LAND O'LAKES — The grenade blasted him out the door of the Humvee. The soldier who had been sitting next to him was dead. Others thought Staff Sgt. Jose Pequeno was dead, too. Half of his skull was gone. But a medic cleared his airway and got him out of Iraq and to a hospital in Germany and then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
It happened on March 1, 2006. Pequeno, then 32 years old, was a police chief in New Hampshire and the father of three children. Before that, he had served as a Marine, and later, he had enlisted in the National Guard. He was handsome and loved motorcycles and skiing. He and his wife lived a few miles from his younger sister and his mother. The last time they heard his voice was in a message he left for his mother's birthday a week earlier. They still play it sometimes. They don't know whether they will ever hear him speak again.
His mother, Nelida Bagley, and his sister, Elizabeth Bagley, have been by his side since then — nearly three years of caretaking. Nelida and Elizabeth both put their lives on hold when Pequeno was injured. They quit their jobs, moved out of their homes, put their things into storage.
Pequeno was bounced among four East Coast hospitals for treatment, including the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.
Elizabeth got a job working in the canteen at James A. Haley about six months after her brother's injury, so she stayed here. She would work during the week, and then, if her brother was at another hospital, she would fly to see him and her mother on the weekends. Friends and medical staff have had to remind Elizabeth and her mother to eat and to sleep.
But it is that same vigilance that doctors say is the reason Pequeno is doing so well. Dr. Steve Scott, chief of the polytrauma unit at James A. Haley, said Pequeno's injury is one of the most severe — if not the most severe — of that of any survivor of this war.
"Love is better than any medicine," Scott said.
Pequeno has not had a bedsore since his mother was able to see him. He cannot talk or move, though his mother and his sister say that he communicates through facial expressions and sounds. For the past 33 months, his mother and his sister have had one goal: to get him home.
On Friday, that happened.
It is a rent-to-own house in Land O'Lakes. Contractors worked furiously to retrofit it to accommodate Pequeno — widening hallways, creating a new, huge shower, installing monitors so that Elizabeth and Nelida can keep an eye on Pequeno from another room. The money and the support came from the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, as well as many other organizations and persons.
Hundreds of people showed up to welcome Pequeno home. When they turned the corner to their street, Nelida nudged her son and told him to look at all of the motorcycles and flags, and his eyes opened wide. Nelida said they chose the Tampa area as their new home, for their new lives, because of the care at James A. Haley.
"They are like family," Nelida said.
Both mother and daughter aren't sure what will happen now. They have been living in hospital rooms and hotels and empty rentals owned by kind friends.
"I don't know," said Elizabeth, 24. Their next goal is for Pequeno to stay infection-free for one year, so that he can have surgery to replace part of his skull. This will give his brain more room to heal.
As Pequeno sat in his wheelchair, throngs of people lined up to greet him. They kept saying, over and over again, with their hands on their hearts or covering Pequeno's hands, their eyes glued to his face:
Thank you for everything you've done for us.
Welcome home, Jose.
And Pequeno looked at his sister, who had her hand on the back of his neck. They do have a subtle language they understand. He looked as if he might cry.
"Don't," she said softly. "You can't get emotional, too."
He kept looking.
"I know," she said, leaning close. "It's a lot to take in. I know."
His eldest daughter, Mercedes, is now 13 and is tall and pencil-thin, with dark hair and grey eyes. She lives in Maine with her mother — Pequeno's first wife — but visits often. Pequeno's current wife is still in New Hampshire with their two young children.
When Mercedes calls her dad, her aunt or her grandmother puts the phone next to her dad so that she can tell him about her day. She says it was hard in the beginning, but now she's used to it.
She sat on a chair beside her dad and put her arms around him.
"Are you happy to be home, Daddy?" she said and kissed his cheek. "I love you."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4609.