August 21, 2007
A Soldier's Mother On Her Own Mission
By Kimberly Dozier (a CBS News correspondent based in Washington)
Remember that tough, unstoppable biker lady Cher played a few years back
in the movie ‘Mask?’
That’s Debbie Higgins, at least in attitude. And love of bikes. And love for her whole family, especially her eldest son, Lance Corporal James Higgins Jr. The Marine was killed just over a year ago by a single sniper round, in Fallujah.
Her life now revolves around one thing: making his last wish come true, as he described it to her in their last phone call: to build a war memorial for all the Americans killed in action, since the end of the Vietnam War.
He was angry that no major memorial had yet been built to honor all those killed in the first Gulf War, or the invasion of Afghanistan, or all the other police actions or peacekeeping missions in between.
“They should not have to wait, Mom,” he told her. He said: “This is my mark in history, Mom. This is what I need to do.”
The phone call hadn’t started out so serious. Mom and son had been arranging his flights home to Baltimore from California, where he’d shortly be flying for out-processing after his tour in Iraq. Debbie was planning to dig into her savings and treat him to a first-class ticket home – a reward for him, after flying cattle class, military-style all the way back from Iraq.
But James started talking about the buddies he’d lost. In the hours he’d had to think about them during patrols, he’d come up with a plan: a way to remember them for all time.
He’d always been a patriot of the rarest order – for years, he’d talked about wanting to be the first U.S. president who’d fought on the front lines. He started young. For his 11th birthday, all he wanted was an American flag. Then each morning, at 6am, to the neighbors’ initial horror, he would blast reveille from his boom box, and raise it. Eventually, the neighbors grew to like it. Those who complained learned to be quiet, because that just made young James play reveille louder. He didn’t just do it for a week, or a month. Once he started, he was committed for life.
And that’s how he viewed what he called his new mission: making this memorial a reality.
In a three-and-a-half-hour conversation on July 23rd, 2006, he described to his mom what it would look like. She sketched it out, from a walkway leading up to it, with lifelike statues of those who were meant to visit it – an amputee in a wheelchair, a wife holding the hand of a child.
The memorial itself would consist of five granite walls, one for each branch of the military, each engraved with the names of the dead.
At the end of the conversation, he made his mom promise: “If anything happens to me, you’ll build it for me, right, mom?” She promised.
A couple days later, one of his platoon leaders offered him a battlefield promotion – a jump up a rank – if he took lead truck on one last mission. Marines or soldiers about to go home are not supposed to go into the field during those last couple of days of ‘out-processing,’ as it’s sometimes called. But James did.
At one of the stops, they’d dismounted from their humvees, and a shot rang out. The bullet hit just at the arm opening of James’ flak jacket, and ricocheted inside. They rushed him to a combat surgical outpost, and the surgeon was able to restart his heart, for a moment. James’ blue eyes flew open, fixed the doctor with a stare, and he said, “I need more air.” With that, his heart gave out.
Two Marines in dress uniforms delivered the news to a disbelieving Debbie. Her son was coming home. It could not be.
Since then, she has kept his room almost like a shrine – his flags, his pilot license he got before he reached his teens, and all the quilts she was sent to honor her loss.
And she has worked to build the memorial. With advice from Senator Barbara Mikulski’s office, she’s gathered 121 signatures from congressmen and senators to sign off on building a memorial. She’s incorporated the effort as a charity, and sold off some of the trucks from her trucking business to pay for the initial architect designs. She’s also invested much of James’ own money – the life insurance and solatia payments from the U.S. military.
She looked into building it on the Washington, D.C., mall, near the Vietnam War memorial, but could not afford the price tag. “The government doesn’t give that stuff away cheap, even for a memorial,” she said. So the cemetery where James is buried, in Frederick, Maryland – a short distance away from the civil war battlefield of Gettysburg – has donated a plot of land.
Even so, Debbie still needs $17 million dollars to build the memorial, and thus far she’s only raised about three thousand.
On July 28th, one day after the one-year anniversary of his death, Debbie kicked off what she intends to make an annual motorcycle ride in the rolling hills of Maryland, to raise money. She also raffled off a Harley Davidson she’d bought with her own money. She sold tickets for it at $25 each, but she didn’t sell enough, so she told us she didn’t think she’d break even, much less raise money that day.
But she is undaunted. Lessons learned, she’s planning for next year. “If I don’t pick up and carry out his dream,” she says, “then I’m letting him down and I can’t do that. I refuse to do that as a mother.”