‘On behalf of a grateful nation...’

Shanoca French and her three children, Madison (L), Alex, and Alexis (R), stand around a bust of her husband, Alex French, at the Georgia Military College Preparatory School in Milledgeville Wednesday, May 24, 2022. The bust was made by Cliff Leonard, who creates busts of veterans for free as a service to others. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Shanoca French and her three children, Madison (L), Alex, and Alexis (R), stand around a bust of her husband, Alex French, at the Georgia Military College Preparatory School in Milledgeville Wednesday, May 24, 2022. The bust was made by Cliff Leonard, who creates busts of veterans for free as a service to others. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

For Alex French IV’s family, Memorial Day means upholding his legacy

Shanoca French was a 29-year-old mother of three when she heard the knock on the door.

She was already taking care of her 2-year-old baby girl Madison, and her 5-year-old son, Alex French V, who was home sick, while his twin sister Alexis was at school that day.

Two men in uniform were at the door — a bad omen when your husband is 10,000 miles away fighting a war in Afghanistan.

Shanoca French braced herself.

“On behalf of a grateful nation,” one of the soldiers started. “We regret to inform you that your husband was killed in action.”

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Staff Sergeant Alex French IV, 31, of Milledgeville died on Sept. 30, 2009, after enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device near the Pakistani border in Khost, Afghanistan.

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

Staff Sergeant Alex French IV, 31, of Milledgeville died on Sept. 30, 2009, after enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device near the Pakistani border in Khost, Afghanistan.

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

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Staff Sergeant Alex French IV, 31, of Milledgeville died on Sept. 30, 2009, after enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device near the Pakistani border in Khost, Afghanistan.

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

He went on to tell her that Staff Sergeant Alex French IV, 31, of Milledgeville died on Sept. 30, 2009, after enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device near the Pakistani border in Khost, Afghanistan.

“It was just like they do on television. It was very difficult,” Shanoca French recalls of the meeting. “I was already doing a lot as a single mom, but the impact of his death was so hard because we all had to deal with the loss.”

Martyrs of the Race Course

For many Americans, especially Gold Star Families who experience the painful loss of a loved one firsthand, Memorial Day has become a time for solemn reflection for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the United States.

For the French family, it is intensely personal.

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Shanoca French and her three children, Alex (L), Alexis, and Madison (R), pose for a photograph at the Georgia Military College Preparatory School in Milledgeville Wednesday, May 24, 2022. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Shanoca French and her three children, Alex (L), Alexis, and Madison (R), pose for a photograph at the Georgia Military College Preparatory School in Milledgeville Wednesday, May 24, 2022. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Shanoca French and her three children, Alex (L), Alexis, and Madison (R), pose for a photograph at the Georgia Military College Preparatory School in Milledgeville Wednesday, May 24, 2022. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“For us, Memorial Day touches our hearts in different ways because we are one of those families,” Alex V said. “It is not a holiday where we get together and eat. We go to the cemetery and we visit his side of the family to talk and tell stories about him.”

While the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes that approximately 25 places claim to have originated the holiday, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Blight writes that the roots of Memorial Day date back to just after the Civil War when freed slaves decorated the graves of dead Union soldiers buried beneath a racetrack in Charleston.

In his book, “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” Blight wrote that in the days leading up to the May 1, 1865 event that would be known as “Decoration Day,” Black residents of Charleston reorganized the graves into rows and built a 10-foot-tall white fence around them. In black letters, an archway overhead spelled out “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

“The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration,” Blight wrote.

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Flanked by the CEO of NewDay USA, and Admiral Tom Lynch, chairman of the NewDay USA Foundation, Alexis, Madison, Shanoca and Alex V French are all smiles. In honor of their father, Alex French, who was killed in Afghanistan, NewDay USA has provided educational scholarships to each of the three French children. Alex V and Alexis, who each just graduated from Georgia Military College Preparatory School, will do internships at NewDay USA in West Palm Beach this summer before they head off to Morehouse College and Howard University.

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

Flanked by the CEO of NewDay USA, and Admiral Tom Lynch, chairman of the NewDay USA Foundation, Alexis, Madison, Shanoca and Alex V French are all smiles. In honor of their father, Alex French, who was killed in Afghanistan, NewDay USA has provided educational scholarships to each of the three French children. Alex V and Alexis, who each just graduated from Georgia Military College Preparatory School, will do internships at NewDay USA in West Palm Beach this summer before they head off to Morehouse College and Howard University.

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

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Flanked by the CEO of NewDay USA, and Admiral Tom Lynch, chairman of the NewDay USA Foundation, Alexis, Madison, Shanoca and Alex V French are all smiles. In honor of their father, Alex French, who was killed in Afghanistan, NewDay USA has provided educational scholarships to each of the three French children. Alex V and Alexis, who each just graduated from Georgia Military College Preparatory School, will do internships at NewDay USA in West Palm Beach this summer before they head off to Morehouse College and Howard University.

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

After Reconstruction, the different regional and racial narratives began to converge and in 1971 Memorial Day became a federal holiday.

A father’s dream

It has been that way for 13 years for the French family. Although this year will have special meaning, as Alex V and Alexis both graduated from Georgia Military College Preparatory School in Milledgeville this month and are on their way to college.

Shanoca French is a classroom aide at GMCP, where she has been able to monitor her children’s educational process daily. That was always the plan, aided by full scholarships for all three children through NewDay USA to honor their father’s sacrifice.

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Alex V, Madison and Alexis French on campus at Georgia Military College Preparatory School.

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

Alex V, Madison and Alexis French on campus at Georgia Military College Preparatory School.

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

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Alex V, Madison and Alexis French on campus at Georgia Military College Preparatory School.

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

“It was my husband’s dream that they attend GMCPrep School,” Shanoca French said. “When I was pregnant, we had that conversation. He was adamant and to honor him, I honored that dream.”

Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell IV, president of Georgia Military College called the French family “valued members,” of the school’s community.

“Having this Gold Star Family with us means so much,” Caldwell said. “It’s important for our students and community to know and understand the sacrifices so many make for our freedom. Those acts of service cannot go unnoticed and it’s up to us to make sure they don’t. We are honored to be in the lives of the French family – they will forever be a part of ours.”

Although they considered it, none of the children plan to pursue a career in the military.

Alex V was the captain of both the football and basketball teams and won a state championship in the 4x800 relay. He will be a freshman at Morehouse College in the fall.

Alexis was the captain of the cheerleading teams for football and basketball and was in the theater department, skills that she said will help her at Howard University in the fall.

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Alex French (L) and his sister Alexis participate in their high school graduation practice at the Georgia Military College Preparatory School in Milledgeville Wednesday, May 24, 2022. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Alex French (L) and his sister Alexis participate in their high school graduation practice at the Georgia Military College Preparatory School in Milledgeville Wednesday, May 24, 2022. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Alex French (L) and his sister Alexis participate in their high school graduation practice at the Georgia Military College Preparatory School in Milledgeville Wednesday, May 24, 2022. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Madison, now 15 and heading to her sophomore year at GMCP, managed several sports teams, plays in the concert band and works on the yearbook.

“My father’s legacy will be what we make it,” Alex V said. “He is known as a hero who gave his life for his country, but that will not mean anything if we don’t live up to what he died for.”

Calls to action

French IV was a native of Milledgeville and met Shanoca at Baldwin County High.

“He was a very funny guy, who loved to laugh and was very family-oriented,” Shanoca French said. “He was very passionate about everything he cared about.”

After he graduated, French IV joined the U.S. Navy, where he served from 1996 until 2000.

After the Navy, he became a deputy sheriff and joined the National Guard. A few months after the couple married on Feb. 18, 2005, he accepted his first deployment with the 48th Infantry Brigade in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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Shortly before he was deployed to Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Alex French IV was home with his young family in Milledgeville. Holding his daughter, Madison, his wife Shanoca is next to him. His twins, Alexis and Alex V pose in front. French IV was killed in action on Sept. 30, 2009.

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

Shortly before he was deployed to Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Alex French IV was home with his young family in Milledgeville. Holding his daughter, Madison, his wife Shanoca is next to him. His twins, Alexis and Alex V pose in front. 
French IV was killed in action on Sept. 30, 2009.

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

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Shortly before he was deployed to Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Alex French IV was home with his young family in Milledgeville. Holding his daughter, Madison, his wife Shanoca is next to him. His twins, Alexis and Alex V pose in front. French IV was killed in action on Sept. 30, 2009.

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

Credit: Georgia Military College Preparatory School

“Alex and Alexis were four months old when he was deployed the first time and he was gone for two years,” Shanoca French said. “I had to learn to be and do everything. When he came home, they were almost two years old and we had to learn a new way of life.

His second deployment came in May 2009, with the 48th Infantry Brigade’s Combat Team for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

Alex French IV was killed four months later.

Honoring a hero and father

Since his death, the town of Milledgeville has worked hard to preserve French’s legacy. In 2012, the street where he grew up in the Harrisburg community, was renamed “Alex French Drive” in his honor. The gym at the Georgia National Guard Armory was renamed “French Gym,” in 2020.

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A street named after Alex French is located in Milledgeville, Ga. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com

Credit: Steve Schaefer

A street named after Alex French is located in Milledgeville, Ga.  (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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A street named after Alex French is located in Milledgeville, Ga. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Everyone around town tells Alex V that he “looks just like your daddy,” although he barely remembers his father. Alexis remembers the piggyback rides and the early-morning fishing trips.

Madison relies on family stories.

“Although I don’t remember a lot about him and I didn’t get to know him, I get to at least live through him,” Madison said. “I get to learn through myself who he was.”

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The bust of Alex French was made by Cliff Leonard, who creates busts of veterans for free as a service to others. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The bust of Alex French was made by Cliff Leonard, who creates busts of veterans for free as a service to others. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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The bust of Alex French was made by Cliff Leonard, who creates busts of veterans for free as a service to others. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

A bust, donated by the school and sculpted by a veteran, of French IV sits on the living room mantle in the French’s Milledgeville home.

It is a constant reminder of what was lost.

“We just want to keep his memory alive and celebrate his life,” Shanoca French. “He made the ultimate sacrifice.”