More on that Concert
By Michael Getler
June 1, 2009
Last Wednesday, I posted a column dealing with viewer response to the Sunday night, May 24, nationally televised 20th annual National Memorial Day Concert from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. The column focused, in particular, on a segment of the presentation in which two leading Broadway actresses played the parts of the mother and sister of Army Sgt. Jose Pequeno. He had suffered a terrible brain injury when his vehicle was attacked in Iraq in 2006 and is being cared for in Florida by his real mother, Nelida Bagley, and sister, Elizabeth.
The segment, which lasted nine minutes including an introduction and embracing of actors and the mother and sister at the end, was meant, according to the producers, as a special tribute to caregivers who devote themselves to helping these severely wounded servicemen and women go on with their altered lives.
It was a very powerful and wrenching dramatization, but as soon as it ended, I began to get some e-mails that suggested there was more to the care-giving story. One pointed out that Sgt. Pequeno had a wife and three children, one by a previous marriage, and that his small hometown in New Hampshire, where he had been the police chief before volunteering for National Guard duty in Iraq, had raised some $65,000 to build a wheelchair-accessible home for him and his family. There was no mention of the names of the wife and children or the New Hampshire effort on the program and only the briefest suggestion that he even had a family beyond the mother and sister.
I don't want to repeat the whole column and story here. But as I researched the history of this very brave and popular young man, more and more stories about him over the years turned up. Many of them were referenced in last week's column. Some of the more recent stories told of how rifts had developed between the families or, more accurately, between the wife in New Hampshire and the mother in Florida.
And like any story that is more complicated than it first appears, the more you pull on the string, the more complicated it gets. So that is not unusual. What is unusual, and extremely uncomfortable in this case, is that it involves care for a brave and terribly traumatized soldier who has no say in anything but who requires a huge amount of care, is widely loved and respected and for whom many people and organizations — in Florida, New Hampshire and elsewhere — have reached out with great generosity over the past three years.
In the aftermath of last week's column, more letters arrived and some of them continued to describe a real-life situation that is even more tense and complicated than it appeared. For example, one of the e-mails printed below refers to the mother as "a convicted felon." There were one or two others that made similar allegations. When that string was pulled, it turned up an article published in the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper on Nov. 23, 1996 and now available only in the paper's paid archive. The article is a list of the recent court and crime activity at the time. The lead paragraph follows:
"DOVER — A Cabletron employee has been indicted for allegedly bilking her co-workers of nearly $2,000 to pay her daughter's non-existent medical bills. Nelida S. Bagley, 45, of 4A 2 Cascade Flat Apartments in Gorham, allegedly told co-workers between Feb. 1 and July 1 she needed money to pay for her daughter's cancer treatment. She raised $1,955, including $500 from Cabletron Chairman Craig Benson and $500 from Chief Executive Officer Robert Levine. She is charged with theft by deception, a class A felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison, according to Assistant County Attorney Diane B. Dubay. The indictment was handed down at the Strafford County Grand Jury's Nov. 15 session and unsealed Thursday. All those indicted are scheduled to be arraigned Dec. 2 at 1 p.m. in Strafford County Superior Court, unless they file a waiver of arraignment."
I sent this article to the concert producers and asked if they knew about this or had made background checks. The response of Jerry Colbert, executive producer, Capital Concerts, follows:
"Jose is one of the most gravely wounded soldiers in American history. The story was suggested to us by a representative from the national organization the Wounded Warrior Project. In deciding to proceed with the segment, we conducted research in New Hampshire, at Walter Reed Hospital in DC and in Florida. Our program serves as the nation's memorial service and in the limited time available to us on-air we focused on Jose's struggle over the past three years. During that time his mother and sister never left his side. They are representative of the more than 10,000 family members caring for our severely wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"These disabled warriors have become our living memorials, a visible reminder of those who sacrificed so much for the principles we stand for, and for their families who take care of them and will continue to sacrifice for them for the rest of their lives.
"Jose's youngest two children were invited to attend the concert through their legal guardian, however, their mother declined. Had they been in attendance our plan was to introduce them in the audience. As it was, Jose's eldest daughter from a previous marriage did attend, but it did not seem fair to us to single her out when his other children were not present."
As I said, this is uncomfortable. In the research I did after the initial round of e-mails last week, nothing about the indictment had been mentioned by any of the newspapers I read that reported on Jose Pequeno since his March 2006 injury. In fairness to the producers, had I not been told about this, I probably would not have found it. And, of course, it may not mean anything. It was 13 years ago, and there seems no doubt of the love, devotion and care that Jose's mother and sister provide. Nevertheless, the episode underlines the value of checking things out. Would a producer of a nationally televised program — any program — want at least to know this beforehand? I would think so. Maybe it would not have, nor should not have, made any difference to the point or casting of the program. But there were PBS viewers in New Hampshire who knew a more complicated story.
In researching this, I did determine, from New Hampshire court authorities, that Nelida Bagley did plead guilty in 1997 and served time in the New Hampshire State Prison for Women, and that there had also been an earlier "theft by unauthorized taking" conviction in another New Hampshire county, Grafton, to which a guilty plea had been entered in 1989.
Here Are the Letters
Having the background on the wounded soldier casts a very different light on what I watched during the Memorial Day service. I now feel more sorry for his inability to control how he is handled or mishandled as the case may be. It's unfortunate that the producer allowed himself to be played by certain members of the family to what I now see as the detriment of the disabled veteran.
Dwight Bobson, Washington, DC
I just wanted to say thank you so much for everything you have said in this [This is a reference to last week's column]. Jose [Pequeno] and I have been married since 1997. I hate how our children are left out. Those kids are our life . . . my daughter was disgusted at everything that was said [on the program]. My son was extremely angry. I just want to know how the military tells people they are so family orientated but there are 100's of families falling apart? Why doesn't the military back up the wives/husbands? We are the dependants. I just don't see how we were so overlooked AGAIN . . . very sad.
Kelley Pequeno, Lisbon, NH
Thank you very much for the column on Jose. It did a lot to set the record straight and somewhat restore my faith in PBS. Sadly, this is not the only experience I have had in which something I have personal knowledge of is misrepresented by the media. I can only guess that this is the rule, not the exception. It is very, very difficult to convey life's complexities, I am sure. I just want more from you guys.
Nancy Martland, Sugar Hill, NH
Jose Pequeno was a wonderful man, police chief and member of our Sugar Hill community. He would have been horrified at the spectacle you [PBS] and his mother and sister have made of him. His mother (a convicted felon) and his sister tore him away from his wife and children and community and obtained all the financial aid they could scam from any person and agency that would be sucked in by their tale of woe. Shame on them and on PBS for glamorizing a sad and painful event. Jose would have been the first to say what a sham this all is. Please check all of your facts before tugging at the heartstrings of America with a falsehood such as this.
Meri Hern, Sugar Hill, NH
All of the music was stunningly beautiful and appropriate. However, the program was ruined by the exploitation of Jose Pequeno. We know Jose and his wife. We can in no way condone displaying him the way you [PBS] and his mother did on this program. As his wife said to my son, he would have HATED this. Every family, with or without war, has its own dynamics. But you have truly soured us on how you obviously have been duped about this situation. You owe it to every spouse and child of a service person to get the whole story and not allow a fine man like Jose to be a spectacle of the worst sort. Check out the whole story. And next time just stick to the music.
Lee Williams, NH*
I thoroughly appreciated the National Memorial Day Program as I think all or our service people and families should be honored, much more than they are. Personally I do not think Jose would have appreciated being on camera so much and his family should at least have been named, I am sure he loved then dearly and was proud of them, or he was not the person you portrayed. I do not understand why famous guest singers have to change the style of the famous patriotic songs they are asked to sing (like this program and at ball games) in stead of just putting them forth as they were sung when we were growing up with them. PBS is a treasure for out country to keep and support and I hope many of our youth watch it and appreciate it. Thank you.
Peggy Mangano, Fremont, CA
Normally, I watch the broadcast of the Memorial Day Concert. This year, every time I tuned to that station, I heard singers who, I thought, were not good and were kind of whiny. That may just be my age preference. After reading your article and the letters, I am glad that I did not watch. What made me proud in the past was seeing people assembled in the capital of our country commemorating all those who have preserved our freedom. From what I read here, that honor of all our veterans was missing. God bless our beloved country and those who serve in all the military branches.
Olive Lohrengel, Buda, TX
I never watch these programs. The best way to support the troops and veterans is to fully fund the VA medical system so that it can adequately address all the needs of all veterans. How does singing and flag-waving help the wounded? I'm glad it makes viewers "feel better" about the plight of veterans.
Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WI
Supporting the troops should mean that we support them when they need us. Our nation's injured or aging Veterans fall victim to unlawful and abusive guardianships/conservatorships — and are forgotten. They are abused, neglected, and lose everything they have, including the freedom they found and sacrificed for. Please visit NASGA, specifically the "Veterans in Peril" page, and the NASGA blog.
Elaine Renoire, Loogootee, IN
*This letter arrived just after deadline and was added minutes after the initial posting.