Photos by Ryan Love
Pain, Miracles, and a New Mission
By Hugo Bravo
The first thing that Beverly L. Franklin will tell you about her son Michael is that he had a strong sense of right and wrong. She remembers her child, who grew up to become a U.S. Army sergeant and a two–tour veteran of the Iraq War, as a person of great moral character. “As a boy, when Michael did something wrong, he would give me his toys—without me even asking for them. How do I punish a boy who chooses to punish himself first?”
Beverly, who attends the Salvation Army’s Newport, R.I., Corps, has been a Salvationist since she was 12 years old. She says her faith in God helped her deal with the tragedy of September 26, 2010. That was when Sgt. Michael Timothy Franklin shot and killed his wife Jessie Ann, and then turned the gun on himself, after an episode triggered by Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Their two children were asleep on the second floor of the couple’s home at the Fort Hood U.S. military base in Texas.
The deaths of Michael and Jessie Ann made national news. Franklin was the 20th suicide victim from Fort Hood that year, and the 6th case in three days. All the victims were veterans with multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. It was only after Michael’s death that the base made stronger efforts to check every soldier for symptoms of PTSD.
“After Michael died, I needed to cling to God, and I did so hard, to the point that I was leaving ‘marks’ on Him,” says Beverly. “Without Him, I knew I wasn’t going to make it.”
EYES OF PAIN
Michael had graduated from Salve Regina University with aspirations to become a teacher. But unable to find a full–time teaching job, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2005. As a college graduate, he had the option to enroll as an officer, but turned down the offer.
“He said he wanted to earn that honor, not have it handed to him for what he had done before,” said Beverly. “When Michael joined the infantry, I knew that anyone who enlisted at that time was going to see danger. I knew we were at war.”
In 2008 in Iraq, Michael survived an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attack.
Within three months after the attack, fifteen soldiers died in battle. In the next four months, thirteen more died. Michael returned home to Rhode Island with 28 fewer troops than when he had started. Beverly immediately saw a difference in her son.
“His eyes had a look of pain that made me stop in my tracks. A mother always knows,” remembered Beverly. “I could tell that something had left a mark on him. When I asked what was wrong, he said, through tears, that he had seen and done things he couldn’t talk about.”
Beverly also noticed changes in Michael’s personality. The family used to be regulars on Rhode Island’s beaches. “But now, he said he never wanted his feet to feel sand again,” Beverly recalled. Wherever he went, he sat facing an exit. He asked to leave any event that had fireworks. Even the sound of a chair scraping the floor irritated him.
“When a door slammed, Michael immediately hit the floor,” said Beverly. “Jessie had to calm him and remind him where he was. Gradually, we saw his expression return to normal. But for that minute, in his mind, he was at war overseas.”
In April of 2010, after his second tour in Iraq, Michael called his mother from Fort Hood where he, Jessie, and their two children, Mikayla and Byron, lived. Michael told Beverly that he loved her, and to always remember it.
“That call gave me chills,” said Beverly. “I reached out to every official I could until I found the Fort Hood chaplain, who contacted the authorities.”
They found Michael sitting in his bathroom with a gun to his head. Military police took his weapon and ordered him to meet with Army counselors and doctors. When they asked Michael if he thought this was PTSD, he told them no.
Said Beverly, “Soon after, they gave Michael his gun back. No one saw the incident as a warning that maybe he should not have been there anymore. When he returned home in August, he told me he was going back to Iraq. It had been less than five months after that terrible episode. Hearing this from him made me cry.”
Three weeks later, on September 26, shortly before midnight, Michael suffered his last flashback.
“Afterwards, he made a phone call to someone close to him, screaming that Jessie was dead and that it must have been him because the gun was in his hand but he couldn’t remember anything. He couldn’t take what he had done. He couldn’t face life anymore,” said Beverly, who had read a transcript of the recorded call.
Neighbors who had heard the gunshots, called the police. They found both Michael and Jessie Ann—dead in their Fort Hood home.
Beverly doesn’t remember how she managed to board a plane to Texas with a U.S. Army casualty officer to bring her son’s body home. But she does remember what happened when she arrived in Texas.
“I had asked for the contacts of The Salvation Army corps closest to Fort Hood. When I landed, a corps officer was waiting for me,” said Beverly. “I also remember reading a Texas newspaper that said Michael was the sixth soldier to kill himself at Fort Hood in three days.”
“I had so many questions, and nothing was making sense. Why did it take my son’s death for Fort Hood to close and start doing checks on everybody? Why was nothing done after the first death? Why did they have to see that, if it could happen to a man like Sgt. Franklin, it could happen to anyone?”
MEETING THE ORIGINAL
Beverly’s casualty officer told her that Michael’s soldiers wanted to pay their respects to her at the base. When Beverly entered the room to meet them, they gasped.
“Oh my God. It’s Sarge! She looks just like Sarge,” one soldier exclaimed with tears in his eyes. The others agreed.
“No, Sarge looks like me; I’m the original.” Beverly’s spontaneity broke the mood and gave the soldiers a much–needed moment of levity. Then one of them somberly asked, “how are we going to make it without Sarge?” Beverly said, “By doing what he taught you.”
Beverly said she was greatly comforted by the soldiers. They told her stories about Michael’s leadership and the many times he had saved their lives in battle. They all agreed that seeing her was like having Sgt. Franklin back again, if only for a few minutes.
After Beverly left the room, a soldier approached her. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Sarge,” he said, crying. “I’ll never forget him.” Beverly hugged the soldier and thanked him for his kind words.
MORE THAN ASHES
The day after Michael’s body arrived home, Beverly had to officially identify him. “I almost fell to the floor when I saw his body, but I kept telling myself, I’m strong, because I’m an Army mom,” she said.
At the wake, with Salvation Army officers from Philadelphia, Connecticut, and Rhode Island by her side, Beverly struggled to keep her composure. Four days after his funeral service, the casualty officer gave her Michael’s “Shadow Box.” It contained his medals and the flag that had been draped over his coffin. She also received an engraved, personalized, military–styled keepsake that contained his ashes, as would an urn. Upon receiving it, she fell to the floor, crying; she gently hugged the box.
“I had given them my big, strong son,” Beverly remembered. “They gave me back a box of ashes.”
A month later when the casualty officer paid a follow–up visit, Beverly asked him to properly open Michael’s box so she could share ashes with someone close to him. While carefully removing the ashes, she felt something solid.
It was a dog tag. The officer was stunned and said that this was impossible; the heat alone should have melted it or the grinder should have disintegrated it.
Nonetheless, burnt and covered in ash, the tag had survived cremation. Michael’s name and rank were still clearly legible on the metal. After carefully cleaning the tag, Beverly held it and cried.
“The next day, I went back into the ashes, and I found Michael’s second tag,” remembers Beverly. “God had covered them both with His hand and had said ‘no more’ to the fire. He allowed them to be nicked by the grinding machine, but then said, ‘no more’ to it as well.”
“It was a miracle. God knew the pain I was in and He allowed me to receive one last gift from my son,” said Beverly. “I could hear Michael’s voice say, ‘I’m OK, Mom. I’m a Franklin; this is for you.”
“When I die, one dog tag will go to Michael’s daughter and the other to his son.* These tags are miracles, and you never put God’s miracles underground.”
When Michael was a boy, he was always outside, climbing trees and poles. To find him, all Beverly had to do was look up.
“Today, a voice tells me, ‘Mom, look down,”’ Beverly said. In doing so, she sees his tags around her neck. When she looks further to the ground, she’s also reminded of him.
“I find four–leaf clovers everywhere I go; it’s a sign that he’s still with me,” said Beverly, who has even found rare five– and seven–leaf clovers. Michael was half-Irish, and very proud of his roots.
“I save them and give these ‘Heavenly Clovers’ to soldiers and military families that I see are hurting like I was, to remind them that God is with them.”
THE INVISIBLENESS OF WAR
Beverly is now trained in suicide prevention and is legally authorized to talk to a person who is contemplating such action. She travels across the country, meeting with veterans’ groups and military families. She always wears Michael’s dog tags.
Beverly also carries a large, green military backpack decorated with images of four–leaf clovers, military symbols, and the names and faces of young vets who have lost their lives. Through her efforts, Michael Franklin’s legacy is still helping to save others.
“The military teaches kids to be soldiers, but they don’t teach them how to shut it off when they come back,” says this Gold Star Mother.** “That’s the invisibleness of war; that more people die after they return from war than die while serving. It’s why, on average, 22 vets, plus one active military serviceman or woman, take their lives every day. To a Gold Star Mother, every day is Memorial Day.”
Just as Sgt. Franklin led his team on the battlefield, “Mama Bev” has become a leader too. She is a lifeline and a source of love and guidance to soldiers going through the same pain she saw years ago in her son’s eyes. She also comforts family members who have lost their children to war, through suicide, or who are killed in action (KIA).
“When I speak to groups, I always say, ‘if you know a veteran or military family that needs help, please give them my number,’” said Beverly. “When they reach out to me, those families and veterans become my children too.”
*Today, Mikayla and Byron live with Jessie Ann’s mother in Connecticut.
**Gold Star Mothers is a term used to describe all mothers who have lost sons or daughters who served in the United States armed forces. The American Gold Star Mothers is an organization that was created in 1928.