Full-time role for Boston’s ‘comforter-in-chief’
Carlos Arredondo leapt into the fray on Marathon Day, and hasn’t stopped since
Weaving through the crowds to be honored yet again at Fenway Park, the man wearing a jersey with his name stitched on the back repeatedly doffs his now famous cowboy hat and musters a beleaguered smile for all the well-wishers who ask him to pose for pictures.
When one middle-aged woman catches his gaze before he takes the field, she starts to cry. “This is one of the most exciting days of my life,” she tells him. “Anyone who was a victim could have been one of my relatives. You saved them for all of us.”
Carlos Arredondo pauses and peers at her tenderly, like an old friend, then embraces her. “We did what we could that day,” he says, using a refrain he invokes often now. “We’re all in this together.”
Since the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, when he rushed from the VIP stands to clear barricades and make a tourniquet from a sweater sleeve that saved Jeff Bauman’s life, the 53-year-old has become the face of Boston Strong, seen by some as an almost mythic embodiment of courage in the face of terror. Already a public figure for more than a decade as the man who set himself ablaze after learning that his son was killed in Iraq and as a ubiquitous antiwar protester, he is now what some of his friends call Boston’s “comforter in chief.”
It has become a full-time role, one that has brought celebrity and adoration, accolades, and perks both financial and emotional. Nearly every day since the attacks, Arredondo has been booked with public appearances, to the extent some friends worry he may be overdoing it.
“He’s on the verge of overexposing himself,” said Jeffrey Herman, an old friend who has attended several events with Arredondo since the bombings. “That’s because he’s just so willing to help so many people, not because he’s doing it for himself.’’
In addition to at least five trips to Fenway Park, where he has tossed a ceremonial first pitch to David Ortiz and sung “God Bless America” beside James Taylor during the World Series, Arredondo has been feted on the ice and in center court at TD Garden as well as on the field at Gillette Stadium before the Patriots opening game. He has participated in more than 100 events, serving as grand marshal at local parades, attending fund-raisers at golf courses and restaurants, firing the starting gun at road races, even making a guest appearance at a wedding.
At the same time, he and his wife have received thousands of dollars in online donations, free meals at expensive restaurants, all-expenses-paid trips to Costa Rica and France, as well as a new pickup truck, courtesy of Herb Chambers.
He has given interviews to hundreds of media outlets, from CNN and NBC to People Magazine and GQ. He’s also now negotiating a book deal and discussing a film.
“I’m keeping myself busy, and this all helps me,” said Arredondo, who has lived in Roslindale since 2005 and is supported by his wife Melida and public assistance, which he has received for several years because of a range of health issues.
The attention has been his therapy, he said, a salve after years of suffering. And it allows him to promote the issues he cares about.
“In any way I can, at any event, I want to be Boston Strong,” he said. “If they want me to share my story, I’m happy to do it. This cause I’m representing — helping everyone move on from the bombings — is important to me. This is not about making a profit.”
A volunteer firefighter who worked as a rodeo clown in Costa Rica before a smuggler helped him cross into the United States in 1980, Arredondo made headlines after Marines visited his home in Florida in 2004 to tell him that his son Alex had died in Iraq. He became so distraught that he climbed into their van, splashed himself with gasoline, and torched himself with a propane lighter. After a long recovery that included stays at a psychiatric hospital, he and his wife became activists against the war, speaking at events around the country about their loss and decrying the methods that military recruiters use to enlist teenagers.
Arredondo became a US citizen two years after his son died, under a law passed by Senator Edward M. Kennedy that allowed the parents of dead soldiers to become citizens.
The years since have brought more misery. He was attacked at an antiwar protest in Washington, D.C., by a mob of counter-protesters and was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in Boston after allegedly refusing to leave a spot in front of Boston police headquarters, where he parked to watch the funeral motorcade of Senator Kennedy.
Those charges were dismissed. But Arredondo said he was assaulted by the police officers and he sued the city, seeking nearly $1 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Then, two years ago, his other son, Brian, who suffered from depression and drug addiction, committed suicide.
Since then, the Arredondos have found solace in sharing their grief and by raising awareness in public forums about how to help those contemplating suicide.
Melida Arredondo, his second wife, said their presence at events since the Marathon has been a natural evolution of their activism. Still, what they have experienced in recent months is an order of magnitude beyond anything that came before.
“When he’s wearing his cowboy hat, it’s like the attention has gone on steroids,” she said. “There are times he can’t walk down the street without 10 people stopping him.”
To keep up with all their commitments, Melida Arredondo, who keeps her husband’s calendar, recently announced she was leaving her job as a manager at the Uphams Corner Health Center. She expects they will get by on their savings, income from the book, and her consulting work.
“Carlos and I are trying to leverage the attention to get more attention for the causes we believe in,” she said.
She isn’t worried that they are becoming overexposed. “This will go away,” she said. “Here today, gone tomorrow.”
Some of their friends, however, worry about what happens when the attention does ultimately fade.
“My concern is that this has overtaken their lives,” said Michele Jara, a longtime friend who sees the couple regularly. “Between Alex’s death and Brian’s suicide, the activism fills a void in their life. The attention they’re getting now is a distraction from their grief.”
Roberta Hurtig, executive director of Samaritans Inc. in Boston, a suicide prevention group the Arredondos support, calls the couple “authentic, generous, lovely people.”
“I have worried about him,” she said. “I always experienced Carlos as fragile, and I worried his heroism would come at quite a high cost personally. But I think, as sad as his life has been, this experience has helped him, allowed him to blossom.”
Herman, who worries about Arredondo’s taxing schedule, said the couple is not enriching themselves from their new status, noting that Arredondo’s mother still
lives in a shack and sells lottery tickets to get by in Costa Rica.
“He’s never asked for money,” Herman said. “Whatever gifts or contributions he has received has not done much to improve their standard of living.”
The Arredondos have also made many new friends since the bombings.
Among them is John Archambault, general manager of the Legal Sea Foods in the Prudential Center, who has given the couple an open invitation to come for dinner any time they want.
“When they do come by, it makes my day, and the least I can do is not hand him a receipt,” said Archambault, who had the couple make a guest appearance at his recent wedding, where they handed out Boston Strong wristbands and posed for pictures with his guests.
“Superman wears a cape, but the hero around here wears a cowboy hat,” he said. “What he did that day is amazing.”
Another new friend is Kristen Daly, a local publicist who began managing their press appearances the day after the bombings, when they were receiving dozens of calls an hour from media all over the world, everyone from Oprah Winfrey to reporters in Northern Ireland.
“It was unlike anything I had ever seen in my career,” she said. “I usually die to have producers on the phone, but I had to say no to Oprah, the “Today Show,” CNN, CBS, and others. My job turned into insulating them to make sure they weren’t being exploited.”
She said Arredondo has received offers to appear in commercials, market cowboy hats, inaugurate the opening of boutiques, deliver motivational speeches, and endorse other products and organizations that didn’t seem fitting.
“For all the opportunities he has accepted, we’ve respectfully declined many appearances,” said Daly, who has worked pro bono for the couple, though she expects to earn money from the book, the sale of which she’s negotiating. “But he is a true phenom in the face of evil. The public really wants to see him, touch him, and embrace him.”
At the couple’s two-bedroom row house in Roslindale, which has become a living memorial to Arredondo’s sons and to his experience since the Marathon, there are stacks of cowboy hats and bags full of American flags, including the blood-stained flag he was carrying when the bombs detonated.
There are also awards from the City Council, Police Department, and other organizations that have honored him since April, T-shirts from many of the events he has attended, and plenty of Boston Strong and Boston Marathon paraphernalia, which have become part of his public uniform.
The publicity and praise has helped him, he said, but it hasn’t erased the trauma he has experienced over the past decade.
“There remains a lot of grieving,” he said.
On April 15, Arredondo went to Boylston Street to hand out flags and cheer on National Guard troops and Samaritans running in honor of his sons. After the bombings, he had to take pills to sleep and he still recoils at the memory of what he witnessed.
“There’s difficulty getting rid of the images in my head,” he said.
Meeting survivors and speaking on their behalf at public appearances eases the pain, he said.
“They’re using me, and I’m using myself,” he said. “It’s good to be with others who understand what you’re going through. I’ve found that sharing grief is very helpful.”