Image courtesy: Jon White Photography
As Amy Looney dove into cold, choppy English Channel waters in the dark of night, the faces of three people filled her thoughts during a grueling, hour-long July 14 swim. The first image she saw was her husband, LT SEAL Brendan Looney, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 21, 2010.
Amy met Brendan, a stoic, driven varsity athlete at the United States Naval Academy, on Memorial Day weekend in 2003. The future Navy SEAL was so nervous that friends had to coax him into talking to the pretty girl by the bar.
"He was the shyest person I'd ever met," Amy said. "But by the end of the night, he asked for my number."
Images courtesy: Amy Looney
Brendan had just become a SEAL when he married Amy on July 12, 2008, just 48 hours before a combat deployment to Iraq. While memorable, the Annapolis, Md., ceremony also had a backdrop of profound sadness due to a groomsman's absence. Brendan's Naval Academy roommate, Marine 1st. Lt. Travis Manion, had been killed in Iraq just 14 months earlier.
Amy's thoughts shifted to Travis as the 50-degree water felt like a straitjacket around her arms, which were trying to navigate the Channel.
"I thought about Brendan a lot, but I thought about Travis too," Amy said. "I know they're probably up there laughing."
Brendan and Travis became close friends while learning how to become leaders after 9/11. It was in the Navy where both Midshipmen showed early signs of the everlasting brotherhood that makes the military America's most revered institution.
"One night when we went out, someone bumped into me so hard that I almost fell over," Amy said. "Travis went over to the guy and was like 'you need to apologize ... you don't bump into my friend's girlfriend.'
"It showed how quickly Travis was there to back Brendan up," she continued. "Brendan would have done the exact same thing for him."
Travis' Apr. 29, 2007, death at the hands of an enemy sniper in Fallujah, Iraq, devastated Brendan, who was about to start Navy SEAL training. But Travis' mom, Janet Manion, encouraged him to soldier on.
"Think about what Travis would want," the grieving mother told Brendan.
On his wedding night, Brendan, who graduated as "Honor Man" of his BUD/S class, presented his SEAL Trident to Janet.
"I need you to have this," Brendan said. "I wouldn't have gotten through it without Travis."
With the sky even darker and seasickness filling her stomach, Amy saw Janet's face. She also thought of Brendan's parents, Kevin and Maureen Looney, and her husband's five siblings. Their courage motivated Amy to keep swimming.
After Brendan's shocking death in a tragic Afghanistan helicopter crash, which killed nine American service members, Amy frequently clutched Janet's arm and told her she wanted Brendan and Travis buried side-by-side. The Manions bravely moved their son from Pennsylvania to Arlington National Cemetery, where he rests for eternity beside Brendan.
Bonded by immeasurable loss, Amy grew close with Janet, her husband, Col. Tom Manion (Ret.), and their daughter, Ryan, especially as Travis' mom suffered from cancer.
"I thought about the challenges she went through and how motivated she was by the impact she had on others," Amy said. "Janet's words echoed through my mind."
Janet Manion died on Apr. 24. Yet as Amy finally saw a boat's light in the English Channel's darkness, she heard Janet speak.
"Brendan would be so proud of you," she said.
Amy swam the English Channel relay to honor the fallen with six fellow Americans deeply impacted by war, including military widows and combat veterans. Five swimmers received funding from the Travis Manion Foundation, the organization Janet founded and Amy later joined, to complete their journeys. Each has a compelling story.
When Janet Manion was laid to rest, a silver bracelet with Travis and Brendan's names was on her wrist.
"Warriors for freedom," it reads. "Brothers forever."
In less than five years, Amy Looney, 31, saw the darkness of losing her husband and two close friends. Yet every single day, she keeps swimming toward the light.
"It's not about the goal," Amy said. "It's about the journey and the people you meet to get there."
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