Amid Loss, Foundation Soldiers On

Last month, almost five years to the day since a sniper's bullet killed Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, his mother, Janet, died of lung cancer. The loss of the leader of the foundation the Manions stood up in Travis' name was the latest tragedy to befall the family.

But amid almost unbearable grief, the Manions said they continue to find solace in the Travis Manion Foundation, which reaches out to other military families who have lost loved ones to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Janet's son was killed on his second deployment to Iraq. A bullet fired by a sniper in Anbar province grazed the heart of the 26-year-old Marine officer as he reloaded his rifle and grenade launcher, having dragged a Marine and a Navy corpsman to safety after both were shot.

Retired Col. Tom Manion, Travis' father, who served in the Marine Corps for 30 years, said the Sunday the Marines arrived at his family's doorstep to tell him Travis had died was the worst day of his life. Led by Janet, the family was committed to keeping Travis' memory alive after his death.

The family's memorial fund collected over $100,000 in the ensuing year, awarding scholarships to students at La Salle College High School, the Doylestown, Pa., high school from which Travis graduated before attending the Naval Academy.

Under Janet's leadership, the foundation expanded its reach every year since, often with personal connections to its namesake.

Travis loved to run. Before he died, Travis and his father had planned to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. After he died, Tom decided he would still run, wearing both his and his fallen son's race number and lacing both race chips into his shoe.

If you look up the race results, it shows Travis finished the race in 4 hours, 19 minutes and 39 seconds, the 7,566th runner to complete the 2007 Marine Corps Marathon. The Travis Manion Foundation sponsors a team for each Marine Corps Marathon, but the family wanted to also start a separate 5K race called the 9/11 Heroes Run to raise money and awareness for military veterans. It started as one race in Doylestown, Pa., run by 500 racers. The 9/11 Heroes Run has since expanded to 37 races run by 15,000 runners across the globe.

This December, the foundation plans to host its first gala at the Philadelphia Union League before the Army-Navy Game, in which it will recognize the work done by those in the foundation. Marine Commandant Gen. Jim Amos is scheduled to attend.

The Manions didn't want their foundation to simply provide handouts. Travis' sister, Ryan Manion Borek, explained that the family has always wanted the foundation to inspire community service to honor the sacrifice of the military veterans who have died.

Through the "Character Does Matter Program," the foundation offers challenge grants and fellowship pairings to fund community service projects completed in the memory of fallen servicemembers.

The foundation awarded a challenge grant to the family of Marine Cpl. Shane Harris, who died in Iraq in 2006. His family built a home in Guatemala in his name.

Four wounded Navy SEALs and four wives of fallen Navy SEALS also reached out to the foundation. The group of eight received a grant to swim the English Channel this July. "We want to honor the fallen by challenging the living to do something to remember those that have given their lives for our freedom," Borek said.

Borek, her family and the foundation have brought entire communities together to support families of fallen service members. The small town of Essex, N.H., lost five service members in five years. Children from the local middle school logged hundreds of hours of community service to remember each servicemember.

Upon completion, the students presented their work to the families of Army Spc. Nicholas Bernier, Army Private First Class Andrew Stevens, Army Sgt. Andrew Nicol, Army Maj. Brian Mescall, and Navy Chief Petty Officer Daniel Healy.

"What's special is their loved ones get to see a way that their service has been remembered in a tangible way," Borek said.

When Janet Manion died on April 24, the family passed the duties of leading the foundation to Borek. She made clear that she does not consider herself a replacement for her mother, just someone dedicated to continuing her mother and brother's legacy.

Borek was with her mother soon after she found out she had terminal cancer. She watched as her mother stood up and gave a speech at one of last year's 9/11 Hero Runs and spoke about the sacrifices of today's veterans.

After receiving the diagnosis in August, Janet Manion continued to lead the foundation, taking only a few days off before she died in April. The foundation and recognizing veterans was her passion, her daughter and husband said.

"Janet had the ability to inspire others and it will be greatly missed," Tom Manion said.

This Memorial Day, the Manion family planned travel to Arlington Cemetery, where Travis is buried next to his Naval Academy roommate, Navy Lt. Brandan Looney, a Navy SEAL who died in 2010 when his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan.

"It's not right to say we're happy he's next to Brendan because we'd rather have them with us -- but we're comforted by the fact that those two are together," Tom Manion said.

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