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Pequeno featured in Memorial Day broadcast

Part of former Sugar Hill police chief's family highlighted in show

May 28, 2009
WASHINGTON, D.C.–New Hampshire's most critically wounded veteran, Jose Pequeno, of Lisbon, was center stage Sunday night, featured during a nationally televised Memorial Day concert and also received a commendation from Gov. John Lynch.

Pequeno was wounded over two years ago in Ar-Ramadi, Iraq when a grenade was thrown into his Humvee. The driver of the vehicle, a member of the Vermont National Guard, was killed and Pequeno was half thrown from the vehicle. He lost the lower two lobes of his brain in the attack, doctors said.

Pequeno was the Sugar Hill police chief when he deployed on Mother's Day 2005.

Also central to the concert shown on PBS was the story of Pequeno's mother, Nellie Bagley and his sister, Elizabeth, who have been at his side since he was wounded in Iraq more than three years ago. The two were portrayed by actresses Dianne Wiest and Katie Holmes, respectively. They spoke of hearing the news Jose was wounded and how they were determined never to leave his side.

Meanwhile, back home in Lisbon, Jose's wife, Kelley Pequeno said Thursday she was hoping their two children, Alexandria, 12, and Gaige, 11, would not be forgotten during the segment on Jose. He also has another daughter, Mercedes, from a previous marriage. She lives in Maine with his first wife.

The only mention of his family was a brief comment by Wiest, portraying Nellie, that Jose was so badly injured that it would be impossible for his wife, who had two small children to care for, to take care of Jose. Neither Kelley nor the children were mentioned by name.

Kelley said last week sometimes she gets angry at how she and the children get overlooked, as if she abandoned Jose. She said she spent the first five months after he was wounded at his side at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before returning to her children in July 2006, visiting as often as possible after that, she said. Rifts developed between her and her in-laws over where Jose should be and how he should be taken of. The Bagleys tried to get custody of Jose. They failed and a court appointed a guardian, ordering Kelley to return to Lisbon to take care of their children in August 2007.

Currently Jose lives in a house in Florida with his mother and sister. Kelley said she pays them $1,000 a month out of Jose's disability check.

Kelley said she sent the children to visit Jose for two-and-a-half weeks in February and another week in April but she didn't go.

"The three of us [Kelley, Nellie and Elizabeth] in a room would not be pretty," Kelley said.

Jose's replacement as Sugar Hill's police chief, Dave Wentworth, said he has noticed the lack of mention of Jose's children in the media and by Jose's caretakers.

"That's wrong because he was so proud of those kids," Wentworth said.

Producer Jerry Colbert said it was not his purpose to neglect neither Kelley nor the Pequeno children.

"It's only a six minute segment, we have to concentrate on one thing," Colbert said. He said by focusing on Nellie and Elizabeth he was showing the impact the war is having not just on the wounded but on their families. Many of these wounded are being taken care of by their parents, he said. The story of Nellie and Elizabeth can serve as inspiration for other families out there in similar situations.

Colbert said Jose's story came to his attention through people who had observed Jose and his family at VA hospitals and noted the severity of his wounds.

"Many of the people wounded in today's wars wouldn't have survived in previous wars such as World War II or Vietnam," Colbert said. Jose is one of the most severely wounded men to return from Iraq, Colbert said.

In the introduction leading up to the segment on Jose, the concert's host, actor Gary Sinise, noted that with current medical advances, a soldier has a 96 percent chance of living if he enters a field hospital still breathing.

"Survival doesn't guarantee recovery," Sinise said. He noted the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have been called wars of disability.

In the private ceremony after the concert, New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice John Broderick, a neighbor of Colbert's on Cape Cod, presented the commendation from Lynch.

"Sgt. Pequeno's story humbles all who hear it," Broderick said. "And it should instill in all of us a fierce commitment to remember and honor not only his sacrifice but also the incredible courage and integrity of his daily struggles."

Martin Lord Osman
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