WEST HAVEN — Amid the gaiety of Christmas singing at the tree lighting ceremony Saturday night, it was impossible to miss the screen alongside the stage showing a young soldier lying in a hospital bed many miles away.
Army Pfc. Sean Pesce, just 20 years old, was shown via Skype as he observed his hometown’s annual ceremony from the Poly Trauma Center in Tampa, Fla., where he is being treated for serious gunshot wounds sustained in Afghanistan Oct. 12.
His mom, Gail Pesce, was visible sitting behind him. His dad, Dan Pesce, stood on the West Haven Green with other members of the family, speaking to Sean before the ceremony. They were wearing T-shirts with the message: “Prayers for Sean Pesce.”
“He has his ups and downs,” Pesce said of his son shortly before talking to him. “He has an infection and he’s been fighting a fever. They haven’t been able to start physical therapy yet.”
He estimated the rehabilitation will take 6-12 months. “I’m hoping they’ll give him a break where he can come home. I’d like to have him home for a little while.”
The gunfire hit Pesce in his thigh, arm, abdomen and back. A bullet destroyed his spleen and a kidney and hit nerves in his spinal cord.
Pesce was deployed in July with 2-75 Ranger Regiment from Fort Lewis, Wash. He received a Purple Heart for his service.
His dad and others are planning to go down to Florida for Christmas and see him.
“What’s up, buddy?” Dan Pesce asked his son via Skype. Others from the family gathered around in a small circle, straining to hear him. The sound quality was not good.
The Pesces held up a program from the tree lighting ceremony to show him what was going to be happening.
Sean’s brothers, Tyler and Kyle, spoke with him after their dad. Sean could be heard replying to them, “Good. How ya’ doing?”
Next were his grandparents, Gail and Tom Pesce. “Hope you’re feeling better,” Tom Pesce said. “We are so proud of you. You don’t know how proud we all are.”
Sean’s aunt, Chris Wagner, told him, “We can’t wait to get down in the warm weather to see you. Love you, sweetheart. Take care.”
Dan Pesce told his wife, “It’s very cold here. And very windy.”
“Love ya, buddy,” he told his son. “It’s amazing how much these people are doing for you.”
“Hopefully you’ll be able to get out of there,” he added. “I know you get discouraged. But just remember: look at the better side of things.”
He explained later that his son sometimes gets down because “he’s got to be in a wheelchair.”
The Pesces said Sean’s girlfriend, Zuleyma Vazquez, also is in Tampa with him. His grandmother said they have known each other since eighth grade.
Also in the family circle were some of Sean’s long-time friends. Ricky Torres, his next-door neighbor, has known Sean since they were 7 or 8 years old. “Stay strong,” Torres told his pal.
“He has an amazing spirit,” Torres said. “He’s very upbeat, a real fighting attitude.”
Torres recalled their many hours playing together in the neighborhood. “He was always the most daring kid out there: running around, climbing trees.”
Torres said it’s sad “to see someone so full of life in a situation like this.”
When Sean was a junior or senior in high school, Torres said, he made up his mind he wanted to serve in the military. “He was really passionate about it.”
When the singing began on stage, Sean followed along from his hospital bed. The screen on the side of the performers was whipped around by the wind.
Liz McNicholl and singers from Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman” and other standards.
Kids in the crowd waved lit-up wands and the people sang along as the moon rose over the church steeple on the Green. But Sean lying in that bed was a reminder of a grim reality: we are at war, still.
Volunteers passed glass jars among the crowd, collecing donations for Sean’s recovery.
At one point during the festivities, Sean held up a handmade sign. It read: “Thank you everyone!” The crowd applauded.
The lyrics at times were unbearably poignant: “Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow. ... From now on our troubles will be miles away.”
West Haven Mayor John Picard reminded the crowd that Sean graduated form West Haven High School in 2011 and shortly afterward left for basic training. “He’s a tough kid. We want him here on stage, next year!”
After Dan, Kyle and Tyler Pesce lit the tree and everybody sang “White Christmas,” Sean seemed to smile. And then he waved.
Anybody wanting to buy a $5 bracelet or $20 T-shirt for the cause can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information also can be found on the “Prayers for Sean Pesce” Facebook page. Cards can be sent to: PFC Sean Pesce, Army, 13000 Bruce B Downs Blvd., Tampa, Fla. 33612.