That Travis Manion and Brendan Looney ended up side by side should surprise no one.
Loved ones had always been struck by the similarities between the Naval Academy roommates — both family men, both rugged athletes, both warriors who yearned to reach the heart of action.
Now, they needed to be together again. It was the only bit of comfort Amy Looney could fathom as she watched white-gloved soldiers carry her husband's casket from the back of an airplane at Dover Air Force Base last September.
Three years earlier, a sniper had shot Travis in Iraq after he exposed himself to enemy fire so he could drag wounded comrades from an ambush. Now, Brendan was gone as well, killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.
Confronted with that cruel reality, Amy Looney was sure what had to happen next: Brendan, the absurdly tough Navy SEAL she had fallen for back in Annapolis, would want to spend eternity beside Travis in Arlington National Cemetery.
In life, they laughed at jokes that only they were in on, blended into one another's families and talked quietly of their hunger to fight where they were needed most. Amy Looney wanted all of that to endure beyond terrible loss.
"It was the only peace I could find in the whole situation," she says.
When she made her thoughts known, the Manions agreed that the men belonged together, even though that meant moving their son from a Pennsylvania cemetery.
Travis was reinterred at Arlington on a Friday in early October, and Brendan was buried to his left the following Monday.
There they lie.
Though undeniably tragic, the culmination of Travis and Brendan's bond is more than that for the people who loved them. It's a story of bravery, of goodness, of two men who died doing what they were put on the earth to do.
"They're probably the two best guys I've ever known and the two best guys I ever will know," says their friend and academy classmate Ben Mathews. "I think it means something that they're together. It's terrible that they had to give their lives, but they're shining examples of what Americans can strive to be."
Brendan was days from beginning SEAL training in San Diego when the news of Travis' death tore his world asunder. His sister, Erin, had always viewed him as indestructible and was taken aback to hear him hurt so badly. "That was the toughest part," she says. "It was the first time I ever saw Brendan in a different light. Not that he wasn't still tough, but maybe he was a little more vulnerable."
The Navy would not allow Brendan to leave for the funeral. In his fury, he briefly considered quitting. Instead, he dedicated his training to Travis and won the coveted "Honor Man" spot as the top graduate of his class.
On missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Brendan wore two personal items — his wedding ring and a metal wrist band Travis' parents gave him to commemorate his friend. At his wedding reception in 2008, he handed Travis' mom, Janet, the gold trident pin he received for completing SEAL training.
"I only got this because of Travis," he said.
Destined to be a Marine
Travis Manion grew up in Doylestown, Pa., a borough of tree-lined streets and tidy shops 30 miles north of Philadelphia.
The foundation bearing his name, which gives grants to wounded veterans for community service projects, is housed just off Main Street. Janet Manion's office is a mini-shrine to her son. Photos of him in his wrestling uniform and combat gear surround her desk. On the window sill sits a note from local elementary-schooler Luke Sliwinski, who wrote, "I always try to do things that would make Travis proud. He is my hero. Semper Fi."
The Manions are well-known in Doylestown. Hundreds lined the streets to watch Travis' flag-draped casket proceed from a downtown church to a cemetery on the outskirts of town. Travis' father, Tom, ran for Congress the following year, arguing that too many people in government had set aside the needs of American troops. He didn't win but spread his son's story as a symbol of daily combat sacrifices that are too often out of sight, out of mind.
Janet walks into her favorite sandwich shop on a pleasant fall afternoon, less than two weeks after her son was buried at Arlington.
"I can't even comprehend how difficult that must have been," the shop's owner says. "But it's a beautiful place. He's near his buddy."
She smiles and says yes, that's a comfort.
Travis was born at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and the family moved around in his early years, when Tom was still an active-duty Marine colonel. The boy loved to put on his dad's camouflage gear and protect his buddies during imagined backyard combat. He and his older sister, Ryan Manion Borek, often belted out the Marine Corps hymn on the family couch.
"He wouldn't hurt a butterfly," Janet says. "If someone was mean to him, he'd really take it to heart."