Twenty Years Post 9/11

Survivors are Keeping Academy Grads’ Memories Alive

By Walinda P. West

Since her death 14 years ago, the family of Captain Jennifer Harris ’00, USMC, has been committed to preserving and sustaining her legacy because it is exactly what she would have wanted.

Harris loved her life of service. The first female pilot in the Purple Foxes Squadron, she volunteered at the hospital and library and participated in walk-a-thons and toy drives for needy children in her hometown of Swampscott, MA. As a midshipman at the Academy, she organized a toy drive for children in the Annapolis area.

Harris inspired others with her courage, honor, compassion and commitment to service in her 28 years, so her family honors her by sending children of military families to summer camps.

“I am amazed at all of the people who were inspired by Jen—people who never met her,” said Linda Macone, Harris’ aunt, who helped raise her. “She was never one for the spotlight, but her impact makes me feel good and would have made her feel good.”

Two decades after 9/11, families of Naval Academy graduates who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Global War on Terrorism are working to keep their loved ones’ memories alive. They are doing it through organizations, scholarships, marathons, books and, in some cases, movies. In total, 34 Naval Academy graduates were among those killed on 9/11 and during the Global War on Terrorism.

As a Marine, Harris performed her military duties as a casualty evacuation helicopter pilot flying in and out of combat areas to rescue injured soldiers and Iraqi citizens. She is credited with saving numerous lives during her three tours of duty in Iraq. Harris and six others were killed in action on 7 February 2007 when their helicopter was shot down in a field northwest of Baghdad. The crew was ferrying blood to aid wounded Marines.

Following her death, Harris’ family established the Jennifer J. Harris, USMC, Memorial Scholarship to promote leadership development in young adults who exemplify her qualities and commitment to serving others. The trust provided financial assistance for college or military expenses through annual scholarships. The scholarship was subsequently disbanded and the family now raises money for the Seven Stars Foundation, an organization established to honor the seven heroes who died together 7 February 2007. The foundation sends military children to YMCA summer camps around the country for one week at no charge to their families. 

“Jen flew so others could have life,” said Macone. “Helping others was her passion and it’s extremely important to us to keep Jen’s legacy and her memory alive.” 

Remembering the Fallen

One of the greatest concerns of Gold Star families is that their loved ones will be forgotten and their names reduced to a footnote in historic accounts of the casualties of war.

“Gold Star families just want people to speak their loved ones’ names,” said Chad Graham, president and CEO of the Woody Williams Foundation, named for his grandfather, Hershel “Woody” Williams, one of two living Medal of Honor recipients from World War II.

The nonprofit Woody Williams Foundation recognizes military sacrifices through monuments, remembrance ceremonies and student scholarships. Graham said when he interacts with Gold Star families at a ceremony, he is often told by family members that they express gratitude that their loved ones won’t be forgotten.

“There is a saying that people die two deaths: when they are buried and when people stop speaking their names,” Graham said.

The family of Major Megan McClung ’95, USMC, need not worry about her name being forgotten. McClung held a number of distinctions of firsts, including the first female Marine Corps officer to be killed in Iraq, and the first female graduate of the Academy to be killed. For those who knew and loved McClung, she is remembered for her drive to be the best.

“She’d say a woman should get any job and she never believed in a glass ceiling. She said don’t put yourself in a box,” said McClung’s mother, Re McClung.

Known for her extraordinary athletic ability, McClung was an avid runner and triathlete, completing in seven Ironman Triathlons. Shortly before her death, McClung organized the first Marine Corps Marathon Forward in Iraq to coincide with the 2006 Marine Corps Marathon. She served as race director for the event.

McClung was killed on 6 December 2006 along with two U.S. Army soldiers when their Humvee hit an improvised explosive device while escorting two Newsweek journalists in Ramadi. She was in the final month of her second tour in Iraq where she was serving as the public affairs officer.

To honor McClung’s memory and her passion for running, her family sponsored the Major Megan McClung Memorial Run to benefit the Semper Fi Fund, which provides financial assistance to post-9/11 critically ill and injured members of all branches of military and their families. The run, which ended in 2018 after 10 years, raised $56,000.

Her family also attends the annual Marine Corps Marathon in Washington to present the Penguin Award, which is given to the last official finisher of the race. McClung started the Penguin Award at the Marine Corps Marathon Forward in Iraq.

She got the idea from a blogger she followed, John Bingham, who wrote about his love of running but knew he’d never win a race because he was slow. He called himself “The Penguin.”

“For Megan, running was a way to keep mind, body and spirit in balance, a primary tenant in her life,” said Re McClung. “For the family to be able to present the Penguin Award and celebrate with others that same drive and accomplishment in them helps us share Megan’s story, allows her to continue to motivate others and carries Megan’s memory forward.”

A book about McClung is also in the works, although a publish date is not set. “Meg lived the life she wanted to live, doing what she wanted to do,” Re McClung said.

‘Tell Their Stories’

Pam Zembiec remembers the 12:30 a.m. knock on the door. For the first time since she could remember, she was sleeping so soundly that the doorbell failed to wake her. It was her barking dog that alerted her to the guests standing outside her Annapolis, MD, home.

Peering through the oval window in her front door, she could see a close family friend, now-deceased Colonel John W. Ripley ’62, USMC (Ret.), standing at the bottom of the stairs with his hands in his pockets. He was flanked by four others who were there to break the news that her husband, Major Douglas Zembiec ’95, USMC, had been killed in combat.

At the time of his death, Zembiec was reportedly serving in the Ground Branch of the CIA’s Special Activities Division. On the evening of 11 May 2007, he was leading a team of Iraqi forces on a mission targeting insurgents. Right after warning his troops of imminent danger, Zembiec was ambushed and killed in action.

For two years after her husband’s death, Pam Zembiec said she was numb, but had to pull things together for herself and her daughter, Fallyn, who was just a baby at the time of Zembiec’s death.

She found strength in writing about her feelings and experiences. She also began working with other military widows to help them tell their stories.

“I fell to pieces for the first two years,” Pam Zembiec said. “Working with these ladies helped me through the bereavement process. I want to help these women tell their stories.”

In 2014, Pam Zembiec authored Selfless Beyond Service: A Story about the Husband, Son and Father Behind the Lion of Fallujah. The book has been optioned for a movie, which will share her husband’s life with the world.

She is also earning a degree from Marian University in thanatology, the study of death and dying and the ways of dealing with it. Her goal in earning the degree is to counsel other military spouses experiencing loss.

“My experience is similar to thousands who go through this,” Pam Zembiec said. “I want to inspire others and tell them that they will get through this.”

When she reflects on what her husband would think of her efforts to preserve his legacy by helping the military community, she said he would be honored.

“He would be proud of Fallyn and me, and he would be proud of his country,” she said.

Like Brothers

It’s hard to talk about First Lieutenant Travis Manion ’04, USMC, without talking about Lieutenant Brendan Looney ’04, USN. The two Academy roommates were strong athletes and family guys, and both aspired to be military leaders. They were connected in life and in death.

Manion made the ultimate sacrifice on 29 April 2007 in the Al Anbar province of Iraq. He was ambushed while searching a suspected insurgent house; he led the counterattack against the enemy forces. Manion was fatally wounded by an enemy sniper while aiding and drawing fire away from his wounded comrades. His actions allowed every member of his patrol to survive.

For his bravery, he was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star with Valor. Manion Hall at The Basic School in Quantico, VA, was named after him, and the Travis Manion Foundation was created by his late mother and headed by his sister to keep his legacy of service alive.

Based on the words Manion spoke before leaving for his final deployment, “If Not Me, Then Who ... ,” the Travis

Manion Foundation (TMF) was created to bring together veterans and families of fallen heroes into communities where the foundation focuses on character building and leading future generations through its programs. To date, the foundation boasts 150,000 community members.

“When Travis was killed, our family had to take a step back and understand what we needed to do to move forward,” said Ryan Manion, Travis’ sister, who authored a book called The Knock at the Door: Three Gold Star Families Bonded by Grief and hosts the podcast, “The Resilient Life.” “We wanted to continue his legacy while serving others. We do a ton of things at the TMF, but it’s all about creating a community.

“I wake up every day feeling an obligation of continuing Travis’ legacy. My mission is to make sure we are living our lives worthy of Travis’ sacrifice.”

Brendan Looney was days from starting SEAL training in San Diego when he learned of Travis Manion’s death. The two were not just roommates at the Academy; they were like brothers with similar interests and aspirations. Manion’s death shook Looney.

When the Navy would not let Looney attend Manion’s service, he did the only thing he knew to do: dedicated his training to his friend while also earning the prestigious “Honor Man” top graduate spot for his BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) Training class, despite being colorblind.

Looney deployed to Afghanistan on 9 March 2010, his wife Amy’s birthday. This was to be his last deployment, but on 21 September 2010, 10 days prior to his expected return to the States, Looney’s SEAL team helicopter went down in the mountains of Afghanistan. The crash killed nine service members, including Looney. He was 29.

Together Again

Travis Manion was buried near his home in Doylestown, PA. After Looney’s death, his family knew what needed to happen, but it needed to happen quickly. When Looney’s widow, Amy, recommended the roommates and best friends be laid to rest together, the Manions agreed.

In October 2010, Manion was buried at Arlington National Cemetery and the following Monday, Looney was buried to his left.

Maureen Looney started the Brendan Looney Foundation as a way to keep her son’s memory alive. She died in 2015 of ovarian cancer and Brendan’s father, Kevin Looney, oversees the foundation, which provides scholarships to military and Gold Star families. To date, the volunteer organization has awarded $100,000 in grants and scholarships based on need that can be used for, among other things, education, camps, deployment support and military programs and initiatives.

Run For Our Heroes

In the small, close-knit town of Portville, NY, 80 miles south of Buffalo, the Run for Our Heroes race, which benefits the Michael McGreevy Memorial Scholarship Foundation, is a must-do event. Its namesake, Michael McGreevy Jr. ’97, USN, was one of 16 troops killed when their MH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, on 28 June 2005, on a night mission to reinforce a four-man SEAL reconnaissance squad that was ambushed in a 10,000-foot mountainous terrain. He was 30.

The Run for Our Heroes race has grown from 60 participants when it began in 2015 to as many as 400, and attracts participants from as far as two hours away, said Tracy Hardes, organizer of the event, who attended high school with McGreevy.

“You can’t go anywhere in our town without seeing Mike McGreevy on a shirt or a hat anytime,” Hardes said.

The 5K marathon winds its way around Portville and past the Michael McGreevy memorial located in Pioneer Park.

“It’s more than a 5K. People run by the memorial to pay their respects,” Hardes said. “They do pushups, some say a little prayer and salute while others lay a penny at the memorial so that friends and family members know visitors were there. Mike was an amazing individual and he left a great legacy.”

McGreevy was a top track athlete and scholar in Portville, where he set a school record for the 800-meter run. He was also a wrestler and soccer and ice hockey player. Each year, the foundation awards scholarships to students at McGreevy’s alma mater, Portville Junior-Senior High School, and to students in Virginia Beach, VA, where he was stationed. Students are selected based on their accomplishments and character traits of perseverance, kindness, humility, service to community and integrity.

‘The Machine’ Poet

From early on, Lieutenant Kylan Jones-Huffman ’94, USNR, had a way with words. His obituary stated that he learned his mother’s native German along with English. Jones-Huffman’s father, James Huffman, is quoted saying “And he knew who to speak English to and who he should speak German to.” That command and natural aptitude for languages led Jones-Huffman to learn French, Farsi and Arabic, which would serve him well throughout his career in later assignments. 

Jones-Huffman, who lived in Aptos, CA, was killed in action on 21 August 2003 by an unidentified gunman in Al Hillah, Iraq. He was on a weeklong mission to Hillah to brief the new civil administration when the SUV he was riding in came under fire from a lone gunman. Jones-Huffman was shot and killed, according to a military spokesman in Baghdad.

The gunman fled, but was later captured, sentenced and imprisoned, said his father-in-law, Dennis Jones ’63. 

At the time of Jones-Huffman’s death, he was an intelligence officer assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force where he worked as an Arabic speaker and expert on terrorism for intelligence at Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain. He was mobilized from a Baltimore-based reserve unit and was 10 days away from returning home when he was killed. While in Bahrain, Jones-Huffman earned the nickname “the Machine” for his ability to analyze large amounts of information.

Just as Jones-Huffman was complex and could digest difficult concepts and languages, he also recognized the beauty in simple words, writing about his experiences in haiku, a form of Japanese poetry. Many of his haiku can be found at www.theherons

Jones-Huffman also emailed members of the haiku group Cricket, where he often offered a candid, firsthand view of the war. To Cricket’s members, he wrote about the things he saw, heard and felt around him. While preparing to travel into southern Iraq, he emailed Cricket members from Kuwait.

“Assuming I don’t wander into any kill zones or run over a mine, I hope to come back with some haiku, adequate or otherwise.” Following that, he sent the group this haiku and they never heard from him again.

Uncomfortable -

Body armor shifting

On the car seat

In addition to Jones-Huffman’s haiku on the The Heron’s Nest, family and friends contributed gifts to endow the Kylan and Heidi Jones-Huffman Lecture Fund at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, where he had been accepted into the doctoral program. It was his goal to earn a Ph.D. in history and ultimately become a professor.

Editor’s note: For more information on Academy graduates who lost their lives serving our country, visit VMH: Killed in Action Panel.

Source: May 2021 Shipmate