(Originally written in April of 2014, edited for clarity in 2019)
I’ve been thinking about writing this thing out for a long time. I’ve probably tried a dozen times or so but could never get the words out. I guess, right now is as good a time as any, so bear with me. I don’t remember everything, I wish I had taken notes but I didn’t think about it at the time. I’m going to leave the names of the people who were with me out for now. I didn’t ask their permission and I don’t want to speak for them. This story is intensely personal for me and I wouldn’t want someone telling my side without my permission either.
I think it’s relevant to give some background information and I’ve got to start somewhere so here goes nothing. In 2006 I joined the Massachusetts Army National Guard Military Police. I graduated basic in August of 2007. I got married right after and we had our first child, a girl, right before I deployed to Iraq in 2009. I came home from Iraq in 2010. My deployment was only remarkable in how unremarkable it was. I was in Anbar Province on a Police Transition Team. We went on missions outside the wire, kind of regularly as long as our trucks didn’t break; which they did, often. When I came home in 2010, I had trouble adjusting like a lot of veterans do. In January of 2011, we found out my wife was pregnant with our second child. I went to therapy, took some medication, and discovered what my new version of “normal” was so my son would be born, unburdened by my struggles.
Fast forward to April 14th 2013. We had just finished a really long couple of days of drill. We were up late at night and up early doing range operations which is basically, proving we can shoot straight even when it’s dark out. On our last day, my readiness NCO told me that I was cleared for duty again. I had some medical issues and the Army finally thought I was safe to be put back to work if an activation happened. I laughed because I was getting out in October. “What the hell was going to happen between now and then,” right? Anyway, at the end of the day, I drove an hour and a half back to my house and passed out because I was working at my civilian job, early the next morning, Patriot’s Day/Marathon Monday, April 15th, 2013.
My sister-in-law came over around 5:30 am or so and we left for Boston. I had invited her because we needed volunteers and she wanted to be a part of the festival-like excitement. We got off the train at Copley T station. As we rode up the escalator, we could see the finish line. She eagerly took a picture and then we walked to my store on Newbury Street. The day was going to be really long. My store did a lot of events but Marathon Monday was a big one because we were so close to where the Marathon route crosses Newbury to turn onto Boylston. Our store was right below one of the corporate offices for our company and the Founders of the company loved to throw these kind of events. My sister-in-law was scheduled to hand out promotional material, soak up the sights, and enjoy the race.
I wasn’t that busy but I was still pretty exhausted by late afternoon. My team was out in the street enjoying the atmosphere and my sister-in-law just left to hand out inspirational bracelets at the finish line. It was getting close to 3 and I went outside to throw out the trash. I was behind my store in the public alley when I heard a loud bang. Aside from distant mortar fire and one really poorly aimed rocket, I didn’t deal with a lot of explosions in the Army but I still don’t like loud noises. The first blast didn’t resonate as an explosion. At first I thought a garbage truck had dropped a dumpster but the second bang was louder. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t think it was terrorism. I thought that maybe the grandstands collapsed. I rushed back inside. I heard a lot of things all at once but I kept hearing the word “bomb” over and over.
We were all getting nervous so I asked my assistant to take accountability and find out if everyone was safe. Thank god my sister-in-law had gotten caught up just outside the store. Everyone who worked for me was shaken but safe. I told my team to lock the doors and not to let anyone in unless they worked with us. Some coworkers, and I went up on the roof to check things out.
From the roof-deck’s vantage point, I saw nothing but chaos down below. Newbury Street was teaming with terrified people running away from Boylston Street. We went back downstairs and checked on everyone. It was at this time, I realized that there were still customers in the store. I called my wife. My cell was useless but the land-lines were fine. (During the marathon, everyone uses their cell. They are on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. That much activity can be overwhelming but when everyone in 5 square miles is trying to call about a real emergency, cell phones are basically bricks). I told her I was okay and I would call soon. I called my boss and rattled off everything I knew up to that point. One of my coworkers had taken some children who were there, to another part of the store and kept them occupied with some coloring pages we had. I was so impressed by her at that moment. She was amazingly calm. My assistant was steady as always. He was clear headed and resourceful. Together with the executive assistant to the CEO, We put our heads together and came up with a plan. We would shelter in place. I went outside to talk to the cops gathering on Hereford and they told us to stand by.
As I was turning to come back inside, I saw people struggling to make calls on their cell phones. Some of them were crying. The soldier in me told me to leave them alone because god knows who they were and I had to protect my coworkers but the civilian in me told them to get them inside to the store phone. By the time the street emptied out, there were roughly 100 people in my store and maybe half were employees. I will never forget the looks on some of those people’s faces, as long as I live.
Eventually, the police knocked on the door and told us to evacuate. We ushered people out the back door into the public alley. Then my assistant, sister-in-law, and I cleaned up as best we could. After we closed the registers, I went up to the break fridge and grabbed a six pack of Coors Light that one of the corporate employees left in there. We went out into the public alley and split the six-pack while we took in what just happened. I was at a loss for words so I told a joke. In Iraq, I learned that humor kept us distracted from the fear. I didn’t know what else to do.
After we finished our beers, we started walking to my assistant’s apartment which was pretty damn far from where we were but the trains were shut down and there were no cars getting through anywhere. I remember it being really warm out. We walked about a mile before my phone rang. It was one of the Sergeants from my unit. I knew right away that I had to get home to pack. I called my father-in-law and he agreed to get as close to the city as possible. My Sister-in-law and I said goodbye to my assistant and walked for what seemed like a decade.
I got home sometime around 5 or 6. My wife met me outside. We hugged for a long time, I was so relieved to be home with her. My children had no idea what had actually happened. My daughter just knew that something bad happened. We decided to keep things vague. I told my daughter that some bad men hurt some people and I was going to go try and find them. In all likelihood I expected to be directing traffic but I wanted her to feel safe.
I put my kids to bed and got a call to report to Camp Curtis Guild in Reading, Massachusetts by 10pm. I packed, said goodbye to my wife and left. There is a feeling I can’t describe when I left my family for an emergency activation. I feels like I am abandoning them but at the same time, it feels like I have a purpose. I felt it every single time I walked out the door into the unknown. On April 15th, 2013, I felt it more than I had ever felt it before.
I drove as fast as I could. I had my ID at the ready in case I got pulled over but given the situation, there wasn’t a State Trooper in sight. I pulled up at the gate and saw a guard in the Guard Post. In 7 years I had never seen someone in there. It was then that I realized things were going to get really serious, really fast. I rallied with my squad around 12am Tuesday morning and I was back on Newbury Street by around 1am. Our checkpoint was next to Stephanie’s on the corner of Newbury and Exeter.
After we got set up, I took a look around and my heart sank. The patio of Stephanie’s looked like all the people had just disappeared. There was still food on the tables, jackets on the backs of chairs and open bottles of water and wine everywhere. I felt like I was on a movie set. It was like something had made everyone disappear.
My squad leader rolled up in his truck and told us if we needed a bathroom to go to the Lennox on Boylston. Around 2am I walked over towards the hotel. When I got to Boylston, I froze for a minute. The finish line I had seen only 20 hours before was unrecognizable. I looked around in a kind of daze. Then I looked down at my feet. I’ll never know for sure if I was standing on patches of dried blood but that’s what it looked like and as long as I live I will never forget that feeling. I quickly went into the Lennox and jogged back to my post.
Sometime, early in the morning I got an email from work. A coworker was wounded in the attack. We thought he had already gone home but he had stopped to watch the runners cross the finish line. He was going to pull through but it was a long road ahead. I felt horrible for him and his family. (One year later, he ran the Boston Marathon because he was one of the toughest fucking men, I have ever met.) About 7 am, our shift on the street ended and I returned to Reading and tried to sleep. I didn’t. I couldn’t.
Tuesday night into
Wednesday morning, we were posted outside of Berkeley College Of Music’s new
building construction. We were controlling access to a certain area where a lot
of the federal investigators were staying. People came out of nowhere to bring
us food and coffee. We gave out a lot of hugs to the students staying in the
dorms around us. They said we made them feel safe and I can’t describe how
their gratitude made me feel.
Near the middle of the night a shady guy with a Russian passport came through our area. His passport was suspect so my teammate flagged down some cops and searched him. It was right after that, my teammate and I wondered if the bombing was done by Chechens rather than Arabs. The FBI came and cleared the guy and we never heard anything else about it. I’m definitely not saying this was some kind of premonition, just a crazy coincidence.
We got done Wednesday morning and I tried to sleep again but no luck. We got word that the next day we were going to be on Exeter again but this time, in broad daylight. President Obama was flying in to survey the damage and we needed all hands on deck. We were posted across the street, facing the front of the Copley Mall. It was a circus. People were taking our picture left and right. I hated it. I felt like a side show. Worse yet, someone with a shiny rank and massive paycheck decided against giving us guns so if there was a hostile terrorist out there, he had the softest of hard targets wearing neon vests like fucking human parking cones. That guy can kiss the fattest part of my ass. Luckily, nothing happened. Our shift ended and we were relieved by the Boston PD.
Our next mission for Friday the 19th was supposed to be riding the T, again unarmed. This time we were going to be looking for suspicious behavior on the subway. I never knew what they expected me to do if I encountered suspicious behavior, save throwing my helmet at it and running away. Regardless, that mission never happened.
Sometime around 2am, I was kicked out of my bed by someone with no interpersonal skills. No one knew what was going on but we were in a hurry to get there. As we geared up, people were shouting what little bits of news they could find. Bombs, a shootout, and an officer down. We were outside with our trucks running when I saw our First Sergeant. I have no idea what the hell was going through my head but I was still pissed about being unarmed. I told him not to worry, I was carrying 3 knives so I could protect him if things got ugly. He did not laugh but he should have. Eventually the Colonel came out and I knew things were fucking serious because people of his rank don’t usually attend the Convoy Brief. He gave the orders and we left for Watertown.
Halfway there, a truck in our convoy started smoking. We thought it was on fire and we weren’t far off. The rookie driver left the parking brake on and things smoked up fast. Our Lieutenant decided to dump the truck and roll on. This is not normal. Usually, we called the mechanics and waited with the truck until the wrecker came. This time, we unloaded it and left it on the side of the road. We arrived in Watertown packed like sardines on old fiberglass shit-box Humvees (HMMWV).
Watertown was a shit show. There were government cops, locals, staties and random agency cowboys everywhere. There were even guys from the EPA. I’m pretty sure they weren’t necessary. There was virtually no communication between the agencies and we had no idea who anyone was because so many guys were wearing plain clothes.
After a few minutes, my buddy spotted two fish, way out of water, getting a little too close to us. When he approached them they identified themselves as reporters from some other country (Russia sounds right but I honestly can’t remember). My buddy pointed to the media checkpoint a good distance away and said “run.” Those morons made it pretty far, before they came back to get their truck that was still in our parking lot.
Eventually, someone told us who we were looking for. A good friend of mine took a picture as they held up a mug shot of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. So now we knew what that asshole looked like but without guns, we weren’t sure what good we’d be. We got scattered around Watertown but got called back almost immediately. When we pulled back in, someone started handing out guns and ammo. Finally, someone had gotten their head out of their ass and armed us. I’ve never loaded 3 fifteen round magazines so fast in my life. When they asked for a complete team to go out and post on the street again, my friend, a brand new rookie and I all raised our hands.
We were to report to Mt. Auburn Street at the intersection of Chauncey Street. When we arrived, there was The Mass State Police, The ATF and The FBI. For the next 8 hours or so we stood there. There was a travel restriction so the locals were restricted to their homes, basically. I waved at the little kids who were looking out the windows in the houses around us. It was a beautiful day and those poor kids were trapped inside while the cops stood around watching for the real live boogie man.
We got a call after 6pm telling us to return to the rally point. The truck we were in was slow as hell. We started driving back when every cop car in the universe drove by us. We didn’t have the pickup to beat them so we waited until they passed.
We drove down Mt Auburn Street to Lincoln. We turned left on Lincoln and tried to take a left on Walnut when we realized, we were stuck. All those cruisers that passed us were now parked in front of us and one pulled up behind us to box us in. Everyone was running in the same direction. I told the Rookie to man the radio and my buddy and I got out of the truck to figure out our next step.
Just then, a State Trooper called us over. We weren’t technically supposed to get out of the truck but we were supposed to support the Law Enforcement Teams out there. It was definitely a gray area but we went anyway. He told us to follow him, so we did. We got about halfway down Franklin Street when everyone drew their guns. We drew ours too. After a few more feet, it felt like every gun in the city was shooting. We heard flash bang grenades. At that moment, we had no clue what was happening. My buddy and I ducked behind white sedan and waited for a break in the action. When everything stopped, we advanced. We didn’t get far before everyone started coming back towards us.
As the SWAT team showed up we moved back. Their rifles beat my Beretta 9mm, any day. When we got to the truck the rookie was frozen, I don’t blame him. He was a brand new soldier fresh out of basic and we left him in the truck in the middle of nowhere during the most action he’d seen since he watched The Hurt Locker. I took the radio mike from him and called in, “Sentinel TOC this is truck 131, shots fired, shots fired.”
We got in the truck and reported back to the rest of our company. I was shaking like a leaf. In the truck we all agreed not to say anything about what happened until we had our stories straight. We immediately broke that agreement to anyone and everyone who’d listen. In a moment like that, I guess you have to tell someone.
The suspect was finally captured while we were pulling into Reading. After we fueled up and parked our trucks I walked back to the barracks, completely spent. As I was about to step inside, I ran into 2 of my squad-mates. They told me to follow them, so I did. There in the woods near our bunks, one of them pulled out a single nip of Sambuca and gave it to me. I drank it and told them about the shoot-out, all over again. That night, I slept like a stone for the first time in a week. When I woke up, my Lieutenant told me I could go home to my family. “You’ve seen enough,” he said. So I left.
It’s been six years since the marathon bombing. I am back on Newbury Street, with a different company. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so at home and yet so uneasy. Newbury is my favorite street in Boston but the memories are everywhere, indelibly scored into my thoughts like the epitaph on a tombstone. When I exit Copley Station every morning, I see the finish line in front of the Boston Public Library. I walk past Stephanie’s on my way to the bank and just before I go in to get change, I see the spot where I stood on that hazy night while I surveyed the damage. I couldn’t forget about the Marathon Bombing, even if I wanted to. I’m surrounded by the memories as much as I’m surrounded by the City itself.
I'm an Iraq War Veteran and podcast host with the Citizen's Guide To The Supernormal.