At Chief Jose Pequeno’s welcome back party, current Sugar Hill Police Chief David Wentworth informed the crowd that Pequeno “will always be my chief.” Two of Chief Pequeno’s children, son Gaige and daughter Alex, are also in the photo. Darin Wipperman/The Littleton Courier. (click for larger version)
January 09, 2013SUGAR HILL — Friends and colleagues of Former Sugar Hill Police Chief Jose Pequeno provided an emotional reunion on December 28. The Chief, seriously wounded in Iraq nearly seven years ago, was praised for his service, courage, and devotion to people.
A former Marine, Pequeno deployed to Iraq after joining the New Hampshire National Guard. He was wounded in action in Ramadi, Iraq, on March 1, 2006. He suffered a traumatic brain injury when a hand grenade was thrown into his Humvee. The blast killed a member of the Vermont National Guard and wounded another soldier.
Jennifer Gaudette, town Administrative Assistant, says she views Pequeno like a son. She said that Pequeno's smile and devotion to people were great assets to the residents of Sugar Hill.
Pequeno receives 24/7 medical care at a home in Land O' Lakes, Florida. At Friday's ceremony, Pequeno's mother, Nellie Bagley, said, "He is fighting. He has always been a fighter."
The chief's return to New Hampshire began aboard a plane that landed in Concord. One person who met Pequeno there was Jonathan Evans. The two men served together in Iraq. As with the event in Sugar Hill, the Concord reunion was very emotional for all involved.
Evans informed the Concord Monitor that Pequeno was a model soldier, who always got things done.
The Sugar Hill welcome home ceremony was originally slated for December 27, but was pushed back a day because of the season's first big snowstorm. Dozens showed up at the town hall on the 28th.
Pequeno received an award from Margo Connors, Chairperson of the Sugar Hill Board of Selectmen. The plaque expresses "appreciation for your service to the town of Sugar Hill." Pequeno spent time with the Lisbon and Lincoln police departments before becoming chief in Sugar Hill. At the time he was not yet 30 years old, the youngest police chief in the state.
He graduated from Berlin High School in 1992. His grandfather, Robert Bagley served as police chief in Gorham.
Officers from several jurisdictions were part of Pequeno's welcome home. The towns of Lisbon, Bethlehem, Franconia, Campton, Woodstock, Derry, and officers from State Police Troop F came to see their colleague.
Current Sugar Hill Police Chief David Wentworth spoke for all officers present. He said that Pequeno's former call sign was retired "in honor of the Chief." Wentworth continued by saying that Pequeno is "always going to be my Chief."
Ed Garone was on hand to represent the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. Garone, the chief in Derry, presented Pequeno a lifetime membership in the organization.
Bagley said that her son was moved by all of the kind words. After Garone presented his award, she said, "Thank you so much, sir. It means a lot. We will cherish that."
Individuals took time to speak to Pequeno, who showed emotion during several parts of his welcome home. Wentworth said to his chief, "Thanks for coming over. Glad to have you back."
Gaudette had a private moment with Pequeno. During his time as chief, Gaudette sat next to him.
Bagley said that Pequeno's tears started recently. This is a sign that he remembers the people and towns he served, she said.
Bagley said that the family wants to balance the desire for privacy with visiting those who have shown so much interest in Pequeno's progress. "This is his home," she said when discussing the North Country. "There are a lot of people who care here."
Members of Pequeno's Academy class were on hand to express their admiration for his mentoring and leadership skills.
All who praised Pequeno during his welcome home found him to be a great people person. Always willing to help and sporting an infectious smile, Pequeno clearly made his mark well beyond the beautiful town he protected as chief.
The welcome home event included a photograph that many consider a great picture of Pequeno. He is sitting at his desk on the phone, with his memorable big smile.
Bagley said that Pequeno has five days of therapy weekly, including two days of pool therapy and three days of speech therapy. "His progress is amazing," Bagley said.
Bagley said that his therapy includes talking to him. "We don't let him forget his past," she said.
"We try to give Jose a life that is normal," Bagley continued. This includes going to movies and parks down in Florida. "We keep him busy constantly," she said.
Pequeno was scheduled to visit Lincoln later in his visit. Plans included time at New England Disabled Sports for some skiing at Loon.
Bagley said that such activities help family focus on matters other than why Pequeno was injured. That is something that no one will be able to answer, she said. Keeping positive memories is the key to dealing with the emotions caused by Pequeno's injuries, Bagley concluded.
The tragic wounding of Pequeno led to the formation of a special entity in our region. The North Country Public Safety Foundation was formed to benefit area public safety officers in time of need. Allan Clark, Sugar Hill's Fire Chief, serves as the organization's President.
Helping Pequeno and his family has been a leading cause for the organization. It has raised more than $1 million. About $300,000 was spent to build Pequeno and his family a new house in Lisbon. This was part of the foundation's "Bring Jose Home" project.
Funds have also been raised to support the family of Corporal Bruce McKay. He was a Franconia police officer killed in the line of duty.
Even though heartbroken by Pequeno's wounds, those who attended his welcome home smiled and laughed as they remembered their friend's service to Sugar Hill and the country. Pequeno's legacy, a person who serves readily and cares deeply, will be reflected in the hearts, smiles, and tears of an appreciative North Country.