Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Inside a Broken Man There Lived a Hero

The photo of a long-haired man in a cowboy hat comforting a traumatized victim who appeared to have lost both his legs has quickly become the single most inspiring image to emerge from the Boston Marathon bombing.

The man in the hat is Carlos Arredondo, and he has been a broken man for a long time. His life has been marked by unspeakable heartache.

Carlos, a native of Costa Rica, immigrated to the United States when he was 19 and settled in Boston. He's worked as a bus driver, a landscaper, and a handyman. He married in 1983, and had two sons, Alexander and Brian. He and his wife divorced, and the boys went to Maine to live with their mother. Carlos remarried and moved to Florida.

Then in August, 2004, on Mr. Arredondo's 44th birthday, three Marines showed up at his home in Hollywood, Florida. Mr. Arredondo was painting a fence, and at first he thought his son, 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Alexander Arredondo, had come back from Iraq for a surprise visit. Then Carlos saw that Alex wasn't with them. The Marines gave Mr. Arredondo news no father wants to hear. Alexander had been on a mission to secure a building, and as he went to check on the well-being of his comrades, a sniper picked him off. Alexander was dead before he was legally allowed to buy a drink.

Mr. Arredondo admits he “went insane.” He smashed the Marines’ windshield with a sledgehammer, doused their van with gasoline and set it -- and himself -- on fire. Carlos almost died, and he ended up spending ten months in the hospital. He insisted on attending his son's funeral, but had to be carried in on a stretcher. Carlos' outburst made national headlines. He had lost his son serving our country, but a lot of people wanted to hold him responsible for damaging government property. The military forgave him, and the hospital that cared for him for so many months absorbed his hospital bills. But his burns debilitated him, and he was forced to quit his job as a handyman.

Carlos and his wife moved back to Boston to be closer to Carlos' younger son, Brian. Carlos decided to turn Alex's loss into something positive, so he began traveling the country in his Nissan pickup to talk about peace. He went from state to state -- 26 in all -- attending anti-war rallies with a portable memorial to his son: a coffin containing Alex's military boots, uniform, and Purple Heart, as well as photographs of his late son. He successfully campaigned to have the post office of his hometown renamed in Alex's honor, and created a scholarship in Alex’s name at his son’s high school alma mater. He sent care packages to soldiers in Iraq. In 2007, he was beaten at an anti-war demonstration in Washington.

Then, more unspeakable heartache for Carlos. Brian was just 17 when the Marines showed up with the terrible news about his older brother. After that, Brian became despondent over Alex’s death, and it became clear that the young man was suffering from severe depression. The family's efforts to get him treatment failed. A few days before Christmas in 2011, Brian Arredondo took his own life at the age of 24.

What more could possibly happen to Carlos Arredondo? This past Monday, the nation learned the answer to that question.

Carlos was sitting near the finish line of the Boston Marathon to cheer on a friend who was running the race in honor of Alex. When the explosions rocked Boylston Street, and people were fleeing for safety, Carlos Arredondo charged headfirst toward the spot where a bomb had exploded. At the age of 52, he ran across the street, jumped the security fence, and landed on a sidewalk smeared in blood. It looked like a war zone. Carlos couldn't help everyone, but he saw a young man around the age his sons would be if they were still alive, crumpled on the sidewalk with a blank expression on his face and a leg that was only bone below the knee. Carlos couldn't save his sons, but maybe he could save this stranger.

Carlos asked the young man his name and kept talking to him. “Stay with me,” he told him over and over, as he tried to block the young man's view of his own legs. To stanch the flow of blood, Carlos squeezed a tourniquet fashioned from a discarded T-shirt he found on the street, then he put the blood-soaked man in a wheelchair and frantically ferried him through the chaos, smoke, and debris.

“Ambulance! Ambulance! Ambulance!” Carlos yelled. Somehow, Carlos got Jeff Bauman, Jr. -- that's the young man's name -- to an ambulance. Mr. Bauman is just 27, and he had lost both legs, but thanks to Carlos, he was still alive. Carlos felt that God was with him that day. Before he went home, he unfurled a small American flag he carried in memory of his son. Now, it was dripping with another man's blood.

And when the smoke had lifted on Boylston Street and the tales of carnage and valor started to be told, reporters clamored to speak with Carlos, and the entire nation learned what he had done. In story after story, reporters related the tragic tales of Carlos' sons, and about how Carlos temporarily "went insane" when he was told that Alex had died, and about Carlos' crusade to make the world a safer place.

And in every story, and on every television and radio report, they called this man--this unbreakable man--what he's been all along: a hero.