Highways memorialize those who gave all

Posted 5/23/24

Traveling through the neighboring counties can lead to some amazing discoveries. Often, those discoveries are hiding in plain sight.

Found on county roads, highways   and farm-to-market …

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Highways memorialize those who gave all


Traveling through the neighboring counties can lead to some amazing discoveries. Often, those discoveries are hiding in plain sight.

Found on county roads, highways  and farm-to-market roads in neighboring counties are reminders of four East Texans who gave their lives for the preservation of freedoms. Those memorials are often passed by, unknowingly, as folks go about their daily lives. 

Staff Sergeant Shawn Henry McNabb (d. Oct. 26, 2009), Staff Sergeant Chauncey Mays (d. Feb. 28, 2011), Sergeant Travis Earl Watkins (d. Sept. 3, 1950) and Sergeant Tanner Stone Higgins (d. April 14, 2012) are memorialized by designation of highways in their honor. 

Spanning Lake Tawakoni between Hunt and Rains counties is the Staff Sergeant Shawn Henry McNabb Memorial Bridge (formerly the Two-mile Bridge). In Titus County a portion of FM 2348 – between US 67 and TX 49 – is now the Army Staff Sergeant Chauncey Mays Memorial Highway. The Sergeant Travis E. Watkins Memorial Highway stretches on US 80 from the eastern municipal boundary of Big Sandy to the intersection of US 271 with US 80 in Gladewater. The Sergeant Tanner Stone Higgins Memorial Highway is that portion of TX 154 between the municipal boundaries of Yantis and Sulphur Springs. 

Staff Sergeant Shawn McNabb was one of the elite soldiers in the United States military. He was a special operations combat medic, one of only a handful of such men in the armed forces. He was a part of the famed Nightstalkers, the 160th Special Operations Air Regiment.  

Specialized units such as the Nightstalkers have an incredibly demanding screening process. The soldiers selected to join them are among the best of the best this nation has in uniform.

While on a classified mission in western Afghanistan, the MH-47 helicopter in which McNabb was assigned crashed. Ten of the 38 team members onboard perished. 

Shawn McNabb is buried in two places. His identifiable remains came home to East Texas and are interred at the Dallas/Fort Worth National Cemetery. Remains of McNabb and his fallen team members that could not be conclusively identified through DNA analysis were entombed together in a plot at Arlington National Cemetery.

Fifteen years after his death, McNabb’s father, David, expressed this thought, “What we can never forget,” he said, “is that we lost some of our very…finest…young men.”  

Speaking with the senior McNabb, a former Greenville firefighter and Hunt County justice of the peace, was, as with all the family members who shared their thoughts, a sacred thing. Although 15 years had passed since Shawn’s death, it was clear that he was yet mourned.

“Shawn was a real prankster,” David shared. He offered a couple of examples of how his son had positively impacted those commands he had served with simply by being the man he was – full of life.   

“He was good at his job and loved doing what he did.”

McNabb was in his fifth combat deployment, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan. While in Iraq serving as a flight medic with the 57th Medical Battalion, McNabb received  commendations for completing 325 missions which included 50 life-saving missions. His decorations included a Combat V – for Valor – designation.  

Family friend and fellow Greenville firefighter Fred Worley spearheaded the initiative to have the Two-mile Bridge renamed in McNabb’s honor. As David explained it, at one point after his son’s death, Worley came to him and told him, “I just can’t get it out of my mind, that your little boy who used to come to the firehouse with you, that that little boy was gone.”

It was the thoughtfulness of Worley and the kindness and camaraderie of the special operations community which pushed the initiative through the state legislature and funded the initial signage. Shawn McNabb would not be forgotten.

Just over a year after McNabb’s death, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Staff Sergeant Chauncey Mays departed on his third combat tour of duty. He departed home on the day after Thanksgiving, 2010. 

The Chapel Hill High School graduate was a veteran of the Surge in Iraq – a deployment which was broken by a three-day leave to return stateside and see his first daughter, Kiley, be born. From the hospital, he returned to Iraq. 

A second deployment, also to Iraq, followed. Thereafter, the young family, he, his wife Katherine and young daughter were relocated to Fort Polk, Louisiana. It was there, between his second and third deployments, that they welcomed another daughter, Chesnee.

Katherine Mays knew something was amiss that day. “I had an ominous feeling the whole day; I just couldn’t shake it.”

It was late February. Katherine and the girls were back with family in East Texas. She and Chauncey had shared a quick “I love you” satellite call before his mission that day. She had had a missed call at 8:15 that morning. 

At 9 p.m. there was a knock at the door. It was the Hunt County Sheriff and a chaplain from the local fire department. She received notification of Chauncey’s death. “My heart was ripped out,” she said. 

Mays spent part of his Afghanistan deployment in mountainous outposts. According to Katherine his weight went from 170 to around 120 lbs. at his death, largely because resupply was hazardous and spotty. 

Through it all however, the ‘big goofball’ – as Katherine described him with a laugh – endeared himself to all he served with.

“I wish everyone could have spent five minutes with Chauncey,” she stated, “when he was with you, you just couldn’t help but to smile.”

He also reportedly drove his fellow soldiers to distraction with his talk about Katherine and his daughters. It was fitting how Chauncey’s specialty – defusing roadside bombs – placed him in the role of protecting others. Katherine commented, “It was who he was; he always said it was better he do it than any of the other guys.”   

Chauncey was escorted home and is buried in the Harmony Cemetery near Pickton. 

In the wake of his death, Katherine remained strong. “For the kids, I had to,” she related. But it was far from easy. Most troublesome was the amount of bullying in school her children would come to experience – mocking their father’s death. 

In addition to raising her daughters, Katherine spent considerable time speaking with other widows and working to help children left without their fathers. She also felt it important to keep Chauncey’s spirit alive.

That led to Katherine building a small roadside shrine alongside FM 2348 just around the corner from Chauncey’s father’s house. “It was an area where Chauncey ran around as he grew up.”

That shrine led to consideration about naming the road in his honor.  Katherine put out a notice to the Explosive Ordnance Disposal community, and testimonial letters speaking highly of Chauncey started rolling in. 

The signs today stand at each end of FM 2348, southeast of Mount Pleasant. “We call it Daddy’s Road,” Katherine added.

Public servant William Barr explained valor as follows: “Valor is a word we don’t commonly hear. People can show courage and bravery confronting many different challenges in life. But valor connotes willingly putting oneself in mortal danger to protect others.” 

Should Barr have sought an example of valor, the actions of Master Sergeant Travis E. Watkins in the Battle of Yongsan, Korea from Aug. 31-Sept- 3, 1950 defined the word valor. 

Watkins was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as set forth in the Medal of Honor citation. The citation is posted below without edit.

“Master Sergeant Watkins distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy. When an overwhelming enemy force broke through and isolated 30 men of his unit, he took command, established a perimeter defense and directed action which repelled continuous, fanatical enemy assaults. With his group completely surrounded and cut off, he moved from foxhole to foxhole exposing himself to enemy fire, giving instructions and offering encouragement to his men. Later when the need for ammunition and grenades became critical he shot 2 enemy soldiers 50 yards outside the perimeter and went out alone for their ammunition and weapons. As he picked up their weapons he was attacked by 3 others and wounded. Returning their fire he killed all 3 and gathering up the weapons of the 5 enemy dead returned to his amazed comrades. During a later assault, 6 enemy soldiers gained a defiladed spot and began to throw grenades into the perimeter making it untenable. Realizing the desperate situation and disregarding his wound he rose from his foxhole to engage them with rifle fire. Although immediately hit by a burst from an enemy machine gun he continued to fire until he had killed the grenade throwers. With this threat eliminated he collapsed and despite being paralyzed from the waist down, encouraged his men to hold on. He refused all food, saving it for his comrades, and when it became apparent that help would not arrive in time to hold the position ordered his men to escape to friendly lines. Refusing evacuation as his hopeless condition would burden his comrades, he remained in his position and cheerfully wished them luck. Through his aggressive leadership and intrepid actions, this small force destroyed nearly 500 of the enemy before abandoning their position. Master Sergeant Watkins’ sustained personal bravery and noble self-sacrifice reflect the highest glory upon himself and is in keeping with the esteemed traditions of the U.S. Army.”

President Harry Truman presented the Medal of Honor to his widow, Madie Sue (Barnett) Watkins, on Jan. 8, 1951 at the White House. 

The return of a soldier coming home for burial is a powerful event. 

On April 23, 2012  Sergeant Tanner Stone Higgins made that journey. Much of the population of Sulphur Springs and Yantis lined the streets to give witness.

Higgins’ journey can yet be viewed at the site U.S.Fallen.org. The readership is encouraged to sit through the 10-minute video once, start to finish.

In the backdrop of the funeral procession is East Texas – schoolchildren, workers, folks who walked out to the road from their rural property, young, old, travelers who pulled-over out of respect, uniforms of all sorts, all of us. 

Sergeant Higgins was a highly-skilled Army Ranger. He was killed assaulting an enemy position in Afghanistan on April 14, 2012. The sacrifice he made, he made for all. It was as if he, himself, was filming all those people standing along the roadways. 

So what do these four men have in common?  As with most armies in the world, they shared youth.

Higgins was 23 at his death, McNabb 24 and Mays 25. The eldest of the group, Watkins, was 29 – an old hand among his troops. However, when he saw his first service on Guadalcanal during the Second World War, he was 22. In the history of the world it can be said that whole generations have been lost to war.

The four also likely shared a sense of purpose. If one has the opportunity to speak with young men and women of the armed forces one may notice the great sense of clarity which accompanies that purpose. 

Nurturing clarity of purpose is a foundation of military training. And it is remarkably effective. 

It is not indoctrination, nor is it mind-altering. It is, rather, a focus which can be summarized as being the best possible special operations combat medic (McNabb), or bomb tech (Mays), or Ranger (Higgins) or leader of men (Watkins) as is humanly possible. 

One mistake many in and out of uniform make when considering these servicemen and women is to focus on the accoutrements of service – emblems, uniforms, decorations and the like. Those that see primarily the accoutrements hold only a shallow grasp of what service means. 

All these trappings are impressive and may even evoke a sense of pride and in some cases awe. That’s not even close to the real story. 

What is truly awe-inspiring, what is truly timeless and honorable and, yes, loving, is to give oneself for others. 

There is no doubt that Shawn McNabb would love to be restoring that old  SS Monte Carlo that he intended to restore with his dad. But he, like his three brothers described here, is in another realm.  

These men were real. They went to school in Terrell (McNabb), Mount Pleasant (Mays), Sulphur Springs (Higgins), and Troup (Watkins). Their stories are not idealized constructs of Hollywood. They came from East Texas. They left behind Gold Star Families. They were, and are, ours. 

It’s Memorial Day, let’s honor them.