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Deep Strike soldiers honor 2 at vet center

Ham, 93, participated in D-Day as combat medic; Franco, 35, was mail clerk in Iraq

Soldiers of the soon-to-deploy Deep Strike Battalion took time out of their busy schedule Friday to recognize the contributions of two heroes living at the Lawton-Fort Sill Veterans Center.

By happenstance, they also arrived in time to take part in a new tradition started by the veterans center staff  a Final Salute to a resident who died early Friday morning. Close to 200 Deep Strike soldiers stood at attention on both sides of the corridor as an honor guard made up of veterans on staff rolled the flag-draped casket down the main hallway.

The honor guard turned down the hallway leading to the main entrance and paused for the playing of Taps. Then center resident Frederick Keith escorted the body of the late Marion Thurman to the funeral home.

It was the center's second Final Salute, according to Teresa Aldridge, center recreational director. Only center residents and staff took part in the first one on Thursday. She said having the Final Salute provides closure for the residents when they lose one of their own.

Afterward, soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 20th Field Artillery, adjourned to the Col. Hardy R. Stone Auditorium for an observance of their own.

"We come to the veterans center to honor those who came before us," 2-20 FA Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin J. Bowens explained beforehand. "We listen to the veterans and their story."

Bowens said the soldiers plan to put on their dress blues or ACUs (Army Combat Uniforms) once a month and have a Wall of Honor ceremony for the battalion's honorees. The honoree will be presented a certificate of appreciation for his or her sacrifices, and pictures of the honoree when they were in service will go on the Deep Strike Wall of Honor in the battalion's conference room in Building 3424 on Babcock Road.

The first two veterans selected for the honor are Army Spc. Judy Franco, the youngest veteran currently living at the center and also the only female, and Army Spc. Eldon Ham, a World War II combat medic.

Sgt. Skylar Hunkeapillar of Bravo Battery, 2-20 FA, told how, "over the last few weeks, I've had the honor of getting to know an amazing woman and her life story. She is truly been an inspiration to me. I'm very pleased to introduce my friend, Spc. Judy Franco."

The 35-year-old Franco is originally from Fort Worth, Texas. She has been married for 11 years to her husband, JosÈ, and they have a 12-year-old son, Emmanuel or "Manny" for short.

At a young age, she moved with her family to Mexico, where they lived until after her fourth-grade year. They then moved back to Fort Worth. The only language she knew was Spanish, and her schoolteacher did not know any Spanish. She learned sign language in seventh grade. She had five brothers and one sister.

"Her dedication and constant resilience enabled her to push through barriers and overcome obstacles, resulting in her being the only one in her family to graduate high school," Hunkeapillar said.

Franco attended Tarrant Community College for one year. In search of a challenge, she then decided to join the Army. She enlisted as a 42A human resource specialist and did both basic and advanced individual training at Fort Jackson, S.C. Her favorite part was going to Myrtle Beach on long weekends.

Mortar landed near Franco

She then moved to Fort Sill, where she spent three years. In 2004 she deployed with her unit in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While there she served as the mail clerk for 22,000 soldiers. On her first time pulling duty in Iraq, a mortar hit 200 meters in front of her.

"Her only reaction was to freeze. She didn't scream or anything. She said her biggest memory from Iraq was how hot it was. She was very proud and happy that she qualified expert on the M249. Judy received an Army Commendation Medal for her 12 months in Iraq,' Hunkeapillar said.

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