Army wife left 'tremendous' impact on many she knew

The late Jessie Ann Yeager Franklin with her son, Byron, 2, and daughter, Mikayla, 6.
The late Jessie Ann Yeager Franklin with her son, Byron, 2, and daughter, Mikayla, 6.

An Army wife apparently killed by her husband at Fort Hood, Texas, last weekend has been described as a devoted mother to whom other military spouses turned for support.

"I love my children. You know, every mother has that love for their children, but she loved her children with just such a ferocity that it's rare," said Jennifer Turner, a neighbor at Fort Hood and close friend of Jessie Ann Yeager Franklin.

Jessie Ann Franklin, originally from eastern Connecticut, and Sgt. Michael Timothy Franklin were raising their two young children, Mikayla, 6, and Byron, 2, in housing at Fort Hood in central Texas. She grew up in East Hampton and graduated from the Academy of the Holy Family in Baltic in 1999.

Michael Franklin had returned to the post in January following his second tour of duty in Iraq.

Last Sunday, Jessie and Michael Franklin were found fatally shot in their house. Army investigators believe Michael, 31, killed his wife, then turned the gun on himself.

Jessie was 29. Her friends say she loved junk food but never gained weight. She dressed in the latest fashions and she laughed a lot, usually making everyone else laugh with her. Her funeral is scheduled for this weekend in East Hampton. The children are now with their maternal grandmother in Connecticut.

Rising suicide rate

Four veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan died that same week at Fort Hood from what appeared to be self-inflicted gunshot wounds. So far this year, Fort Hood, which is the largest base in the country, has 14 confirmed suicides and six more cases pending final review.

The post was in the spotlight last November when an Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, was charged with killing 13 people in a shooting rampage there.

Officials at the post are trying to figure out how to stop the rising suicide rate.

"Leaders at all levels remain deeply concerned about this trend and are looking for innovative ways to better support soldiers and their families to reverse this pattern," Maj. Gen. William Grimsley, Fort Hood senior commander, said in a statement. "Too many of our soldiers are seeking a permanent solution to a temporary problem."

In Connecticut, there has not been a suicide involving any of the National Guardsmen who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan in the current conflict, according to an official here. National Guard soldiers and family members attend informational sessions to learn about the resources available to them, including confidential outpatient counseling.

Higher-ranking soldiers are taking training on how to cope with stress and recognize warning signs in others.

Because of the multiple deaths at Fort Hood, Jessie Franklin became "just kind of a side note," said Katie Laubender, whose husband is also in the Army and assigned to the post.

"Jessie's presence in my life was short, but the impact she made was tremendous," Laubender said. "I will never forget Jessie Ann, and I hope that others will keep her memory alive because Jessie deserved a long and happy life."

Given the way it ended, friends did not want to speculate on Jessie and Michael's marriage. But Laubender did say they were getting to know each other again after almost a year apart while he was in Iraq.

"They were in the middle of that, but they seemed happy," she said. "It's such a great loss. If it had been a car accident or something like that, it would've been easier to understand. This is just terrible."

Michael Franklin joined the Army in August 2005 as a motor transport operator and was assigned to Fort Hood that fall. He served in Iraq from October 2006 to January 2008 and again from February 2009 to January 2010.

During his second deployment, Jessie cared for their son, Byron, who needed multiple surgeries after being born with a cleft lip and palate. She had moved in next door to Jennifer Turner in the summer of 2008, and the two women quickly developed a close bond, as both of their husbands were in Iraq.

"I only knew her for two years," Turner said. "That's a very short time, but in those two years we were family to each other. We did everything together. Army wives, we become a sisterhood of sorts because we're left behind."

Turner said they watched movies and danced in the living room since they could not go out, with two children each and no babysitter. Jessie liked rap music, especially Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. They spent many hours in the sun because Jessie wanted to be tan, and took turns cooking dinner for their "gang." Their children, close in age, celebrated birthdays and holidays together.

"She was very strong and she made it through," Turner said, adding that everything seemed good when Michael returned and they went on vacation to spend time together as a family.

Turner moved with her husband to Fort Polk in Louisiana in April but she talked to Jessie on the phone and had planned to visit later this month so the kids could go trick-or-treating together.

In Texas, Jessie also grew close to Laubender, whose husband was getting ready to leave for Iraq.

"It seemed like we were two tent poles leaning on each other for support, trying to keep the whole thing from coming down," Laubender said.

Both women remembered Jessie as a loving mother and a dependable friend, who would do anything for the people she loved.

"She was a beautiful person in every way," Turner said.

Added Laubender: "She was the friend that you always hope you find."

A 'fun couple'

Jessie met Michael when they were both students at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. She studied criminal justice but later worked as a personal trainer.

Michael was raised in Rhode Island, where his family still lives in Middletown.

"As a couple they loved to go out and have fun," said Jessica Duquette, a close friend from college and a bridesmaid in the couple's 2005 wedding in Newport. "It's just hard because I remember them like that, just like a fun couple who were great friends."

Jessie was on the cheerleading squad and softball team at the Academy of the Holy Family. Her friends called her "Yeagermeister" and classmates called her and another friend "the blonde bombshells."

"She had a smile that would light up a room," said Suzette Lori Zaizar, a Norwich native and close classmate. "When you looked at her, and she smiled, you felt a warmth come over you, and she made your day. That's what I want people to know about her, that she was the sunshine on a sunny day, and through her passing, she's still that sunshine."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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