Marine mom in need

Friday, April 9, 2004
Charles Bigham Jr., 7, looked at the World War II memorial at Freedom Corner in Cape Girardeau's Capaha Park on Thursday. His father, Lance Cpl. Charles E. Bigham, is recovering from injuries he sustained in Iraq. At rear, Charles' grandmother, Mary Reynolds, spoke about her injured son.

Chomping on gum and wearing a navy blue USA T-shirt, Charles Bigham Jr. examines the monuments at Freedom Corner at Capaha Park in Cape Girardeau. His grandfather, John Reynolds, a union bricklayer, helped restore these columns a few years ago. But as the 7-year-old runs his fingers over the raised names of soldiers killed in World War II, his mind is on a modern-day soldier: his father.

Lance Cpl. Charles Bigham is in a Naval hospital bed in Bethesda, Md., recovering from wounds sustained just over a week ago while serving as a military policeman in Iraq.

His grandmother, Mary Reynolds, admires Charlie Jr. from a few yards away.

"Almost losing big Charlie, I want to keep a closer eye on little Charlie," she says. "It's a mother thing."

Mary Reynolds yearns to be at his side. Now, thanks to the efforts of a close friend and the generosity of some local strangers, she may soon fulfill that desire.

On March 30, Mary Reynolds received a phone call that made the 7,000 miles between her house in Whitewater, Mo., and Iraq seem like light years. Her son Charles, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, was hit by a fragment grenade during a gunfight in Iraq. That's all they could really tell her. Knowing only that her son was seriously wounded, a combined sense of fear and helplessness took hold of her.

"She called me several times in that 24 hours," recalled family friend Jennifer Cabaniss, a former co-worker of Reynolds. "She was devastated. She just kept asking me to pray for him."

Praying was about all the family could do in that first 24 hours. Finally, Reynolds received word that her son was in stable condition and being flown to a stateside military hospital. She talked to him by phone when he arrived in Maryland Saturday.

"He kept telling me everything was all right and not to worry," Reynolds said. But she felt something behind those words. She feared the worst and decided she wanted to be at his bedside. Unfortunately, she didn't have enough money to drive, let alone fly. A plane ticket to Maryland alone would cost $1,200.

"There is no way she could have afforded to get there on her own," Cabaniss said. "I would have given it to her, but I don't have it either."

Cabaniss knew Mary was too shy and too proud to solicit help, so she started calling local charities and organizations. The initial responses were cold.

"I actually had one organization tell me that he would have to be dead or dying for them to pay for the trip," Cabaniss said. "There was nothing, no help."

Meanwhile, Charles Bigham Sr. was recovering from seven hours of reconstructive surgery. As she later found out, Reynolds' initial maternal instincts were right. The grenade crushed much of the left side of her son's face. Surgeons had to reconstruct the orbit and tear duct of his left eye and install pins and a metal plate in the left side of his face. They also removed shrapnel from his left arm. What he was hiding from his mom for her own protection, he divulged to her sister, Claudia.

"Claudia said that he told her blood flowed from his face like it was water being poured out of a cup," Mary Reynolds said. John Reynolds said Charles Bigham Sr.'s wife, Jennifer, later compared his appearance to Sylvester Stallone's battered, bloody and bruised face at the end of a Rocky movie.

In the actionThis was Bigham's second tour in Iraq. The 27-year-old volunteered to go back, just as he volunteered to go to Kosovo at the height of tensions. He did so for the same reason he transferred to his current home base at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He wanted to be where the action was.

"He says, 'Mom, that's what I'm here for,'" Mary Reynolds said. "Once a Marine, always a Marine."

It should then come as no surprise to Mary Reynolds that one of the first people to respond to Cabaniss' plea for transportation help was a former Marine.

William Walker is a Cape Girardeau Marine who served in Vietnam. When Cabaniss called the local VFW Post 3838, it set in motion a series of phone calls that eventually led to Walker. When Walker heard of Mary's plight, he said there was no doubt in his mind that one way or another she was going to see her son.

As both junior vice commander of the VFW and past commandant of the area's Cpl. Mason O. Yarbrough Detachment of the Marine Corps League, Walker was in a unique position to coordinate efforts between the two organizations.

As a result of those efforts, the VFW and the Marine Corps League contributed $500 each to get Mary Reynolds on a plane to Bethesda. Furthermore, after hearing about Mary Reynolds' circumstances, American Airlines offered her a reduced rate of $465 for a round-trip ticket.

She hasn't left yet because her son has made such a rapid recovery he now is slated to be discharged from the hospital today or Saturday. She was afraid that if she ran to his side now, she might be stuck in Maryland.

"His recovery is a miracle," his mother exclaims. "But, I kind of regret not going to Maryland. If I did, I'd be there now."

Now she hopes to use the money donated to visit her son at his home base in North Carolina.Walker of the Marine Corps League and VFW says that's fine with him.

"If she wants to get there, we'll get her there," he says.

"I need to see my son. I need to see for myself that he's all right," Reynolds says. "It's a mother thing."

trehagen@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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