teach everyone, from what you've been through. And, in particular about PTSD. Your experience with PTSD, your initial reaction to your diagnosis was not just disbelief, but anger. Why were you upset at, at I don't know if it was a clinician, or a therapist, but relate the story to us, and your reaction to that diagnosis.
RM: Absolutely. I had kind of pushed my feelings aside. And when my brother died, one of the things I did was just throw myself into challenges. And I thought there was no challenge that was too big and if I just kept pushing forward with new challenges then that was going to help me move - and for a while it very much did. But what happened from there is I hit a roadblock. And I came to a point where I had not allowed myself to properly channel my brother's loss, to work through the grief and the trauma that I had been through. And I started seeing a therapist based off of one of my other co-authors, Amy Looney, she started going to therapy the day after her husband was killed. And here I was five years later and I hadn't done any of that. And, she said you know, I'm telling you, it helps just to talk to someone.
I started going to therapy and I felt like it did and I'm like okay, I'm in a better place now. And after a few months, my psychiatrist said to me, I'm ready to diagnose you with PTSD. And I was pissed off. I came home, I was mad. In my head I wasn't looking for a diagnosis. I was just trying to work through this grief. And I also felt that, that idea of PTSD, that it was somehow exclusive to the veteran community. And, I felt almost like well, it didn't feel right for me to be diagnosed with PTSD. What did I experience in my life? What did I experience that was worthy of me getting a diagnosis like that? These men and women are over there dealing with incredibly complex issues. I'm just over here sitting in my middle class suburban house, and I'm told my brother’s been killed. But it didn't feel right. But it was also a breakthrough for me. And, and when I called Amy to tell her I'd been diagnosed with PTSD, her first reaction was "great I was diagnosed with that like a month in, three years ago." But it was also the start to understand how important our mental health is, in life in general number one. But also, as we move forward through our, the challenges that we face. We have to pay attention, and I did not pay attention to my mental health. I ignored that part. I threw myself into very extreme physical challenges thinking that that was going to be the catalyst to work me through the grief that I was dealing with.
KH: I think if there is one contribution in this book that stands out above all the others in terms of bridging that divide, it's your acknowledgement of your diagnosis and your efforts to demystify PTSD. It bears mentioning that the vast, vast majority of Americans who suffer from PTSD never served in uniform. We're talking way upwards of 90%. They might be assault victims, or car crash survivors, or first responders. And, as you experienced, there is just this assumption about PTSD that when it comes to people in the military who suffer from it, that assumption really isolates them. That you have to have been a combat vet and it damages you beyond repair or something like that. It is simply another wounded organ, your brain, and it is treatable. It absolutely is treatable. But I want vets and others who have experienced trauma to hear it from someone who's come through the other side. What's the treatment regime done for you?
RM: For me it was being mindful and paying attention to how I was feeling. And not trying to - I'm German and Irish in background and it's actually uncomfortable for me to cry in front of other people. My husband always says, “you never cry”. And I certainly do when I'm by myself but that's an uncomfortable feeling for me. So the idea to talk about my feelings and that, that I was feeling anxiety, or depressed, there was nothing more scary for me than to do that. So to people that feel like they don't want to put that part of themselves out there, I will tell you, no one felt that way more than me. But on the flip side, I also learned this idea of healing that can come from being vulnerable and putting yourself out there and sharing how you're feeling.
And my treatment plan today consists of daily check-ins with myself. And as simple as that sounds it's about checking in with myself and my mental stability. Making sure that I'm in a good place mentally, also with the combination I did say that I really threw myself into the physical components of how you can work through things. Exercise is so vitally important. I can't stress it enough. My dad used to tell me when I was young if my boyfriend broke up with me, he'd say "go for a run." I thought he was the most heartless, cold individual ever. Anything could be cured with a run. I've come to find that in many ways it's true, but it doesn't work that way alone. You have to be very intentional about knowing where your mind is and when you need to take that break, when you need to take that reset, when you need to talk to somebody. It's about really getting to know yourself in that way, and sometimes that's not always easy.
KH: Totally. Especially with the Irish blood. My wife is Irish and loves to quote Pat Conroy who says that the Irish are impervious to psychiatry. Which is not true, but I get the sentiment. Well, in keeping with the theme "burn the boats and big decisions," what's the biggest, bravest decision you've ever been part of?
RM: Wow. Hmm. I think that the biggest and bravest decision that I ever made is one that was made collectively by my family. And that was to not let Travis's death be the end of the family that we had created. I had a wonderful childhood. I had a wonderful family and that knock at the door on April 29th, 2007 could have very easily destroyed us. And we made the conscious decision not to let that happen. I don't bear that alone, I give a lot of that to my mom and dad. I'll never forget the day that Travis was killed. It was later in the day, my dad pulled my mom and I into their bedroom and my dad said I don't know what happens from this day forward, but I know that no matter what, we're going to live our lives making sure that we make Travis proud. And I think in many ways we have. So, so collectively I think that's the best and biggest decision we've made.
KH: Ryan, it's been so great having you on. And thank you for sharing your story. The book is "The Knock at the Door" and it is gripping. There's a reason I didn't read from it today, cause I don't think I would have been able to. Because it is that emotionally compelling. Thank you for sharing Ryan.
RM: Thanks so much Ken.
KH: Thanks again to Ryan for joining me. Her book is called The Knock at the Door: Three Gold Star Families Bonded by Grief and Purpose. You can find a link in the episode description below.
Like Ryan, I also come from a military family. And this week, instead of hearing from all of you, I wanted to share some of my own family’s story. In 2007, I recorded an essay with help from my mom, Kathy, for NPR’s All Things Considered. My older brother was heading back for his third tour in Iraq and I was thinking a lot about what it must be like for my mom to watch her sons deploy again and again.
[Audio from NPR's All Things Considered: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7244107]
My mom is getting the staples pulled out of her knee today. She had the whole joint replaced a couple weeks ago. My brother and I have been calling every day to check in and to take turns scolding her for riding her horse before she's well enough. But my mom's tough that way.
I remember a nasty riding accident about 15 years ago. She was thrown clean off her mount and landed hard. Her femur shattered, and before the muscles could tighten, she straightened the leg with her own hands so the bone shards wouldn't tear into her artery.
Pretty soon, my brother will be heading back to Iraq for the third time. I wonder what that must be like for my mom. I wonder if, somehow, the staples in her leg feel a little less significant with this war hanging over her family.
The last time we were all together was before this past Thanksgiving, when I had returned from Afghanistan and my brother from Iraq. It seemed on the outside like a normal visit. We helped out on the ranch, ate together every night and caught up on stories. We even discussed the war.
But talking to my mom every day for the past couple weeks made me realize her tough-as-nails exterior hides a real ache for my brother, about to leave yet again. I asked her how she deals with it.
Kathy Harbaugh: I tell my boys I'm not half as brave as they give me credit for. I just make a real effort to dwell on the good things, and when my sons are home, I fight hard to make life feel normal. I want them to feel safe at the ranch, to feel at peace, because I know that soon enough, war will beckon one of them back.
So we enjoy being together as much as time will allow. I don't see the point in a lot of overwrought emotion. Still, every time I hear about the latest casualties, I feel that stab of fear. The horror of losing a son, which has visited so many families already, always lurks in the background.
But my husband was in the military like my boys, and I know the routine. Should that dark government car ever pull into our dirt driveway, I know just what I will do. I'll stop the chaplain and ask him not to say anything yet. I'll put a pot of coffee on, and then I'll go into my bedroom, drop to my knees and pray that my beautiful child is only wounded.
Ken Harbaugh: Next episode, I’m talking to Patrick Murphy - former soldier, Congressman, and acting Secretary of the Army. We’ll talk about the crisis the military has faced between upholding their oaths to the Constitution and being asked to carry out unconstitutional wishes of the president.
And we want to hear from you. Tell us about a time when you were asked to do something you knew was wrong - maybe you disobeyed a teacher or a boss, maybe you performed an act of civil disobedience. Maybe you spoke out and made yourself heard. Let us know by leaving a comment on social media or a voicemail at 216-245-5421 or by sending a voice memo to [email protected].
Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Our theme music is Climbing to Greatness by Cody Martin.
If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcasts about big decisions.
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