Book Review: Brothers Forever by Tom Sileo and Col. Thomas Manion

 

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Travis Manion and Brendan Looney were a pair of fun-loving, athletic kids fresh out of high school when they entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland in Fall 2000. Both from close-knit, Catholic families, they became best friends, running buddies, and honorary second sons in each others’ families. They shared a tenacious work ethic and a competitive streak founded on mutual respect. Manion went on to become an officer in the Marine Corps, known for his compassion toward local civilians as well as his dedication to the Corps, and was killed in action after saving two other Marines on the streets of Fallujah;  Looney became a well-respected Navy SEAL, perishing in a helicopter crash in the mountains of Afghanistan three years after the death of his best friend. Brothers, correspondents, and comforters to one another’s families throughout their ordeals, they are buried side-by-side at Arlington cemetery.

Travis’s father, Tom Manion (himself a retired Marine Corps Colonel) wrote Brothers Forever (along with Tom Sileo) to memorialize his two lost sons, and the book is obviously a labor of love. As you read you can feel the therapeutic value of the book to its author, and the bravery and pain inherent in its writing. I cannot imagine losing a son, let alone recounting his last moments (and the horrible weeks that followed) in painstaking detail. But I got the sense that the writing process was a beneficial one for Col. Manion, a way to share his memories, and his pride.

Brothers Forever is a useful book for readers not impacted daily by the tides of war. It’s a study of the families for whom world news and international politics have a daily bearing; families who listen closely to political debates and presidents’ speeches; who, as the author describes, cried upon learning of the capture of Osama bin Laden, not just from relief but because they knew people involved with his capture, or knew that their son/ husband, if still alive, would have been among them. Manion points out that only 1% of Americans now serve in our military, and that it is an all-volunteer force;  of that 1% , only a fraction have been impacted with such force as the Manions and the Looneys. Their sons volunteered not just for military service but for the most direct, front-lines brand of that service, making them both brave and vulnerable at the same time.

Travis and Brendan were at the Naval Academy during the events of 9/11. Like any other students away from home on that day, they sat glued to their lounge TV sets for updates, watching the horrific attack unfold. Yet it had a very particular meaning for them. The young men and women at military academies saw their futures crystallizing before their very eyes, knowing that they were on a direct path to war. (Jane Blair, author of the memoir Hesitation Kills, shared a similar experience; she was at basic training on Sept. 11th, putting her even closer to becoming an officer in a time of war. “About sixty Marines hovered around a television, watching and waiting,” she recalls.  “…We slowly realized that this was the day our training wheels came off. Our training would be practice for a war we would fight. The global war on terrorism was our war, and with every ambush and live-fire exercise we did, our real enemy was out there waiting for us.”)

Manion and Looney are more than up to the task of fighting this war, and their triumphs and struggles are explained in detail. What the U.S. asked of its young soldiers in the recent wars becomes blatantly clear, especially in the matter-of-fact retelling of a few days during Travis’s deployment to Fallujah. He survives a lung-burning chlorine bomb attack, vomiting  on the rooftop where he’s keeping watch; soon after, he witnesses the bombing and total destruction  of the makeshift base he’d been helping to build, and rescues two Iraqi civilians from the rubble. (These are painstaking, involved rescues.) Less than 24 hours later, the vehicle he’s traveling in is hit by an I.E.D. This is enough trauma to fill a lifetime, let alone a week or two in the life of a young twenty-something, and yet this is how life was for many of these men and women, over and over again.

The book does suffer some of the limitations of second-hand storytelling; the young mens’ conversations — few witnessed firsthand, and all reconstructed years later — are affectionate but vague, centering mainly around sports and basic trading of information like hometowns, siblings, and so on. They reflect the difficulty any parent would have in trying to imagine what their children say to their friends when they’re all just hanging around. Because of that, Brothers Forever  is also much “cleaner” than the vast majority of military books.

There’s also the issue of Col. Manion’s extreme closeness to his subject; his main emotion is of pride, and even his grief is described almost obliquely. (He is most effective when describing his wife Janet’s grief, how each time she recalled her son as a baby she would feel the pain of his loss all over again: “For a moment Janet was calm, until baby Travis’s face flashed through her mind. Each time she saw that enduring image, the agonizing spasms of pain would resume.” This was the first time in the book that I felt my eyes well up, imagining what that mother had gone through.)

Brothers Forever is a tribute, and as such it puts forth the best version of every person involved.  I can’t help but remember the words of writer Lorrie Moore, who’s said that you should write what you would not want to show your mother.  In contrast, Brothers Forever is the book you would read at her funeral.

That said, for readers with a strong love of country and an affinity for military history, Brothers Forever will be a moving book. It’s touching not just because of the two young men involved, but because of the legacy carried on by their families, who  have suffered loss of a tremendous scope. These families have made their pain into good and worked to keep their sons’ memories alive in positive ways.

This story deserves our attention and respect, because, despite some of the particularities of Looney’s and Manions’s situation, they were sadly not the only such sacrifices of their kind.

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Brendan Looney, left, and Travis Manion, right (Business Insider)

This photo breaks my heart, as it should.

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Note: I was given an advance copy of the book to review.

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Book Review: Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington

By Amy Bermudez (Army)

Alice is having a tough year. Her father deployed to Iraq, her mother is struggling emotionally and neglecting her children as a result, her best friend is acting strange, her grades are slipping, and all she wants to do is to take care of things in her dad’s absence. The book follows the Bliss family from pre-deployment to post-deployment, and shows us how a fictional American family tries to cope with uncertainty and stress in a time of war.

When I picked up Alice Bliss, I wasn’t sure how well I would be able to relate to the title character. I’ve spent time being left behind while my soldier is deployed, but being a spouse and being a military brat are vastly different. Maybe the circumstances aren’t as different as I thought or maybe Laura Harrington’s skill as a writer should get the credit, but what Alice went through felt very familiar. Just like Alice, I have clung to routine and tradition in my husband’s absence. Alice takes joins the track team, I run long distances. She tries to maintain the appearance that everything is okay; that could be my blog tagline. When she pushes a classmate for an insensitive remark, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine a few people who I’d like to push. And I was nodding along when Alice went from missing her dad to feeling angry in a split second, then just as quickly regretting that she didn’t say more to him when he finally called. The push and pull of competing emotions, even though they don’t seem like they make sense, felt very real and true to my own experience.

Far less relatable is Alice’s mom, Angie. She retreats into herself, ignoring her children and selfishly demanding that they abandon activities that bring them comfort. I think the reason that she chafed me so much is that I don’t want to believe that I could be like her. I prefer to imagine that when I have children, I’ll be graceful and selfless, even during impossibly tough times like deployment. The truth is that there are Angies out there. They aren’t villains so much as average people straining under the weight of their circumstances. The fact that I found her so frustrating is again a credit to Harrington’s ability to create real characters.

The dialogue in the book is spot-on. I wasn’t surprised when I found out that Harrington is a playwright. This is her strength. The conversations manage to be natural and interesting. They stutter in the right places and they flow at the right times. I closed the book thinking, “I wish I could write dialogue like that!”

author Laura Harrington (www.lauraharringtonbooks.com/about/)

My favorite part of the book is the concluding scene. It’s beautiful and emotional. It’s the kind of moment that could be cheesy, but instead it just felt special. By that point in the book, most of the characters have grown up and grown into themselves. It’s a reward for the reader to see that even though things aren’t perfect by the end, the characters are going to be okay.

As much as I loved different aspects, the book wasn’t without flaws. Though it’s a minor quibble, I didn’t like that Alice’s parents are almost entirely referred to by their first names. Alice and her sister call them Mom and Dad, but the narrator describes them only as Angie and Matt. I felt that it created distance between the reader and Alice; I couldn’t see her world as she saw it.

Harrington’s narration choice felt clunky. The majority of the book focuses on Alice, but the third person point-of-view occasionally dips into her mother’s mind, her friend Henry’s mind, and briefly the mind of minor characters like her track coach. It’s especially jarring when we’ve spent pages and pages focused mainly on Alice, only to flip flop to her mother’s inner thoughts in the middle of the two of them fighting.

In terms of plot, I wasn’t a fan of the love story. It was another instance of the author bringing something real to the book – life doesn’t stop just because of deployment and who ever said love was convenient. I could also see its inclusion being there to further Alice’s coming of age, but the book didn’t need it. There’s plenty of meat to the story without Alice falling in love. This is probably just a matter of personal taste; I’m partial to female protagonists whose stories don’t include romantic entanglements.

In the end, the book is made up of perfect pieces (characters, dialogue, a just-right ending) that don’t quite come together as a whole. But Laura Harrington is a talented writer, and I’d love to read some of her other works.

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Read another review of Alice Bliss from the blog  YA Bookshelf

More about author Laura Harrington

Buy Alice Bliss

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moi

Amy Bermudez is a writer, educator, and Army wife currently stationed at Fort Bliss. She loves running, reading, and ice cream (but maybe not in that order) and writes a popular blog, Army Amy. Her Instagram is delightful. Some of her published articles include “Our Military Family, Our Reality” on The Huffington Post and “Moving is Not Following” on Spouse Buzz. She has a really adorable dog named Geronimo.