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Former police chief Jose Pequeno, injured in Iraq, comes home

Members of the Nam Knights of America Motorcycle Club and NH National Guardsmen pose with former Sugar Hill Police
Chief Jose Pequeno. Pequeno was flown into Company C, 3rd Battalion, 238th Aviation Regiment in Concord by volunteer pilots from his residence in Florida to spend the Holidays with his family in NH. Pequeno was severely wounded in Iraq In 2006 while deployed with NH's 237th Military Police Company. On March 1st 2006 an insurgent lobbed a grenade into Pequeno's Humvee while he was calling in a series of explosions near his observation post.

Members of the Nam Knights of America Motorcycle Club and NH National Guardsmen pose with former Sugar Hill Police Chief Jose Pequeno. Pequeno was flown into Company C, 3rd Battalion, 238th Aviation Regiment in Concord by volunteer pilots from his residence in Florida to spend the Holidays with his family in NH. Pequeno was severely wounded in Iraq In 2006 while deployed with NH's 237th Military Police Company. On March 1st 2006 an insurgent lobbed a grenade into Pequeno's Humvee while he was calling in a series of explosions near his observation post. Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

Iron Mike and Rhino never saw it coming.

They never figured Jose Pequeno, the former Sugar Hill police chief, would react as he did Friday at the Concord airport. Hadn’t that brain injury Pequeno suffered in Iraq pushed him into a world of darkness? Hadn’t that grenade tossed into his humvee nearly seven years ago wiped clean his memories, his emotions, his very identity?

That’s what people like Iron Mike and Rhino, along with the others with the rugged nicknames and the biker jackets and the barrel chests, thought when they greeted Pequeno on his trip home for Christmas.

Instead, Pequeno cried.

So the tough guys did, too.

“I saw him shortly after he came home from Iraq, and he was still in and out of surgery back then, in real rough shape,” said Iron Mike, whose real name is Mike Dempsey. “It’s very personal, but I feel as if he recognizes who we are now. When we talked to him, you could see his eyes light up and his face light up. To me, that tells

me that he recognizes the voice, that he gets excited and makes it known through his own way.”

Dempsey is a 51-year-old former Marine with a gravely voice and a passion for motorcycles. He rode with Pequeno’s father in the Nam Knights of America, a philanthropic organization of retired law enforcement officers and military veterans. They raise money, and they roll out the red carpet for people like Pequeno.

Four Nam Knights joined hands to lower Pequeno down the stairs, off a plane flown by a volunteer pilot from Land O’ Lakes, Fla., where Pequeno is now being cared for by his mother and sister. His wife and three kids still live here, in the small North Country town of Lisbon.

Access to Pequeno’s inner circle was hard, as those involved fiercely guarded his privacy. You could see it in their eyes when you met them, and you could hear it in their voices when you called them. Immediate family members, Pequeno’s mother and sister, who care for him, and his wife were off limits.

That’s why only a select few have been invited to sit with Pequeno tomorrow, in his old office at the Carolina Crapo Memorial Building in Sugar Hill. One is Jonathan Evans, a 57-year-old cop in Hill. He was Pequeno’s staff sergeant when he got the call to choose six guardsmen for duty in Iraq. Pequeno, Evans said, was an easy choice.

“He was my go-to guy,” said Evans, who spent 37 years in the military. “If I needed something done, Sgt. Pequeno was always the best instructor I could choose. Once I told Jose Pequeno I need this done, I knew it would get done. There were three young men going, and I felt confident he would take care of the young guys, and he did.”

Pequeno was 32 on March 1, 2006, the day that grenade landed near him. The blast damaged almost half his brain, leaving him in a coma, with life as he’d known it, as a cop in a small town, as a father, as a husband, gone.

Evans would serve in Iraq later that year, but he was home asleep, at 3 a.m., when Pequeno’s father called him with vague news.

Something about an explosion. Something about injuries. Something about Jose.

“I’ve been in the military since Vietnam,” Evans said, “and this is the one that sticks with me over everything else.”

Evans sought counseling after returning from Iraq. Only recently has he learned where those claustrophobic feelings were coming from.

He had visited Pequeno in a VA outside of Boston, one of many stops Pequeno made during this journey since the explosion. Evans saw a friend who was unresponsive and distant, and he stored that memory away, deep and buried, where maybe it couldn’t hurt him.

But he was wrong.

“Somehow it developed in Iraq and I had been dealing with it, and I kind of discovered that perhaps it was because I saw Jose in that body,” Evans said. “I was upset I had lost contact with him and wasn’t able to find out what he had been doing lately.”

Then came the news about Friday’s flight to Concord and a visit to family up north. There, in Sugar Hill, Brenda Aldrich owns Haman’s Country Store, across the main drag from Pequeno’s old office. In a town this small, she used to see the former police chief nearly every day.

“Nice young man, great smile,” Aldrich said. “That’s what I remember. Such a young man, with so much ahead of him.”

The town’s fire chief of 10 years was spotted in front of the local meetinghouse on Christmas Eve. Allan Clark didn’t want to look back to that dark day, saying, “I’m not going to rehash what happened.”

He said Pequeno will visit his old office tomorrow, adding that he’s staying at a nearby inn. He also said the town made a promise to Pequeno’s wife and children.

“If the family needed anything, we would take care of it,” Clark said. “And we did.”

They raised $300,000 to build a handicap-accessible home in Lisbon, which is where Pequeno’s wife, Kelley, and the couple’s three children now live. They also created the North Country Public Safety Foundation, which gives money to families of emergency personnel killed in the kine of duty. More than $1 million has been raised.

“The medic who saved Jose’s life wondered if it was a good idea,” Clark said. “But if he’d seen the good that’s come from the foundation, there’s no question he would have thought it was the right thing to do.”

Clark saw Pequeno six months after the attack, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He wouldn’t comment on Pequeno’s condition then, saying instead, “My understanding is his mental capacity has improved. It will be interesting to see what he’s like.”

People named Rhino and Iron Mike have seen him. They were at the airport, along with other police officers and motorcycle club members and veterans.

“It’s all about respect and honor for a veteran,” Iron Mike said. “I put it on the network to my local law enforcement and motorcycle friends, anyone who could get away in the middle of the day that would like to greet him. We had quite a group of people show up.”

Evans was first inside the plane. He didn’t expect much when he shouted, “Hey, Jose, it’s me, Sgt. Evans. Wake up.”

Pequeno fidgeted with enthusiasm. He moaned to show Evans he knew who he was. He squeezed his hand, then he cried.

And the tough guys teared up as well.

“He caught me off guard,” Evans said. “I just wanted to see him, give him comfort and talk. My connection with him was when he acknowledged me. He knew.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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