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José Pequeño

In Honor of Memorial Day, May 25, 2020
The Homecoming of José Pequeño

In 2006, José Pequeño, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, was serving in Iraq. While on patrol, he was gravely wounded when a suicide bomber exploded a grenade inside his vehicle. The driver was killed. A shard of hot steel from the exploded grenade entered from below Staff Sergeant Pequeño’s helmet, slicing off part of his brain, which was blown out of the Humvee onto the sand.

Today, José Pequeño is a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) patient being cared for by his mother, Nellie Bagley, and his sister, Elizabeth, in their home.

The doctors who treated José in Landstuhl, Germany, were sure he would die. José had lost about half his brain mass. One of the doctors called Nellie in the United States and told her, “Your son has a severe brain injury. He is not going to make it.” Nellie replied, “You can tell me my son has a brain injury, that his injury is tremendous, that my son may not make it. But you cannot tell me my son is going to die.”

This is the reply of a mother lion, leaning forward into harm’s way. She knows this is going to be a long hard road . . . and she is not afraid.

The first time Nellie and Elizabeth saw José after his injury, he was in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) at the naval hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. At Bethesda, Nellie and Elizabeth had only two minutes to see José for the first time. Nellie remembers those two minutes, saying, “When you walk into that room, you don’t know what to expect, and it’s nothing of what you expect. It’s worse. His head was swollen tremendously. He had tubes everywhere. His head was held by a metal frame. You could hardly find a place to touch him.”

Nellie put her hand through the metal frame and touched the top of his shoulder with two fingers. She whispered two words, “Mommy’s here.” Then Elizabeth reached through, too. In those two minutes, they vowed never, ever to leave him alone. “We love you, José. You’re a fighter, and we’re fighting with you. We will be by your side, day and night, until you come out of this.”

After these two minutes, Nellie said, “The whole thing just takes a piece from you, and it’s not ever going to come back,” Nellie says. “I could tell he was my son because I could see his eyes. But it was also like he wasn’t my son. That’s how bad he looked.”

Nellie and Elizabeth never broke their vow. They never went back home to New Hampshire. From that point on, they became very familiar with the interiors of VA hospitals, and whatever sleeping accommodations they could offer. Every day next to José, one or both of them always watched over him.

For many years since then, José has been treated for his injuries at many different hospitals, most recently at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, Florida, one of the best polytrauma units in the country. Nellie and Elizabeth have been with José, hospital after hospital, every day, every night.

Elizabeth got a job at the hospital, and that helped to pay expenses. Word of José and his family got around. Others stepped in to help. José needed to stay in Tampa, but Nellie couldn’t afford to buy a house. When Nellie and Elizabeth finally found one, it needed a lot of work, and the renovation would cost a lot of money.

This is when The American Legion stood up. The Legionnaires provided funding to help. Soon, about 150 contractors, plumbers, carpenters, electricians and other volunteers showed up to renovate the house.

With Florida Legionnaires working behind the scenes, donations for the new home began to arrive, including furniture, food, supplies, special equipment, even a Christmas tree, and decorations. City authorities waived standard requirements and fees for building permits.

In eight days, 150 workers performed a miracle. The volunteer crew never even drew up plans. They kept the blueprints in their heads as they remodeled the kitchen and laundry room, put in plumbing, painted the house, added all the trim, and put in floor tile. Landscapers worked in the pouring rain, planting trees, flowers, and shrubs. They installed outdoor lighting and put in new screens.

Nellie was amazed, “There’s a lot of angels here who have helped us. Some of them came out of nowhere. I don’t know how The American Legion found them, but they did. It’s a big circle, and we could not have done it without all their support.”
José looks at his family, and around at all the people who have cared for him. “I think he’s completely aware of what’s going on,” says Kimberly Bennett, a close family friend. “When his family’s around, he pays attention. He tracks the conversations of people around him. He may not be able to talk like you and I, but his eyes and face say a lot.”

Standing behind José’s wheelchair, Nellie leans over and gives her son a hug. At Bethesda, she was told that José would always be hooked up to a breathing machine. She would have to open his eyes in the morning and close them at night. “Two weeks after that conversation, the breathing machine was taken off my son. He has never used another one again. Two weeks and three days after that conversation, my son opened his eyes for the first time on his own.”

Elizabeth comes over and gives her brother a kiss. “I think my mother and I draw a lot of strength from my brother,” she says. “Because if he’s not giving up, there’s no way we would, and we’re not allowing him to, either. That’s how we’ve made it this far.”

These are the words of strength and resilience of two warrior women. Honor them. Every day is their day of remembrance. Every day is someone’s memorial day.

She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. — Proverbs 30:25