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The Ombudsman Column

Remembering Veterans . . . and Their Families

Last Sunday evening, May 24, the annual National Memorial Day Concert from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., was broadcast live to the nation on PBS. It was the 20th anniversary of this 90-minute musical, dramatic and patriotic remembrance for those who have served, have given their lives to fight this country's battles, or have been wounded in those battles.

This year's program, noting that in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan almost 5,000 American servicemen and women have died and at least 34,000 have been wounded, also paid special tribute to the families who are left behind to grieve, or to care for those who need it. The program, produced by Capital Concerts Inc. under Executive Producer Jerry Colbert, is always among PBS's most popular and widely viewed offerings.

As usual, most of those who wrote to me about the concert were stirred by it and grateful for being able to share in it. Many of the e-mails printed below reflect that. There were also some critical comments. Some of those are roughly similar to ones that have come in previous years having to do, for example, with the dress or demeanor of one or two of the performers, or not enough focus on Korean War vets. A few others question whether the tone or message the program conveys is the right one.

An Eye-Catching E-Mail

But sometimes viewer comments go beyond what one might consider the inevitable shortcomings of any 90-minute live commemorative presentation, even one that is extremely popular. And that is what happened this year.

The first letter printed below is from a viewer in New Hampshire who wrote after having seen a segment of the program devoted to telling the story of Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Jose Pequeno, who suffered a devastating and traumatic brain injury and nearly died in March 2006 when the Humvee he was riding in came under attack in the Iraqi city of Ramadi.

First, a bit of explanation. The sergeant was not expected to live and the story of his battle to survive and the extraordinary care and devotion that he is receiving in that battle from his mother and sister in Florida was dramatized on the program by two major actresses — Dianne Wiest and Katie Holmes, who played the role of the wounded soldier's mother, Nellie Bagley, and sister, Elizabeth, respectively. This was a very powerful and riveting segment; it seemed to me also to be among the longest on the program. And cameras frequently also focused on Sgt. Pequeno, head back in his wheelchair, in the audience with his mother and sister holding on to him.

Here's the letter that caught my eye:

"I was unprepared and thus shocked to see our former police chief, Jose Pequeno, featured on the National Memorial Day Concert. I was equally astonished to listen to the story presented about his family, which was incomplete at best, since his wife and three children were left out. Omitted was the fact that the Town of Sugar Hill and its residents, who love Jose, rallied around his wife Kelley and their three children (who were not even mentioned by name in the piece). Funds were raised to construct a fully accessible house for Jose to come home to and for his family to live in; the house was built and is ready for him. Perhaps this part of the story would have detracted from the theme of sacrifice presented by his mother and sister? Not a fair or full representation."

Nancy Martland, Sugar Hill, NH

'Everybody Here Is a Jose Lover'

In looking into this, I found several things. One is that Sgt. Pequeno, 35, is an extraordinary and very popular man. He was born in New Orleans to Puerto Rican and Cuban parents but grew up in the northern part of New Hampshire. He was in the Marines before he signed up with the National Guard and then volunteered to go to Iraq. He was a local hero in New Hampshire many years earlier when he dove into the Lost River to save an 18-month-old girl who had fallen in. In 2001, he became the police chief of Sugar Hill. "Everybody here is a Jose lover," said a Sugar Hill resident on a New Hampshire Public Radio broadcast about him in April 2006.

The reason she said that is the same reason that the letter-writer above cited. That small town of about 600 residents raised about $30,000 to build a new house in Lisbon, N.H., designed for wheelchair accessibility, for Jose, his wife and his three children, one by a previous marriage. In addition, the state Police Chief's Association agreed to furnish the new home, and site work, foundation, electrical work and septic system had all been donated by local businesses. The Concord Monitor later reported that $65,000 had been raised in the "Bring Jose Home" campaign. The Washington Post also wrote about Pequeno a few years back.

One of the most complete accounts about Pequeno and his family, and some of the tensions about care, appeared in Florida's Tampa Tribune last December and was also picked up by vawatchdog.org. The Tampa newspaper also reported on the housing, renovation and living expense help provided to Pequeno's mother in Florida by the American Legion and the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.

Then last Sunday, the day of the concert, a story appeared in the New Hampshire Sunday News that also surfaced some of the tensions that seem to exist behind the scenes in this story. The story said that Jose's wife, Kelley, and their two children — Alexandria, 12, and Gaige, 11 — would be watching the PBS broadcast from their home in New Hampshire. Another daughter, Mercedes, lives in Maine with Pequeno's first wife. It reported that Kelley was conflicted over her husband's appearance on a float in the annual Memorial Day parade in Washington on Monday, a day after the concert. The newspaper said she didn't object when Jose's court-appointed guardian told her about being on the float, but quoted her as saying: "I hate it. I hate it because I know that he would hate it."

The newspaper also reported that his wife knew that Jose was being honored but didn't realize his story would be dramatized, and that while she knew the program would focus on the care his mother and sister have given him, she hoped it wouldn't ignore his family back home. "I just hope that when they honor Jose, that they say the children's names."

Actually, the program did not mention the children's names, or that of his wife, or the outpouring of donations from his hometown in New Hampshire.

The only glancing reference to the fact that he even had a wife and children came in a sentence spoken by Wiest as she was portraying the mother's words: "There are a lot of young wives with children like Jose's who can't care for such a severely disabled husband and the VA [Veterans Affairs] disability check went to her and the kids so we had to find a way to make do on our own."

Today an article in the Littleton Courier, a New Hampshire weekly, reported more about the story behind the story:

"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 care of. The Bagleys tried to get custody of Jose. They failed and a court appointed a guardian, ordering Kelley to return to Lisbon [N.H.] 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."

When I told the program's producers that I had heard from some New Hampshire viewers who asked why there was no mention of the sergeant's wife and children or the fund-raising and house-building campaign there, and asked for a response, they said: "The focus of this particular story segment in the program was on caregivers and for the past three years Jose Pequeno's mother and sister have performed this role."

This is an uncomfortable kind of story. There is no question of the care and devotion of the mother and sister and the inspirational role it documents. There was a lot of heroism on display — Jose's, for sure, and his mother and sister in real life and on television. But there are also clearly some family considerations that don't quite fit into the picture as presented.

It seemed to me that if the mother and sister didn't acknowledge the wife and children more specifically in the staged presentation of their stories, then the narrator should have found a way to do so in introducing the six-minute or so segment using the two actresses. There are, undoubtedly, huge strains in all families suddenly confronted with the kind of extreme trauma that Jose and others like him come home with. A lot of the stories surrounding each case are complicated. But it seems strange, and wrong, in my view, that a nationally televised dramatization about a rather amazing young man and his devoted mother and sister didn't bother to make clear that he also has a wife and three children, that they have names, and that he has a community in New Hampshire that also loves him in very tangible ways.

Here Are the Other Letters

I watched the Memorial Day celebration and, generally, I thought it was the best so far — not too much schmaltz. On the other hand, I thought the over coverage of the wounded soldier Jose was very much overdone and went from honoring to exploitation. His story and a song dedicated to him would have been appropriate. The camera went back again and again on him and his mother and sister and to Gen. Powell and Tom Cruise to the exclusion of very many others. This detracted from an otherwise excellent show.

Hal DuDash, Spring Mount, PA

It has been a Memorial Day tradition for my family to watch the National Concert. Of late these concerts have become more and more maudlin. Last night's concert went over the boundaries of maudlin to sickening.

The young man who suffered so much so bravely was held up to be an object of pity. That is the last thing any veteran — or any person, would want. I was disappointed that Colin Powell endorsed that pity party.

I hope there is a survey of those who watched this sad performance so that it is not repeated. We shut off the television because we were so revolted.

Harrisburg, PA

Last night I viewed PBS's Memorial Day program from the U.S. Capitol. I was moved by the patriotic songs and recognition of veterans, especially as my father was a retired U.S. Army colonel.

However, two aspects of the program were inappropriate. First, the repeated view of the brain-injured veteran from New Hampshire was overdone. Let the man have some dignity! Second, I question why Tom Cruise was seated next to General Colin Powell. Is Tom a veteran? Probably this decision relates to the power of "superstars" to attract larger audiences. Mr. Cruise was dressed in Hollywood style, with his open shirt and sunglasses straddling his jacket pocket. Proper attire for the solemn occasion, I think not. And his wife, Katie Holmes, seemed to pinch her ear at the end of her performance. Probably she was signaling to her daughter at home. Obviously the tragedy of the story she told was soon forgotten following her "act." PBS should use real people with real emotions to perform, not Hollywood types who are too self-absorbed to relate to life's tragedies.

Ellen O'Neill, Buchanan, VA

Thank you for airing the wonderful Memorial Day concert. What a great way to celebrate those who have served their country so courageously and proudly and those who continue to do so. May we all continue to support our troops and their families.

Dana Sandifer, Hopkinsville, KY

The Memorial Day concert on Sunday was inspiring as in the past. Altho Tammy Wynette has done it before, the lyrics to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" should remain as originally written, on the PBS broadcast. The memorial is meant for the ones who have "died" to make men free in my opinion.

E.C. Dimitri, Nashville, TN

Make the Flags Here

Michael, Thanks for doing what you do for PBS. We watched the Memorial Day Concert from DC last night on our local PBS station. It upsets me to see the US flag worn as clothing. Joe Mantegna's tie and the orchestra director's BOW TIE seemed especially out of place. Also, I remember the fuss made when candidate Barack Obama didn't wear a flag lapel pin, and I thought, "Hmmm, wonder if those pins are made in China. I wonder where most flags we see in this country are made." It's not your problem I know, but if you have any connection to pass on the idea, I say, all US flags should be made in our country.

Patricia Bares, Saluda, NC

Both my husband and I wish to congratulate PBS on the absolutely fabulous show last night honoring Memorial Day! From start to finish, it was the best ever! My husband is a Vietnam Vet and would not miss this show every year. Great Job! Our only hope is that the Obama Administration, our Congressman and Senators all sat and watched this broadcast, as we did, and were as proud to be an American — today and everyday!! HAPPY MEMORIAL DAY!!!

Lorraine Grimaldi, North Babylon, NY

I was appalled to see once more, a Memorial Celebration in which all veterans of the Korean War are ignored. My husband Joseph was in "Old Boldie" where he was wounded, trying to save one of his men. He was discharged with a 90% disability as his whole left side was paralyzed. He's now considered a 100% disabled veteran.

The media and the government make more of the Desert Storm and Iraq wars, while the Korean veterans are never remembered. What an injustice!!! I am sick of this. Please let me know who in the government I can write to balance the gratitude these veterans deserve. I thought about writing to the President but it would probably not to him . . . Thanks for your assistance in this matter.

Victoria M. Bernard, St. Pete Beach, FL

I must tell you how very much I enjoyed your 24 May 20th Anniversary Memorial Day program. It was a true American program. At times I had tears streaming down my cheeks and other times thrilled to the various musical numbers. It was a program that anyone could enjoy. No politics, just good old fashioned patriotism. Thanks so much!

P. M., Elk Grove, CA

Thank you for the wonderful Memorial Day Concert last evening! By far, it was the best one we have seen. It should be required viewing by all school children. Thank you again and we look forward to more PBS "special concerts" of this quality.

Suffolk, VA

We Won. Celebrate That!

The Memorial Day Concert 2009 was far inferior to the preceding nineteen. Mrs. Perry and I found the relentless emphasis on the dead and injured and their families to be surrender to those who preach peace-at-any-price. There was virtually no mention of the noble causes fought in defense of the US and many allies. I never heard one mention of "victory" or "enemy," both terms obligatory in any review of military losses and sacrifice. Oh yes, Tom Hanks (I think) did say as an afterthought about D-Day, " . . . and they did prevail, barely!" We are both veterans and have seen plenty of sacrifice and death, while spared ourselves. The next Concert should not give the impression that all we did in past wars was suffer losses and cause families grief. We won all but one, damn it, and that one, Vietnam, we gave away! Let's celebrate the full history of our protection over many years of the entire free world! Our wounded and dead and their families have not sacrificed in vain. Without the United States military there would be no United States of America, and probably no Western Civilization either!

Col. Hugh Perry (Ret.), Nashville, TN

I have a question — I watched all of the Memorial Day observance shows tonight. I enjoyed them very much but my question is in regards to the Medal of Honor show — Why did you not give honor or mention Audie Murphy during the show? I feel that it was a huge error. He was our most decorated soldier in WWII. Why?

Jacksonville Beach, FL

As a Korean Veteran, The Memorial Day program today was probably the best thus far. To me it seemed that all of those performing gave me the impression of sincerely dedicating their time and talents to recognize the contributions that all of us Servicemen made and continue to make, without any apprehensions whatsoever, in these days of political correctness. It brought back some long suppressed memories to me. Thanks for the reminder. I can rededicate myself more fully now.

Cornelius Dora, Phoenix, AZ

Just watched the Memorial Day Concert. As usual they left out my branch of service. I wish the producers of the show would do their homework. I served in the US Public Health Service. No we don't pull triggers, but we take care of the people who do. We are the medical team for the Coast Guard and the Merchant Marine. At D-Day there was a USPHS hospital ship just off shore — in harm's way — ready to receive the wounded. We do wear uniforms. The VA accepts us as veterans. We do have a flag and we do have an anthem. (Details about flag and anthem can be found at Commissioned Officers Association.)

Dale Stewart, Bakersfield, CA

I just finished watching your Memorial Day tribute to all of America's military. As I was watching and seeing the pictures and soldiers of America's greatest soldiers, the wounded, and their strength and courage to endure I realize the VA is greatly underfunded to take care of these soldiers and VA benefits don't provide enough, why can't someone develop a fund rising activity like the Jerry Lewis telethon which is a yearly event and raises a lot of money for MD. Why not an event to raise funds for disabled veterans and their families, and not just a remembrance on Memorial Day. The performers like Tom Hanks, Toby Keith, Gary Sinise who already provide a lot of support to Veterans could be great MCs for a fund raising event.

LTC (Ret) Richard G. Currier, Lehi, UT

PBS is my favorite station. Tonight the program on the National Mall filled me with so many wonderful feelings. especially my love of country, in spite of all our problems and frustrations this is a wonderful place to live. I am so glad my grandparents left Russia in 1898. The program on the Mall followed by the National Parks filled me with feelings for which there are no words. I want to express my heartfelt appreciation and thanks for all of the wonderful programs you provide.

Annette Steinborn, Rockville, MD

I see by the Memorial Day concert, that the thousands of military men and veterans who don't get killed or wounded don't seem to matter much. Also it was interesting that the national march, Stars and stripes forever, didn't get played.

one time member of a navy band (1946) and later on a communications officer on the aircraft carrier U.S S Tarawa (1952 thru 1955)

Lakeland, FL