05/28/2012 10:02 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2012

Honoring the Fallen by Challenging the Living: The Legacy of a Gold Star Mother

"... Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." -- President Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural Address

After nine months of fighting, we were back in Kuwait, albeit different people than when we first arrived here before launching into combat operations. We were finished with our deployment and now could relax and breathe easy. That's what I thought, at least. However, the first time I sat in an air-conditioned computer lab and read my email alongside a friend, I realized I was wrong. The note he opened in Kuwait was succinct: Travis Manion, a friend who graduated a year ahead of us, had been killed that day.

This had been my first deployment as a Marine officer, and our unit had suffered many casualties, both wounded and killed in action. In the midst of combat, our minds and bodies reverted to our training and somehow managed to process the losses and enabled us to continue the mission. This time, however, was different. Now, I wasn't in combat. Rather, in the coming days I would be leaving for Germany en route back to the states, to be embraced in the loving arms of family.

The fear, turmoil and confusion of battle already were being shelved in the corners of my mind. We'd only been in Kuwait a day or so when I heard about Travis. It left me, and many others, stunned and stinging in disbelief. In Kuwait, we left the war behind and were supposed to unwind and undergo decompression training before heading home. That's why the email had such an impact on me. I realized that, in this seemingly non-hostile environment, I had allowed myself a false sense of security. We may have been headed home, but we most certainly didn't leave the war behind; it was coming with us.

To be honest, part of me didn't want to leave the war behind. In an odd way I found strength in the camaraderie and hardships shouldered together. They had shaped me. It's what I knew, and where I felt most comfortable. Going home, I realized I had to somehow discover, or at least rediscover, how to assimilate. In some regards, this was as daunting as combat; channeling the emotions and memories from those nine months and manifesting them into something positive. However, I didn't know where to begin searching to fill this void. My fear was that if I wasn't able to solve this problem for myself, then those who had borne the battle would be forgotten, and it was all in vain.

I wasn't sure how or where to begin. But I knew I wanted to call Travis' parents. My conversation with Colonel and Mrs. Manion wasn't long. I told them how I knew their son, and would remember him: as a leader and standout wrestler at the Naval Academy. I told them the many ways he impacted my brother's life as his classmate when they both went through basic training at Marine officer's school. Finally, I told them about how I learned of his death, only days before coming home.

Colonel Manion and Mrs. Manion were grateful for my call and I was grateful to share the stories of camaraderie with them. I was even more pleased to hear of how many others had reached out to share their personal relationships and stories of the courage and leadership that their son exemplified. I believe that, through these stories, Mrs. Manion was able to find what I was searching for when I came home from that deployment. In these tragic moments, when we have lost a friend, son, brother, father, mother, sister, daughter or fiancé, we have not lost all that they accomplished in their lives. Their legacies and examples will withstand time, as long as we continue to honor the fallen.

Within weeks of her son's death, Mrs. Manion began a nonprofit from her basement, the crux of which was to honor all of our fallen heroes and first responders and not let their legacies become casualties of combat, too. Last month marked the five year anniversary of Travis Manion's death. It also memorialized the five years Mrs. Manion devoted toward helping other military families before succumbing to her battle with cancer. However, the mission continues; it must. This is their legacy: To honor the fallen by challenging the living. Through these years, the nonprofit that a mother started in the basement her only son played in as a child has reached hundreds of military families and uniformed personnel who are mourning the loss of their loved ones but honoring their lives. It has also affected thousands of others, who, like me, want to recognize, honor, and never forget our fallen military and first responders' sacrifices.

Mrs. Manion, we will miss your dedication, vigilance, spirit and the love that only a mother can give. We know you are with your son again and your mission will continue.

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy or the United States Marine Corps.