It's pouring rain as the photographer and I run through the cobbled streets of Philadelphia. You can see it in the locals' faces and the Colonial buildings still standing strong just blocks from the Liberty Bell that this city is tough. For over 300 years, Philly has been the home of patriots, presidents and even movie characters such as Rocky Balboa. Yet, there is one theme that continues to define Philadelphians. No matter how much they struggle, get kicked around or scarred, there will be a moment when they rise, gritty and determined, and GO on with their mission.
We arrive at the Union League, a brick and brownstone club, which has supported the military and veterans since 1862. As we pass two statues of soldiers marching off to war, I receive a text, "Finishing a board meeting. Use the side entrance. You won't be allowed in unless you are in a jacket. Which I assume you are not." The subject of our next interview is 100% correct and I instantly know we are in the place where Ryan Manion and her team hold court each December.
Ryan is the President of the Travis Manion Foundation, co-author of the Knock at the Door, mother, Gold Star sister and marathon runner. She's busy. Always on the go, and the second week of December is her Super Bowl.
The night before our interview, she led the annual If Not Me, Then Who gala, which honors fallen heroes, veterans, active-duty troops and military families. Today, she's leading the TMF board meeting, which includes current CEOs and former generals. Tomorrow, she'll go on Fox Sports to represent TMF at the Army-Navy game where Navy will take home the win (but we don't know that yet). Ryan has thankfully given us thirty minutes of her downtime for a one-on-one interview which she tells me is "no big deal" after I thank her again.
The Travis Manion Foundation is a big deal. The non-profit, which started as a small family effort, is now an organization that coordinates thousands of community volunteers across the nation. Ryan, who lost her brother, 1st Lieutenant Travis Manion, and her team are driven by the mission to "empower veterans and families of fallen heroes to develop character in future generations."
The most amazing thing about Ryan Manion is not only all that she and her team have accomplished since 2007 but the fact that she is still going, and going strong. Ryan, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, is a former smoker who now runs marathons and does ruck marches. She talks fast and moves faster. "Come on, let's GO," she tells us when we see her. I follow, knowing without a doubt that Ryan is the next generation of tough as nails leader that Philly is known for.
WATM: How's your Army-Navy week going?
Ryan's phone rings. It's a family call. She answers while we start taking photos. Then she's back.
Ryan Manion: It's been a little heavy this week. We started off Tuesday with a meeting for all our senior TMF leadership, which we did for the first time. They flew in from all over the country. Then Tuesday night, we had a huge book event here in Philly, and my son has pneumonia.
WATM: OMG, that is a lot.
Ryan: He's fine. Home with the family. He had a cold for three days. It didn't even seem like a big cold. You know, it's been kind of crazy.
WATM: How do you manage everything on your plate?
Ryan: I love what I do, and I get to work on wonderful things. We've been working on a project for tomorrow's Army-Navy Game. We're bringing 30 wounded warriors and their families to meet the President during the third quarter.
WATM: Wow, that is amazing. Did you ever see yourself doing this kind of work? Especially leading an organization such as the Travis Manion Foundation?
Ryan: Today, one of our board members said it best, "It all just gets back to Travis, saying, if not me, then who?" And that kind of simplified the journey for me. I thought to myself, 'Oh my God. I'm sitting here with all these people because of my brother.'
WATM: You and your family established the organization as a way to carry on Travis's legacy. Does it still feel that way a decade later?
Ryan and her brother Travis at the Army-Navy Game.
Ryan: Last night, somebody at the gala who was a Marine that served with Travis came up to me and said, "You know, I've been at this gala for eight years now, and every year gets better and better. It's unbelievable. But I got to tell you, I was sitting there thinking, these people don't know who Travis Manion was."
WATM: How did that make you feel?
Ryan: Travis is my personal driver, but this organization is bigger than one person. I am excited for so many to see the fruits of what he stood for through this organization.
WATM: If Not Me, Then Who?
Ryan: Exactly. My brother wrote those words before he deployed to Iraq, and they represent the character, leadership and selfless service that is the backbone of all our programs. Whether it is our strength-building seminars, expeditions, fitness events or service projects, we unite our volunteers, both civilian and veteran, in the common cause to better their communities by living the mantra of "If Not Me, Then Who…"
WATM: What do you think draws people to the foundation and your work?
Ryan: It's funny because our board was just asking me the same thing.
Ryan: I have to tell you, the thing about our organization is that it's like the feeling you get when you're around your family. It started out as a family affair. It was a small family that was grieving the loss of their loved one. But even as we've grown, it doesn't matter what event you're at or how many show up. You know, tomorrow there will be a thousand people at our tailgate, everyone's going to feel like they're part of a team, a family.
WATM: Was that the plan from the beginning?
Ryan laughs. I've been to a few TMF tailgates, and we both know the answer.
Ryan: I can't articulate in words why that is. But you've been around it, you see it, and I don't know what drives that. We come from a very different place from a lot of other traditional veterans service organizations, especially those in the post 9/11 world. I think they're all doing great work. They came with an idea, "Ok, this is the problem, and this is how we're going to solve it."
We came with, "I just lost my brother, my mom and dad just lost their son. And we want to make sure that we continue his legacy." So when you come at it from that place, there's no chance that it's gonna be anything but super authentic in what you're doing. Since then, it's been, "Ok, we're going to do this. Oh, people are into it. Ok? Let's keep doing it. Oh, wow. We're really doing something here now." That's the plan.
Ryan smiles as I point to her new book, The Knock At the Door.
Ryan Manion with a copy of her book, The Knock at the Door.
WATM: So let's talk about the book. First of all, congratulations.
Ryan: Thank you. Yes, it's pretty awesome.
WATM: What's the feedback you're getting so far?
Ryan: The feedback has been tremendous. We've found that this book, to some degree, breaks down the wedge between the civilian and military worlds because everyone receives some type of knock at the door. We all have challenges that we weren't expecting to appear in our lives.
The Knock At the Door shows what a military family goes through when they lose someone. But this story doesn't end there. Our story just begins there. So it's set in a much different context. The Knock At the Door empowered me and my co-authors into another chapter of our lives. We all had different journeys from shock to finding purpose.
WATM: In the book, you describe how physical fitness helped you find focus. Specifically moving from smoking to running the Marine Corps Marathon?
Ryan: I totally recognize the extreme of it all. Physical fitness is huge both in general and in times of grief. It was truly eye-opening when I discovered the effect it had on my daily psyche. I mean, people say, exercise is a little bit of a drug and they're right. That's why I had to write about my physical journey alongside my emotional one. I went through some dark times after I lost my brother. I struggled with anxiety and depression and was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD. It was realization that I was not ok that helped me to pick up the pieces.
WATM: Is there anything that people are really responding to or the people are coming to you afterwards and saying, I love this. That you're finding people are really resonating with?
Ryan: I think for me, people were surprised about how vulnerable I was in the book. You know, I've been given the opportunity to run a veteran serving organization that requires a lot of professional appearances and public speaking. People get to meet me as the President of the Travis Manion Foundation, but this book showed a whole different side of me.
WATM: Was it scary to be that vulnerable and open?
Ryan: Yes. You know, the other thing that's been really great about the book is the response from the Gold Star community. If you would have asked me before I wrote, what's your biggest fear? It would be that like the Gold Star community doesn't connect with this. And they have.
Ryan with her TMF GORUCK.
WATM: What do you think Travis would say about all of this?
Ryan: I don't know what Travis would be doing now. I don't know if he'd still be in the Marine Corps, if he'd be out and working in corporate America or doing something less traditional. I have no idea. But I know that he would be involved in this world. He would not be the veteran that takes off the uniform, goes away and is unconnected to what's happening in their community. But would I be connected to this world? Probably not, because my brother would have been. I think he would be proud that I am involved and active with the Travis Manion Foundation, but he would have hated that it's named after him.
WATM: I think I can understand that.
Ryan: We were years into this thing, and my dad's like, "I just feel like I don't think Travis would like that his name is everywhere. It's nameless, maybe we should change the name?" And my response was something like, "Dad, you're kidding. We're in too deep. Travis's name represents this generation." And so, that's my rebuttal. I think Travis would be super proud of what's happening in his name.
WATM: Is there anything that you're looking forward to in 2020? Maybe something you're scared about or something we should keep on our radar?
Ryan: The next big thing I'm doing is going to Puerto Rico at the end of January for one of our service expeditions. We have eight or nine of these service expeditions a year, but this one is special. I will be traveling with a Marine who was with Travis when he was killed. We will be doing rehab projects for veterans' homes effected by the hurricane a couple of years ago. I am looking forward to that.
WATM: Will you keep us updated on the trip?
Ryan: Of course.
WATM: Last question. Who do you think will win the Army-Navy Game tomorrow?
Ryan: Navy all the way. (Turns out she was right)
For more information on Ryan Manion or the Travis Manion Foundation visit www.travismanion.org.