Man in the cowboy hat: Hero at Boston Marathon has known pain of loss

 
 
Carlos Arredondo, who was at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon when two explosives detonated, leaves the scene on April 15, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Carlos Arredondo, who was at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon when two explosives detonated, leaves the scene on April 15, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Darren McCollester / Getty Images


jbrown@MiamiHerald.com

One of the most stirring images from Monday’s bomb blasts is that of a long-haired man in a cowboy hat, comforting a traumatized victim who appears to have lost both his legs.

He personified those who ran headlong into the carnage, and to hell with the danger, to render aid.

The man in the hat is Carlos Arredondo, formerly of Hollywood, and his life has been a remarkable journey of heartache and devotion.

Nine years ago, three Marines showed up at Arredondo’s house on Tyler Street in Hollywood to deliver a crushing blow. His son, Marine Lance Cpl. Alexander Arredondo, had been killed in Iraq. He was just 20 years old.

Upon hearing the devastating news, Arredondo “went insane” by his own account, smashing the Marines’ windshield with a sledgehammer, dousing their van with gasoline and setting it — and himself — ablaze. He barely survived the inferno. He spent 10 months hospitalized and had to attend his son’s funeral on a stretcher.

The outburst made national headlines, and stirred a debate on whether he should be charged with a crime. (He wasn’t.)

In recent years, the New England native had become a passionate peace activist, traveling the world to urge an end to America’s wars. He had relocated to Massachusetts and was watching the marathon — a friend was running the race in honor of Arredondo’s late son — when the chaos erupted.

With his long wisps of black tousled hair peeking out from his hat, Arredondo was captured by videographers and photographers frantically ferrying the thin, blood-soaked man in a wheelchair through the smoke and debris. He squeezed a tourniquet, fashioned from a discarded T-shirt he found on the street, to stanch the flow of blood.

Later, his voice trembling, Arredondo, 52, described the bedlam to reporters. He unfurled a small American flag he had been carrying in memory of his son, now dripping with blood. He explained about the friend who was running the race in honor of Americans killed in the line of duty, including his son.

Alexander was killed on a mission to secure a two-story building in Najaf, Iraq. A sniper picked him off as he walked around the building to check on the well-being of his comrades.

He died, his commander said, displaying “the highest levels of selflessness and bravery.’’

When the military van pulled up to Arredondo’s house on Aug. 25, 2004, to deliver the news, Arredondo looked up from the fence he was painting and initially thought it could be his son on a surprise visit. It was Carlos Arredondo’s 44th birthday.

After the Marines emerged and informed him of his son’s death, Arredondo, went after their empty van with the sledgehammer, accelerant and blow torch. When the van burst into flames, Arredondo suffered second- and third-degree burns.

In the end, he was forgiven by the military, and Jackson Memorial Hospital agreed to absorb his hospital bills. But his burns left him so debilitated that he was forced to quit his job as a handyman. He moved back to the Boston area and began traveling the country promoting peace.

He successfully campaigned to have the post office of his hometown renamed in honor of Alex. He attended other funerals for fallen warriors and logged more than 100,000 miles in his Nissan pickup truck, participating in anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C., New York, Boston at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul. He was beaten at an anti-war demonstration in Washington in 2007.

He created a scholarship in Alex’s name at his son’s high school alma mater and sent care packages to soldiers in Iraq. One of the most gripping images of his pain was a makeshift memorial to his son, a coffin containing his military boots, uniform and his Purple Heart. Arredondo hauled the mobile memorial across 26 different states.

“As long as there are Marines fighting and dying in Iraq, I’m going to share my mourning with the American people,” he once told The New York Times.

A native of Costa Rica, Arredondo immigrated to the United States when he was 19. He worked as a bus driver, a landscaper and handyman. In 1983, he married his first wife, Victoria, and a year later, Alex was born. Their second son, Brian, was born in 1987. The couple divorced and Victoria moved to Maine with the boys. Arredondo remained in Boston and remarried. In 2002, before finishing high school, Alex enlisted in the Marines. He served nine months until August 2003, but was called back to duty in May 2004.

Arredondo and his new wife, Melida, moved to Florida, settling into a modest house at 5430 Tyler St. in Hollywood. They had been living there only three months when the Marines arrived in dress blues.

The Arredondos returned to Boston to be closer to Brian, who was despondent over his brother’s death. He suffered from severe depression and was getting into trouble with police.

The family’s efforts to get him treatment failed. In 2011, Brian Arredondo killed himself. He was 24.

“We are broken hearts,’’ Carlos Arredondo told The Boston Herald a month after Brian’s suicide.

But today, he’s “a real hero,” a witness told ABC News after watching Arredondo charge toward the carnage.

“He jumped right over the fence even before there were police and tried to help people.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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