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One by one, the Soldiers began filtering into the medical tent. A group of them from the Massachusetts Army National Guard had just marched the entire 26.2-mile route of the Boston Marathon, carrying 40-pound packs in honor of their fallen brothers.
They’d started walking nearly an hour before sunrise, a little after 5 a.m., long before runners were toeing the starting line. It was now well after 2 p.m. on a glorious spring day. The elite runners had finished the race more than two hours before, and the majority of the amateur runners were now starting to cross the finish line. The Soldiers’ feet were bloody, their feet in agony. “I made the mistake of taking my boots off,” recalls Staff Sergeant Mark Welch, who was marching in memory of his squad leader from his first deployment who was killed in Afghanistan. “My feet were swollen, and the blisters were popping. It was as bad as you can imagine.”
Despite their injuries, the Soldiers were laughing, proud and elated to have finished the grueling march. “We were taking pictures at the finish line, like goofballs,” says First Sergeant Bernard Madore.
In a matter of seconds, however, their injuries and excitement were the furthest things from their minds.
From just around the corner, on the front side of the imposing, block-long Boston Public Library, Welch and his comrades from the Massachusetts Army National Guard heard a “low boom,” as Madore describes it.
“I didn’t know what to think,” says Madore, sitting in a conference room at the Framingham Armory on a Saturday evening after drill. It was a little more than two weeks after the bombings that shook the city of Boston, where the annual Boston Marathon is a century-old institution held on the state holiday of Patriots’ Day.
“Was it a restaurant explosion?” he recalls thinking. “The last thing I thought was a terror attack. It didn’t sound like a mortar.”
HEADING INTO THE CHAOS
The Soldiers started running toward the sound. “My first instinct was to look for the person in charge,” Welch says. “It happened to be the lieutenant”—First Lieutenant Stephen Fiola, the Soldier who came up with the concept for the Tough Ruck march a few years ago—“and he said, ‘Let’s go.’ It was complete chaos.”
The Soldiers were under the media bridge, a temporary structure erected across Boylston Street for photographers to get pictures of the athletes crossing the finish line, when the second bomb went off. They knew for certain this was no accident, but an attack. It had been a mere 13 seconds between blasts, but the three Soldiers agreed: It felt like an eternity.
“A lot of people were screaming,” Fiola recalls, sitting in uniform with his mates from the 1060th Transportation Company. “We knew it was probably pretty bad.”
Near the finish line, the sidewalk and stands had been filled with special guests of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), the host committee of the venerable event. There were families from Newtown, CT, being honored for enduring the tragic school shooting there in December. There were family members of some of the marathoners. Madore hollered at one elderly woman, “Get out!”
“I know!” she yelled back.
As the Soldiers got closer to the scene amid the chaos—terrified spectators were fleeing in every direction, dazed runners had stopped in their tracks, wide-eyed police officers were scanning the rooftops, and aides from the medical tent were rushing in to help the wounded—they could tell there were casualties on the ground. There was a lot of blood.
With Madore and Fiola heading to the site of the first explosion, Welch ran to the second scene. On the ground he saw a bloodied boy, whom he’d later identify as Martin Richard, the 8-year-old from nearby Dorchester who would be one of three fatal victims from the attack. News reports would memorialize Martin with a photo taken of him at school, in which he held a hand-lettered poster board calling for peace: “No More Hurting People.”
A long row of scaffolding and snow fencing was obstructing access to the injured for the responders coming from across the street. Madore, a 44-year-old truck driver who has served two tours in Iraq, did the first thing that came to mind: Yelling for help, he began tugging at the tangled structure with all his might. From the other side, on the sidewalk where the first bomb went off, a man in a cowboy hat was helping Madore lift the scaffolding.
When they were able to drag the scaffolding enough to get to the wounded, each Soldier instantly identified victims to help. The clothing and hair of some victims were on fire or smoldering, so they worked fast to put out the flames. A woman and her husband sat dazed on the ground, holding hands.
“Her ankle was blown out,” Madore says. So he grabbed a baby blanket lying nearby and covered her wound, then helped a doctor make a tourniquet out of her pocketbook strap.
“Can you hold this boy?” someone asked Madore. “His name is Noah.” Noah was suffering from a compound fracture in his leg. His parents were the ones who were holding hands. When one of the aides said it didn’t appear as if the father’s legs could be saved, Madore angrily shushed the speaker, then turned to the frightened boy.
“How you doing, Noah?” he asked.
At that moment, Fiola turned to see Madore—known to all in his company as the biggest wisecracker—tenderly trying to comfort the stricken little boy.
“That’s one image I’ll never forget,” Fiola recalls.
COMFORT AND SECURITY
Large shards of glass hung precariously from the storefronts in front of the first bombing site; smaller pieces were still showering down on the wounded and their caretakers. A woman stumbled aimlessly on the street, a big gash on her forehead. Fiola hurriedly helped a man distribute the contents of a box of gauze.
On the sidewalk, the man in the cowboy hat was now tending to a victim who appeared to be in especially bad shape. His name was Carlos Arredondo and he was helping Jeff Bauman, the man who would later identify one of the bombing suspects to investigators from his hospital bed.
Arredondo helped hoist Bauman over the debris and then held the tourniquet on Bauman’s right leg as a police officer and a volunteer wheeled Bauman to an ambulance. That scene became one of the most widely reprinted images of the bombing. Arredondo—known to the Soldiers because his son, Marine Lance Corporal Alexander Arredondo, was killed in Iraq—was wearing a Tough Ruck T-shirt. In the coming days, authorities would determine that at least 14 of the 264 injured would require amputation, including Bauman.
As the men from the 1060th handed off victims to medical personnel, many of their colleagues who’d marched the route helped cordon off the area from across the street. “The cell phones were already getting shut off,” Fiola says. “That’s part of the procedure.”
Within 10 minutes, most of the wounded had been accounted for and rushed to various hospitals. Madore looked down to see his hands covered in blood; someone helped him pour water on them. He looked up the street toward Copley Square and thought of all the times he’d walked these streets after a night of downing beers at one of the many local bars.
“This is our land,” he recalls saying to himself.
It was just after 3 p.m.; the bombs had gone off at about 2:50 p.m. Fiola called his mother to tell her not to panic. He and his men were all right.
They climbed into the back of a fellow Soldier’s pickup truck and began the slow, arduous drive through traffic back to the suburban community of Hopkinton, where they’d converged in the dark of night to start their march almost 12 hours earlier. When they finally arrived to retrieve their own cars, the company sergeant major was there to greet them.
“That was one of the nicest things—she just showed up to ask, ‘Are you OK?’ ” Madore says. “There was no one else in the parking lot. We were the last ones there.”
The drive home was surreal. “I couldn’t even turn on the radio,” Welch says. “I smoked a half-pack of cigarettes.”
Fiola took a shower and “went for the top shelf. It was eerily quiet. I didn’t sleep a wink.”
A CITY RALLIES
Madore, who lives over the border in New Hampshire, was back at work at 7:30 a.m. Two days later, the three Guard Soldiers regrouped as invited guests at President Obama’s speech at an interfaith prayer service in Boston’s majestic Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, whose recent health problems had forced his decision not to seek a sixth term, stood up to speak—just weeks after breaking his leg.
“I’m telling you,” said a visibly shaken Menino, “nothing can defeat the heart of this city. … It will push thousands and thousands and thousands of people across the finish line next year.”
“He signed himself out of the hospital to do that,” Fiola says. “When he stood up, you could hear everyone in the church gasp.”
When the mayor got up and spoke, Madore adds, “I almost broke up.”
In the weeks since, the three Soldiers of the 1060th have thought often about the anguished faces they encountered in the aftermath of the bombings. They have no intention of seeking out the victims, unless the victims come looking for them.
“Let them heal,” Madore says. “They have enough to deal with.”
“I just want them to live and flourish,” Fiola says quietly.
As for the Tough Ruck, it’s taken on a life of its own, says the man who engineered it. Soldiers and their families from other states have been contacting Fiola to ask about staging their own marches, and he’s in the process of developing a model that can be adapted by any interested organization.
“For the last several years, we’ve had a gentlemen’s agreement with the BAA,” he says. “We’ve had a boatload of support from them.”
Fiola expects the 2014 Tough Ruck in Boston to be much larger than ever, and there are already plans for all participating Soldiers to wait at a predetermined spot near the finish so they can all cross the finish line together.
“It will be pretty epic,” he says.