News: Soldier finds strength through loved aunt's memory
Story by Cpl. Emily Knitter
FORT STEWART, Ga. – Singer, former pageant queen, veteran. While this doesn't seem like the most congruent resume, for one soldier it defines exactly who she is.
"I went to the recruiting station, took the test and that was it," she said. "I told them, I don’t care what you put me in, just get me out of here."
At first, her Aunt 'Al,' who has always been her best friend, wasn't thrilled to hear the news.
"She was not too happy about me joining, but regardless of what I did and my decisions, she was always very supportive," Franco continued.
A year later, she was in Baghdad, Iraq, on a 12-month tour serving as a fueler with 3rd Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Advise and Assist Brigade, Third Infantry Division.
Within the first few weeks, Franco got word that her aunt, who had been sick for years, was getting dramatically worse.
"One minute she was doing her own shopping and her daily routines and the next day she couldn’t even feed herself," Franco said. "Luckily, my chain of command was very understanding and I got to go on emergency leave. I got home in time to see her for a little while."
As she sat by Aunt Al's bed, Franco quietly sung "Broken Wing" by Martina McBride, knowing that it was her favorite song.
"After I finished singing she passed away," she said. "It was really sad, but now and always that song will be my strongest memory of her."
Franco returned to Iraq with a heavy heart.
"I believe everybody has that one individual that they confide in, and once that person is gone you can never replace them," she said. "That has been the hardest, not being able to just call and talk to her when I need to."
But as the days and weeks went by, she began to feel Aunt Al's presence.
"I can remember how many times my unit should have gotten blown up and we didn't, or all the times we ran into incidents and we all came out okay," Franco explained. "I have to believe she had a big part in my return home."
After her deployment, Franco began to do all those things on her 'bucket list' she had previously put off.
"I have come to realize that if you have the opportunity to do something you should just go do it," she said. "Especially given our jobs, we never know when there is going to be a major event we will have to react to. I don’t want to look back and say 'I wish I would have.'"
One of her goals was to pursue her musical career, so first in 2011, and again in 2012, she gave it a shot by auditioning for the reality TV show, "America's Got Talent."
"The first time auditions were in Atlanta," Franco said. "It was a great experience, and I made it through most of the preliminary trials, but then I was cut. I auditioned again this year in Savannah because I figure you never know what your chances are until you face them."
Walking into the audition, there was only one song in her head.
"Some times I get really emotional singing it, and others I sing it with a smile on my face," Franco said. "But that day I felt really confident singing 'Broken Wing.'"
Although she didn't receive a call again this year, she is not disappointed.
"A big part of me didn’t want to make it," she explained. "You don’t get camaraderie anywhere else like you do in the military, and I don’t know if I could give that up."
Camaraderie is not the only aspect of military service Franco values.
"When you go somewhere where people aren’t really familiar with the military, they appreciate you so much," she explains. "It's like they see this uniform as a beacon. When I got home after Iraq, little kids came up to me and although they didn’t understand what I had done, they knew who I was and that is what keeps me serving."
Today, she is continuing to check items off her bucket list and plans on re-enlisting in the upcoming months. No matter what the future may bring Franco knows Aunt Al will be watching over her, helping to carry her dreams.