Life often takes unexpected turns: sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. It’s like canoeing on a winding river—you don’t know what’s around the bend until you get there. Such was the case in the unique relationship I built with Franklin “Frankie” Namon Watson. I first met him in 2002 when he was just a young, scrappy, twelve-year-old boy, and I was privileged to watch him grow up to be an exceptional young man. Little did I know just how much of an impact he would later have in my life.
Frankie lived in Sweetwater. Between 2002 and 2004, I would only see him occasionally, either around town or when he was at his grandparent’s house. He always seemed like a decent kid and was pleasant to be around. During the summer of 2004, I had set up a fireworks stand in Madisonville in anticipation of the 4th of July. Frankie stopped by and while we were chatting, he asked if I could take him to his football practices on the days his dad couldn’t. I told him as long as his folks didn’t mind, I’d be happy to drive him. When the football team began having two practices a day, Frankie would spend the night. Dad and I lived in a large house with a spare bedroom where Frankie would stay, and we’d take him to practice in the morning. Just like that, Frankie was becoming a special part of our lives.
Soon, a familial-like relationship began to blossom. Frankie was like a little brother to me and grew to be an integral part of the family. I saw in Frankie a young man with a world of potential, and I had the opportunity to be an influence in his life. I wasn’t going to waste that opportunity. Hardly any time passed before he was traveling with us on family vacations and special outings. I told him I would take him anywhere he wanted to go for his senior trip and he chose Hawaii. It was one of the best trips we ever took.
One of my favorite memories of Frankie was Christmas 2005. I purchased a paintball gun for him, and you would have thought a brand-new Ferrari was parked out front! Frankie invited his buddy, Michael, to spend the night. Later that afternoon I went downstairs to do some laundry and noticed they weren’t in his room. When I went back upstairs, I asked Dad if he knew where they were. He just chuckled and said I should try looking out the window. Standing out in the freezing cold were two teenage boys, shirtless, taking turns shooting each other with the paintball gun! When I asked them what possessed them to do this, in all his teenage wisdom Frankie advised me that they just wanted to see how big a welt it would leave! While having a hard time regaining my composure from having laughed myself into tears, I put an end to the shenanigans and sent the boys back inside. Yes, even the best of kids are still just that—kids!
Frankie was a young man full of life; he didn’t waste a moment. At times, that made him a little mischievousness like one time when I’d been in Nashville for a few days and was coming back into town for the weekend. I told Frankie as soon as I got in, I would need to take a quick shower and change before we could leave to go out for dinner. Later, as I was putting on my deodorant, the phone rang. While talking on the phone I went to Frankie’s room to see if he was ready. About the time I hit his room, my armpits started to tingle, then burn! I didn’t know why, but Frankie was laughing at me. By the time I hung up the phone my armpits felt as if they had pepper spray on them! In desperation I asked him what was going on, and in between his bursts of laughter he told me he had put Icy Hot on my deodorant! We had a good laugh about it (obviously he more than me).
I accidentally got my revenge a few years later. Frankie joined the Marines and while in boot camp he had developed a bad rash on his legs. He sent a letter back requesting help with the matter. Having been single my whole life and not having any children of my own, I wasn’t sure what to do, but my wonderful sister-in-law, Crystal, recommended I buy some extra strength Desitin to send him. I bought the product and mailed it to him with a note taped to the product that said something like: “Rub a generous portion of cream on the infected areas and apply as frequently as necessary.” At the time I didn’t realize all incoming mail was inspected prior to being given to the respective designee. It took him a while to live down that “care package.”
Ever since he was a little child, Frankie had expressed interest in being a police officer and/or Marine. He graduated from high school in May of 2008 and immediately started into his law enforcement career as a corrections officer at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. In 2009, he went to the Cleveland State Police Academy and was hired to the Madisonville Police Department that December. In 2010, he enlisted in the Marines and was sent to Parris Island for boot camp. He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. Frankie was a combat engineer and had earned the rank of Lance Corporal (LCp1). His long-term ambition was to become a Tennessee State Trooper after he returned from deployment.
This is where the next bend in the river revealed violent rapids. On Saturday, September 24, 2011, Frankie was killed by an enemy sniper while on foot patrol in a field outside his forward operating base. He was only twenty-one years old. By this point in our nine-year relationship, Frankie felt close enough to my family that he had listed me, in addition to his parents, as next of kin to be notified in case of death or injury.
I was in the shower that morning when the Marines first came to give me the death notification. They didn’t know I was a trooper and, having seen my cruiser in the driveway, they thought I had already been notified by THP. Unaware they had come to the house, I continued getting ready and drove up into Knoxville. About the time I arrived at the truck scales, I received a radio call informing me I needed to go back home. When I arrived back at the house, the Marine detail was already there.
Sitting on my couch in my living room, I felt a world of emotions go through me as they notified me of Frankie’s death. Immediately word spread and people started coming from all over to offer condolences. My brother was one of the most welcomed faces to see. After having lost my mother, father, and now Frankie, Cory remained my only immediate living relative, and these moments have served to draw us closer than ever. I thank God for my brother.
You never know how the Lord plans to work. Out of this horrific event, many lasting friendships have blossomed. This was the first time I met my partner in this book, Chaplain Grady. I remember him coming by that day, but I was in such a fog that it didn’t really hit me until I saw him again at the funeral, just exactly who he was. Over the next few months, we would exchange several texts and phone calls and become friends, eventually crossing paths on the job from time to time.
A wise old preacher once said, “Don’t make a decision when your decision maker is broken.” In times of duress, it is wise to find someone you can look to for help. During this tumultuous event, that someone for me was United States Air Force Captain James Brantley. Captain Brantley had been a friend to us for many years, and a mentor to Frankie. He had been stationed at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma when he received the news of Frankie’s death. Captain Brantley put his work on hold to fly straight to Dover Air Force Base in order to be there for the family, and guide us through the challenging time that lay ahead. When the time came to bring Frankie home from Dover, Captain Brantley headed up the military escort. Thank God for men of sacrifice—men like Frankie and Captain Brantley.
Frankie’s homecoming, funeral and graveside services were nothing short of breathtaking. Vehicles and thousands of people lined the shoulders of Highway 411 and saluted him as his escort arrived in town. His funeral service was packed to overflowing in the 800-plus seat auditorium of the First Baptist Church in Madisonville, with several dignitaries in attendance. There were over 2,000 people that watched the service via the internet. They had to place the service on a special out-of-state server with another one as backup. Frankie was given full honors, which he had so deservedly earned. In April 2013, Highway 411 in Madisonville was dedicated in memory of Frankie and renamed the “Franklin ‘Frankie’ Watson Memorial Highway.”
Frankie was a devoted Christian. While he was overseas, he had personal, daily devotions using his Bible along with a devotional book his friends had given him. An impressive demonstration pointing to his character was a verse he posted on his Facebook page before leaving for Afghanistan. Fittingly, this same verse was also inscribed as part of the epitaph on his tombstone. Joshua 1:9: “Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”
An equally impressive passage of Scripture that speaks to this topic is Hebrews 11:4: “… he being dead yet speaketh.” When Frankie died, I vowed I wouldn’t let his memory die with him. I founded a memorial scholarship fund in Frankie’s honor. Today there are several young folks who have been given the opportunity to attend college because of his sacrifice. In addition to the fund, I travel as often as I am able to speak to veterans groups, law enforcement academics, and similar functions to honor the life and sacrifice of Frankie.
I have no doubt that you, the reader, have by now observed the recurring theme of how God uses things in your past to prepare you for the future. Just as God used me in Frankie’s life, He used Frankie in mine. My parents’ unexpected deaths worked to prepare me for Frankie’s unexpected death and also to motivate me to what I do today. He also used Frankie’s death in addition to my parents’ deaths, to prepare me for my day. He allowed me to walk through the valley of the shadow of death three times to prepare me for walking through my own valley. As we were taught in law enforcement: “Preparation is the key to survival. When the time for decision arrives, the time for preparation is past.” After Frankie’s funeral, the waters of the river seemed to calm. The rapids would return 5 1/2 short months later as the river entered my valley. Preparation time was over. My valley of decision had arrived.