The Homecoming of José Pequeño

Call it a mother's intuition.

When a doctor told Nellie Bagley, over the phone, that her son José was going to die from a severe brain injury, she told the doctor he was lying. That moment of a mother's unbending hope and faith marked the beginning of a son's remarkable struggle to survive, to live. To get back home.

Nellie sits in a chair in a hospital room, watching a physical therapist working on her son's hand muscles. His eyes dart between the therapist, other visitors, and his mother. She smiles at him with eyes that reflect joy and weariness. She hasn't slept in her own home for almost three years.

While José moans a complaint at the therapist, Nellie remembers that frozen piece of time in her mind when she got the news from overseas that her loving son was no longer the same. "It's one of those feelings that you get," she says. "I got home from work about 7 o'clock in the morning. I couldn't sleep. I was very anxious." She got on the Internet to write her son, but the link was shut down. That's normal procedure when bad things happen.

Nellie was sitting in a recliner, wide awake, when the phone rang. A voice from far away told her José had been hurt.

He is in transit to surgery. They're working on him right now. Trying to stabilize. Can't give you any more details.

"A phone call like that, it takes a piece of you away," Nellie says. "You are thousands of miles away. I felt absolutely helpless, like I had abandoned him." Her voice cracks as José, twisting a bit in his wheelchair, complains to the therapist again. "I wasn't there by his side to tell him that he was going to be OK."

She remembers calling her daughter, Elizabeth, who rushed over to find out what happened to her brother. Nellie could only offer two words: "He's hurt." That's all she knew. They held each other and cried together, and waited. Four hours passed, the longest four hours of Nellie's life. "Not knowing what had happened, how bad it was, so you imagine the worst, which - with him - it was." So many things came to her mind, all pushed away by the most important thing: Is José going to make it? The future of their family stood at the other side of that question.

Nearly 36 months later, Elizabeth sits near her mother and watches José. The James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, Fla., has been her brother's home for the most recent wave of treatments. Elizabeth and Nellie have been with him, hospital after hospital, every day, every night.

Finally, as Christmas nears, José finally gets to go home. Elizabeth knows the change will help her brother get better. "I don't care who you are, being in a hospital for almost three years, that is a hard thing to handle, day in and day out. We've worked very hard and we've dreamed of this, to get him stable enough and well enough to come home. And it's finally happening."

Elizabeth idolizes José, her hero. "My brother has done amazing things, and he's definitely a tough cookie. When my parents got divorced, he became my father, the man of the house. He took me under his wing like a father would do. And, through the years, he became my best friend."

He gave her advice. They joked together. Whenever Elizabeth needed something, she called José. He was her guiding light and her source of stability.

Nellie and Elizabeth wave goodbye to José as he is wheeled down the hall to a speech-therapy room. The daughter reaches out and takes her mother's hand. Nellie shouts some encouraging words to her son and recalls the first time he wanted to join the Marine Corps. One afternoon, the 17-year-old came home and said, "Mom, I have someone I want you to meet." Nellie looked out the door and saw a Marine recruiter standing there. "I looked at him and said, ‘No, thank you,' and I shut the door in his face."

José stared at his mother. She'd never shut the door in anyone's face. He pleaded with her: Daddy is a Marine, Grandpa was a Marine. I want to be a Marine, too. Please, Mom, I want to have your blessing. Slowly, Nellie relented and let the recruiter inside. They talked. "If something ever happens to my son," she told him, "I'm coming after you. I will sign these papers, but I promise I'll hunt you down wherever you are."

The recruiter said, "Ma'am, I'll do all that is in my power to keep him safe."

She signed the papers, and gave José a hug and a kiss. All he wanted was to be a Marine.

The hospital room is quiet now. Nellie cries. "When my son got hurt, that recruiter found me. He wasn't in the Marines any longer, but he heard of José's injury, and he found me. He came to the hospital and gave me a hug with tears in his eyes. And he said, ‘I am so sorry that I wasn't there.' And I told him he had nothing to do with it. José was doing what he loved."

She reaches for some tissues. "It's been a very emotional week. A very happy week."

The first time Nellie and Elizabeth saw José after the injury, he was in the intensive care unit at the naval hospital in Bethesda, Md. He'd been blown out of his Humvee by an IED explosion while on patrol in Iraq. He lost about half his brain mass. The doctors treating him in Landstuhl, Germany, were sure he would die. One of them called Nellie in the United States and told her so. Your son has a severe brain injury. He is not going to make it.

Nellie called him a liar. "I said, ‘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.'" Shouting and cursing into the phone, Nellie told the doctor to go back to her son, do whatever he had to do, and send him back home to her.

At Bethesda, Nellie and Elizabeth had only two minutes to see José that first time. "When you walk into that room, you don't know what to expect," Nellie says. "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 that 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.

"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, the women became very familiar with the interiors of VA hospitals and whatever sleeping accommodations they could offer. Everything from a nearby Fisher House to a reclining chair next to José. Always, one or both of them watched over him.

They paid their bills and bought food with the $52 per diem they got from the government. They ate a lot of noodles, and macaroni and cheese. When José was medically discharged, the stipend went away and things became a bit dicey. Hospital staff began to slip them meals. Friends stepped in to help, but paying the monthly cell-phone bill became a matter of real concern. When they brought José to Tampa last year, Elizabeth got a job with the hospital, and that helped. Word of José and his family got around. Others stepped in to help. The VA medical center took great care of José; it is one of the best polytrauma units in the country.

It was clear that José needed to stay in Tampa, so Nellie started looking for a house. She couldn't afford to buy one; she couldn't even ask for a loan. They had to find a rental property, owned by someone who would allow dramatic modifications: ramps, wider doors and a bigger shower. Nellie and Elizabeth finally found a house in Land O' Lakes, not far from Tampa. But a lot of work needed to be done, and it would cost a lot of money to do it right.

Enter The American Legion. Specifically, the Department of Florida. Through its connections, and through the Legion's Heroes to Hometowns program, some funding was provided to help move things along. Very soon after, 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: furniture, food, supplies, special equipment - even a Christmas tree and decorations. City authorities waived standard requirements for building permits, and, only eight days after the renovation began, the family had a beautiful new home ready for José.

In eight days, 150 workers performed nothing less than 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 screening.

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."

Elizabeth sits at a table in the screened enclosure of their new home. It is her final calm before the joyous storm of her brother's homecoming. "We haven't had much time to relax lately, but it's so nice just to come here. It's peaceful. It's a beautiful house." She stares across the back yard into thick woods just beyond a low fence. No amount of gratitude, she says, can truly thank all the people who helped. "A part of us will always belong to them, because they helped us get my brother home.

"You just don't realize how much effort it takes. There's so many little details that The American Legion took care of, and they sponsored my brother for Heroes to Hometowns. We never would have had anything without that, because nobody would've known. The American Legion, they really did a wonderful thing. They were the backbone, and they're still my backbone."

 

Dec. 19, 2008: A message board in José's room reads, "Go Home Today!" Vince Conti, retired Army sergeant major, gives José his final haircut at the VA center. He used to lead wounded troops at the hospital in formation drills, including José. "One day, they brought him in, and he was sleeping," Conti says. "And I shouted, ‘Pequeño! There is no sleeping in my formation!' Well, he opened his eyes up, big as quarters, and he looked right at me. So he must have been able to hear me."

About an hour after the haircut, Vince drives José and his family (including daughter Mercedes) home in a big, white van. The street is lined by American Legion Riders and other patriots, their motorcycles, and American flags. As José's family takes him inside the house, applause erupts from about 300 people gathered to welcome him home. A barbecue in his honor features H2H Barbecue Sauce. Visitors line up in the back yard to spend a few private moments with their hero. They thank him for his sacrifice. They encourage him to keep fighting. Get better, José. We're all praying for you.

Between hugs and kisses from Nellie, Elizabeth and Mercedes, José looks around at all the people who have come here to honor 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. And 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 his 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 the way we look at it. It's a big cycle and it just keeps going. That's how we've made it this far."

 

Philip M. Callaghan is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.

 

 

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