Three members of Gold Star Families, Heather Kelly, Ryan Manion and Amy Looney Heffernan have combined to write a book entitled “The Knock at the Door.” In these three instances, the knock was the precursor to being informed that a loved one had died on the field of battle. The book describes how the three women dealt with their grief and rebounded from adversity.
Kelly, whose husband Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly was killed in Afghanistan in November 2010 said of the book, “The Knock at the Door,” “We tell the story of military loss, but we hope the book helps readers with the loss of a job, the breakup of a relationship and all the struggles that your knock at the door might be. The book tells how we struggled and coped. It’s not all struggle, but rather, how do you struggle well? Our book is the No. 1 new release in the Military Family category on Amazon and we’re the No. 1 pick for November in the history category.”
Some background is important on Manion and Heffernan at this point. Manion is the sister of Marine 1st LT Travis Manion, who was killed in Iraq in 2007. His death served as the impetus for the founding of the Travis Manion Foundation, which is headquartered in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. That is where Ryan Manion lives and she serves as the President of the Travis Manion Foundation.
Heffernan is the widow of LT Brendan Looney, a Navy SEAL who was killed in Afghanistan in September 2010. Brendan Looney and Travis Manion were close friends and in fact are buried next to each other at Arlington National Cemetery. Robert Kelly is buried just a few rows away in the same section of Arlington. Amy is the Vice President of the Travis Manion Foundation and lives in Washington, D.C., where she runs the foundation’s regional office there.
Heather Kelly is the primary focus of this article, in part due to proximity, as she lives in the San Diego area. She also works for the Travis Manion Foundation as the Manager, West Region.
Born and raised in West Orange, New Jersey, Kelly graduated from West Orange High School and set off for Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida to major in merchandising. “I wanted a change from living in New Jersey,” Kelly said. “I applied to Alabama, the University of Florida and Georgia. I visited Florida State and I had a cousin there who was two years older than me. It seemed more comfortable and like home. My cousin is Matt Rowland and it worked out well. He introduced me to my husband. Rob was just very outgoing, a funny guy and he was always cracking jokes. I had fun with him, and he was easy to talk to.”
The Kellys met while Heather was a freshman and the couple embarked for several years on a long-distance romance. “We dated long distance for my first year at Florida State. Rob was in North Carolina then and he deployed twice while I was in college. I graduated in the Spring of 2006 and December 2006 I moved to North Carolina. We were married in June 2007 and for all the years we were married, he was stateside. During the time we were together, we were physically in the same place about half the time.”
I had read most of the book before realizing that Heather had married into a distinguished military family. Rob Kelly’s father is U.S. Marine Corps General John Kelly, who earned his fourth star while in command of the United States Southern Command. Kelly later served as Secretary of Homeland Security and White House Chief of Staff for President Donald Trump.
After hearing of the death of her husband Rob, Heather Kelly’s first reaction was to call Johnny Kelly, Rob’s brother and General Kelly’s son. She explained Johnny’s role in helping her deal with her grief. “He helped me through the process. We’re definitely still in touch. He’s married, has a daughter now and is stationed in Northern Virginia. He’s a Lt. Colonel in the Marine Corps. As I said in the book, Johnny was a good source of humor for me. Humor can be a good coping mechanism when you are in a very dark situation. I was in a funeral home and 26 years old, planning my husband’s funeral. Humor helped take us out of that for a moment.”
Four people assisted Heather Kelly through her grief and the next was her mother Laurie McDaniel. “After Rob’s death, I came back home to California and I was living on the base at Camp Pendleton. Mom came back with me to get things in order. Things were a blur and I decided to go home to New Jersey for a while. Then I came back to California to get ready to move. I had more time to think about life in California. Rob and I wanted to come out to California, and I didn’t want to leave. I stayed a couple of months and tried to adjust to what my new life would look like. I didn’t have the motivation to do much of anything. Mom helped me get out of the house to take care of some details. I had to take time to mentally plan out what the next move was going to be.”
Another strong influence on Kelly was a co-worker from the East Coast, Melissa Diaz. Kelly said, “She lives in Northern Virginia and she met Rob when I worked out there. We’re still extremely close. Melissa works for a non-profit organization now, as well.”
And the fourth person, was her now co-author Amy Looney Heffernan, who was in the process of moving to Washington, D.C. to open the Travis Manion Foundation office there. “I was introduced to her and we connected on a phone call. In a moment that could have been awkward, she was very warm and welcoming in terms of the foundation. She had just moved to Washington, and I missed her by a week or two. Amy has a master’s in public administration from George Washington University and her bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She suggested that I go to volunteer training for the foundation and she invited me to attend that. I connected to the programming the foundation was doing. For the first time, I was able to see a way to take a horrible loss and use it in the messaging the foundation delivers.”
Manion, Heffernan and Kelly all relate their struggles in detail. Interestingly all three women used long distance running as a coping mechanism. Kelly said, “It was an effective way to re-engage. One of the first things the foundation did as a group is we had a team enter the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. On a smaller scale, my sister-in-law Kate created a small team to run in honor of Rob. She ran along with good friends of Rob, Marines he had served with and some high school friends. I cheered from the sidelines. After the first year, I said to Melissa, ‘We can do this.’ My mother-in-law ran a 10K for the first time. And every year since 2012 I have run in the race. Melissa and I run the half marathon and that gives me another thing to look forward to and plan for. One of the half marathons was held on Nov. 9, the anniversary of Rob’s death.”
“The Knock at the Door” had an unusual beginning which Kelly described. “In February 2019, Ryan and Amy flew out here and we rented an Air B&B in La Jolla. We locked ourselves up for a couple of days and sat around a kitchen table and just talked to each other, learning things. We sat around and recorded the conversation. We sat for a couple of hours for a couple of days and had that transcribed. That was the starting point of the book. Then we created a big Google Document and we went back and forth. We each had our sections. We collaborated on the starting and finishing chapter together.”
When Kelly and I met at the Travis Manion Foundation offices in Old Town, she had just returned from a whirlwind book tour on the East Coast. Kelly said, “We did a couple of cable news national appearances. We went to New York City and Philadelphia. We were on MSNBC on the ‘Morning Joe’ show and we did two appearances on Fox News. We did an event at a Doylestown book shop, which is Travis and Ryan’s hometown. Prior to that we pre-recorded a segment with the ‘Today Show’ and various local media. We had lots of opportunities to share about the book and our stories.”
Kelly discussed her responsibilities with the Travis Manion foundation. “We have a program entitled ‘Character Does Matter,’ which includes leadership and transition work with Veterans. We have another national program called ‘Operation Legacy,’ which is a nationwide series of service projects. We have our hands in all the different programming aspects of the Travis Manion Foundation.
Coronado has a Chapter of the Travis Manion Foundation which is run by Theresa Jones and her daughter Stephanie Slaughter, members of a Gold Star Family. Kelly said, “Sydney Slaughter (Stephanie’s daughter) started a club at Coronado High School. They participate in many service projects in Coronado and San Diego. They do regular beach cleanups. Last weekend they did a project in Downtown San Diego, serving pancakes and providing bananas to the homeless.”
Ryan Manion has a quote in “The Knock at the Door” which says, “I truly believe that good begets more good, that pain shared is halved, and joy shared is doubled.” To which Heather Kelly responded, “I absolutely agree with Ryan. Through the hard times, I found that grief shared is halved. To have a community to lean on and people from a large community like the Travis Manion Foundation or my closest friends to share feelings with, does help lighten the load. You can’t carry it all on your own. A huge part of savoring and enjoying something is who you share that with.”
On Sunday, December 1, at 3 p.m., the Coronado Public Library will host an interactive author speaking event and book signing where Ryan Manion and Heather Kelly, will be in the Winn Room reading favorite excerpts and answering questions. For questions, please call the library at 619-522-7390.