Travis Manion Foundation serves an important demographic, those who served their country and the family members of those who gave their lives in service. Our veterans and the families of the fallen have unique challenges and needs, and they also need our support and understanding—young people who have lost family members especially so. The Travis Manion Foundation cannot bring back their parents and family members, but it has created a plethora of programming specific to their needs. The programming offered by this unique foundation helps youth develop the resilience and the leadership skills necessary to move forward and live the fullest lives possible. Supporting this work with a small grant award is an honor and a privilege.
We spoke with Senior Coordinator of Institutional Partnerships Morgan Bryan to find out more about this work:
Kars4Kids: It sounds as though you serve two different groups of people: veterans, and families of the fallen. What are the challenges specific to each of these two groups? Why is it important to have them work together and what are the benefits for each group?
Morgan Bryan: Travis Manion Foundation’s primary purpose is to empower and uplift military veterans and families of the fallen as they become leaders and change agents in their communities. Veterans transitioning out of the service often experience a lack of connectedness and sense of purpose after separation from the military. Surviving military family members also experience a unique sense of loss specific to their experience as a military family. Many survivors experience a loss of identity and camaraderie that comes with being part of the military institution. Because of the nature of these losses, bereaved family members and veterans alike are at higher risk for psychiatric disorders such as Depression, Anxiety, and even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
However, there are ways to strengthen connections and instill a sense of purpose for both of these populations. Social support is considered critical to recovering from loss, and there are hundreds of studies that suggest that veterans and survivors who volunteer experience improved mental health and well-being. The purpose of Travis Manion Foundation’s programs is to develop, empower, and support the veteran and survivor communities so they can lead and serve the needs of their communities. Unlike many other existing programs in the veteran space, we invest in their strengths, building resiliency so they can thrive personally and professionally long-term.
Kars4Kids: Tell us about the Character Does Matter program. How does the program build character and leadership skills?
Morgan Bryan: The Character Does Matter (CDM) program really embodies Travis Manion Foundation’s mission of empowering veterans and families of the fallen to develop character in future generations. TMF staff train veterans and families of the fallen to serve as role models of character for youth nationwide as they facilitate discussions regarding leadership and the 24 character strengths identified in Positive Psychology. Some of these strengths include Honesty, Bravery, Creativity, and Perspective. Veteran Mentors demonstrate these strengths through their personal stories and stories of other pillars of character while using hands-on activities to promote and encourage these strengths in youth. Then, youth participants even have the opportunity to coordinate and engage in service projects in their communities, putting their character strengths to good use while making a difference in the process. As youth gain these skills and harness their strengths, the veterans and families of the fallen serving as mentors are able to showcase their strengths, have the opportunity to tell their stories, and regain that sense of purpose, belonging, and community connectedness. It’s a cycle of positive impact that keeps growing!
Kars4Kids: CDM leaders tell stories of “real people who exemplify great character and leadership.” Presumably one such story would be that of the man for whom your foundation is named. Can you tell us about Travis Manion?
Morgan Bryan: Yes! All of Travis Manion Foundation’s sessions through the Character Does Matter (CDM) program begin with Travis’s story and his mantra, “If Not Me, Then Who…” Travis Manion was first and foremost a man of character and one who lived his life in service to others, whether that was on his sports teams, at school, with family and friends, or on the battlefield. An experienced Iraq war veteran from the 1st Recon Battalion, 1stLt Travis Manion and his fellow Marines were ambushed on April 29, 2007 while searching a suspected insurgent house in the Al Anbar province of Iraq. As he led the counterattack against the enemy forces, Travis was fatally wounded by an enemy sniper while aiding and drawing fire away from his wounded teammates. His courageous acts allowed every member of his patrol to survive. For his actions, Travis was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star with Valor. His legacy continues to grow through the work of TMF, inspiring people to make an impact by serving others.
Before his final deployment to Iraq, Travis left us with a simple but powerful mantra. “If Not Me, Then Who…” describes Travis’s sense of duty and the sense of duty felt by thousands of service members and their families. Today, it is Travis Manion Foundation’s defining message and a constant reminder for all of us to live with character and put the interests of others before our own. While TMF is Travis’s namesake, it is the spirit of selflessness embodied by the military community and their families that carries his legacy forward.
Kars4Kids: Presumably the CDM mentors are veterans? Is it a salaried position, a way to rejoin the workforce, perhaps? Or are they volunteers? Do they receive special training?
Morgan Bryan: Our Character Does Matter (CDM) program mentors are veterans and families of the fallen. We even have mentors who are active duty service members. It is an entirely volunteer-based position, though many engaged veterans, service members, and survivors have continued on to lead TMF chapters nationwide or have even become staff members down the road. All mentors take their roles very seriously, undergoing intensive training for best practices when working with youth; mandatory clearances for entering schools; and working with youth outside the classroom setting, in addition to diving into their own character development and leadership skills prior to leading sessions. If individuals are interested in becoming a mentor themselves, they can visit this link to learn more.
Kars4Kids: Would you give us an overview of the Spartan Leadership Program? What does it mean to be a Spartan leader?
Morgan Bryan: The Spartan Leadership Program (SLP) is a seven-month immersive learning experience for veterans and survivors. The program blends in-person activities and online learning for a group of veterans and families of the fallen who go through an application process and are chosen for their unique potential to make a difference in their communities. Over the course of the program, Spartan Leaders are empowered to thrive by putting their unique character strengths into action and they learn from best-in-class professionals who share our passion for empowering communities. Participants engage in service projects, develop their own community impact projects, and even go on a Service Expedition! At the completion of the program, participants have a greater awareness of themselves and their strengths; greater skills, and improved confidence to take action; lead in their communities; and build a legacy they will be proud of. Being a Spartan Leader means employing a growth mindset, living with intention, serving others, and leaving a positive impact. Spartan Leaders also graduate from the program with a completed capstone project, showcasing their leadership journey. One example of a recent successful capstone project includes “Camp Cowboy,” a program developed by a Spartan to support the behavioral health of veterans through equine therapy.
Kars4Kids: The TMF expeditions are service projects, is that right? It looks as if they are called “expeditions” because they involve travel. Can you tell us about some of the expeditions undertaken by your participants?
Morgan Bryan: Travis Manion Foundation’s expeditions provide unique character and leadership development opportunities for families of the fallen. We provide participants the opportunity for a 5-7-day expedition where we travel to a community in need, domestic or abroad, where they create long-lasting impact, carry on their loved one’s legacy of service, and build their own path forward. These service expeditions are more than “trips” or a support system, they really lay the groundwork for participants to continue to lead and serve in the selfless spirit of those we have lost. For many, they are a pivotal step in the healing journey as they can turn grief and loss into a tangible and meaningful experience not only for themselves, but for each other and the communities they are serving. Every year, TMF leads one teen expedition as well, for kids of fallen heroes. Last year, teens went to Montana to participate in a week-long expedition where they learned about their personal strengths; engaged in a fly fishing experience facilitated by Warriors & Quiet Waters; and supported conservation efforts at Yellowstone National Park.
Kars4Kids: What’s next for the Travis Manion Foundation?
Morgan Bryan: Travis Manion Foundation is growing exponentially and we are so very grateful for our community of supporters and the great work of our veterans and families of the fallen. Especially in the wake of the past two years and the pandemic, we feel prepared for anything. We are currently partnering with numerous organizations to ensure our Afghan neighbors seeking refuge and resettling in the United States are receiving the support they need to thrive. Our veteran mentors are working with youth and their families every week to ensure that no one gets left behind as they navigate this transition. We are also working on building out and deepening the service component of our Character Does Matter program to be able follow-up with youth participants long-term, supporting them as they continue to create lasting change in their communities. We welcome any interested folks to join the mission (and our mailing list) by visiting our website.