An Attack Comes Home: A soldier’s reflection on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing

By Nathan Finney

I can hear my heart in my ears, blocking out anything but the swoosh-swoosh, swoosh-swoosh. My ears pop with every breath. My shirt clings to me as it drips with perspiration, weighing down my exhausted body. Preoccupied with my pain and fatigue, I don’t hear the sound.

People around me scurry in random directions. Words pass between them that I cannot hear. Eventually I grasp the meaning — an explosion; innocent people are dead.

I immediately think of my friends and family. Are they safe? My chest constricts, my breath quickens, and my vision narrows into a tunnel focused straight ahead. My limbs move of their own accord, carrying me from one person to the next. I try to determine exactly what is happening and what I can do. After too long a period I learn that everyone is safe.

Just as I think the crisis is over, gunfire erupts. A laborious, deliberate, careful search for the shooter ensues. Hours pass, each more tense than the next. The anxiety of the unknown is more unbearable than the fear of flying bullets. One local police officer is murdered while searching for the perpetrators of the bombing. After what seems like an eternity the local police receive a tip and swoop in to conclude the situation uncharacteristically peacefully. Once again, the veil of safety descends…for now.

As this scenario plays out in my memory, two universes collide. One is Baqubah, Iraq in late 2005, where I am a young leader of soldiers combating an insurgency. The other is Boston in early 2013, where I am running a marathon for a local charity. Together, they are a very similar event in detail, but possess two divergent results.

Whether in combat gear or running shorts, I feel my body aching from the heat and physical exertion of the day. In my mind’s eye I am methodically going about my business, searching a house in Iraq while simultaneously putting one tired foot in front of the other on Boylston Street. I have not been paying attention to the surrounding world when others bring me out of my own internal world.

In Iraq, my platoon sergeant pulls me aside and tells me that some of our soldiers heard a blast off to the east. One of our Humvees was in that area. They have not called in since the blast, so we dispatch another truck to the site. Anxiety amongst our unit is palpable. A roadside bomb struck each of us at least once so far in our tour, but we’ve been lucky to only have scrapes, bruises, and temporary loss of hearing as injuries. We each were worrying at that point that our luck may have run out. Within a few minutes I receive a call on my radio that the truck had been away from the blast, but was now at the site trying to secure it. Lady luck was still in residence.

As these wartime memories flow over me I am also in Boston. It is 2:50 PM, 15 April 2013. I cross the 26-mile marker, mere minutes from the finish line. I am running slower than I’d like, which is in retrospect a blessing. Until the last ten miles, I had kept up with my fellow soldiers running the course for a veteran’s organization, all of us in our bright red Team Red, White and Blue shirts. One of these soldiers was wearing a camouflage water pack, one that I would only see later in pictures.

A Boston police officer steps into the middle of Boylston and stops the dozens of marathoners struggling to finish the race. The seething mass of runners battling mightily to finish the last quarter-mile practically collapses at the cessation of motion. Faces contort in pain as limbs cramp up. No one understands how it is possible that we are being stopped so close to the end. So distracted by physical exhaustion, few heard the blasts a mere 0.2 miles ahead.

Word begins to flow through the weaving crowd that explosions had ripped through the throng of people gathered at the finish line. While most runners lean against barricades and each other, others huddle around smartphones to try and get the latest news flash, tweet or Facebook post. Phones are passed around to try and call or text loved ones, believed to be at the finish line for the now-postponed celebration.

My iPhone battery died at mile 19. Using it for music and to track my run sucked the battery dry. Luckily, a friend catches up with me and has a phone still working. The limited number of cell towers in the downtown Boston area could not match the need of tens of thousands of panicked users. Calls will not connect and texts take agonizing minutes to even consider sending. After what feels like forever, a text comes back from our families: we’re fine, huddled in a doorway waiting. With the relief those few words bring, I begin to feel the effects of 26 miles of running and a sudden stop. My body temperature drops and I begin to shake. My running partner and I find a small Chinese restaurant to wait out the evacuation of our families and get some warmth. After hours of navigating a mass transit-less urban area, and a steaming plate of chicken fried rice, we are reunited with our families and friends in safety miles away.

Though my Boston self never sees the results of the explosions in Copley Square, I imagine the grandstand looks much like the al Abarra canal road outside Baqubah, Iraq so many years before. Just as in Boston, I recall a similar, almost peaceful, calm setting in around the scene of the blast in Iraq. My head weighed down by my combat helmet, I peer down the road that hugs an Iraqi canal and see a crumpled mess that was a van full of commuters: men, women and children. Tires are blown from the vehicle, glass littering the ground for yards, and the detritus of daily human existence spread evenly along the road. I immediately smell the odor that always brings vivid memories of my year in Iraq — a mix of gunpowder and burned hair with more than a hint of the iron in fresh blood.

I look at my feet and find a small, brown Quran, miraculously undamaged amongst pieces of blue-tinted glass and shards of torn metal. I gingerly pick it up and leaf through it in wonder. Hand-written notes are scribbled along the edges of pages.

As I look up from the Quran more grisly sights are forcefully lodged into my brain –blood pooling under broken bodies; seats separate from the van, upright in the middle of the road and stained red; a large black hole blasted deep into the asphalt. These sights play out like a slide show in my mind, merging with pictures I see of the Boston Marathon bombing. Substitute running gear for military uniforms and the scene is practically identical. Blood and detritus litter the area as local emergency officials and soldiers battle to save lives and limbs.

Seeing the images of the men and women who endured the blasts on April 15, 2013, the same metallic-blood smell I encountered in Iraq emanates in my nostrils. The photos of soldiers, just finishing a 26.2 mile ruck march in full gear, pulling apart barricades to allow access of emergency personnel to the injured, or the active duty colonel ripping off his Team Red, White and Blue running shirt to bind the leg wounds of a young lady are superimposed on memories of that blast site in Iraq. My Team RWB friend with the camouflage pack figures prominently in pictures. Like in Iraq, I was only minutes behind my comrades.

In Iraq gunfire rings out and I scramble for cover, searching for the source of the attack. As my soldiers and I converge on the source, we find an Iraqi policeman lying in the courtyard of a two-story mud brick house. His body lies on the ground peacefully; the only sign of violence evident at the back of his skull, which is spattered around the entire area. A large amount of grey matter, and an astonishingly small amount of blood, establishes in a grisly way the angle at which his attacker shot him. I send my men into the house to clear up to the roof. After a brief search we determine the gunman had slipped out the back door into the palm groves that ring this housing area.

I enter these palm groves, walking the same route of the gunman. I push myself through the tangible wall of humidity that separates the dry heat of the housing area and the humid dense growth of trees. The quiet calm of the grove is unsettling. For hours we trudge through these palms and search houses in the area. We find nothing.

IMG_1600.JPGHours later the Iraqi police receive a tip from a local man that the bomber-shooter fled to a local hospital for treatment. During his firefight with us he was shot in the arm and leg. The Iraqi police surge on the hospital and arrest the injured man, a peaceful resolution to an otherwise violent day.

An eerily similar situation occurs in Boston, where after a few brief moments of calm are shattered by gunfire in Cambridge and Watertown. These two suburbs of Boston proper, the latter a mile from my home, see my wife and me commuting through town every day.

Officials are on the radio telling everyone to “shelter in place;” we’re in lockdown. Life ceases outside of the news and keeping the children occupied enough indoors to stop them asking, “Can we go play outside?” When innocent questions turn to indignation at being kept cooped up on such a glorious spring day, they are told that bad men are about and the police need everyone to stay inside so that we are out of their way. After seeing the look of fear on the face of my young daughters, I am happy to be carrying my gun concealed at my belt…just in case.

I step outside and feel the mood of the city; memories of the world described by Cormac McCarthy in The Road crowd my senses. For an area that contains about 4.6 million people, about a tenth of which traverse the road in front of my house, there is an eerie, calm silence. The only sounds are the periodic sirens and the tinkling of my neighbor’s wind chimes. Trash that was to be collected that day sits on the curb for as far as my eye can see.

After what seems like an eternity, the brave men and women in blue find the remaining gunman hiding in a parked boat. The irony of a sea-going getaway vehicle in dry-dock is not lost on the blogosphere and social media. The entire city breathes an audible sigh of relief, then heads out into the streets to celebrate. It was like the second coming of the 2004 World Series victory by the Boston Red Sox — only the Boston PD played the part of the victorious ball players.

As much as these two events merge in my mind, indicating illusive similarities, they are in reality two distinct events with very different conclusions. The successful manhunt brought on temporary feelings of release that were nowhere to be found in 2005 Iraq. In that country torn by occupation, insurgency, and a burgeoning violent ethnic division, the human and organizational infrastructure did not exist for the quick law enforcement work and judicial process still churning away in Boston.

Where in Iraq the bombings continued and the deaths mounted higher and higher, the weeks after the Boston attack were filled with memorial runs, memorial services and attempts to transition back to normal routines. Boston came together in very admirable ways. Hash tags of #BostonStrong and pictures of marathoners with black bands on their medals filled the web.

The key difference between the two events is in how the two societies handled them — the resiliency in their institutions and the trust in their fellow citizens. For months after the attack in Baqubah we continued to fight for peace and security, ultimately losing control in February 2006 when terrorists bombed the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, damaging its famed golden dome. This attack was the spectacular straw that broke the camel’s back, kicking off the sectarian violence that was only quelled by tens of thousands of more U.S. troops and a change in the political situation between extremists and local Sunnis in the west of the country.

In contrast, within hours of the bombing in Boston people were outside running to show support and providing financial, medical and moral support for the injured people they had never met. While what will become of Boston is yet to be fully written, the stability of American society and the security infrastructure of the Commonwealth would lead one to believe there will be a return peace and security only slightly jaded by recent events. Planning for next year’s Boston Marathon is already in the works and I foresee even larger participation than this year.

As for personal resiliency, there is little for me to be afraid of in the U.S. after I experienced the violence and unpredictability of war. Past experiences like those in Iraq equipped me to cope with a scale of violence far beyond the horrific events in Boston. Additionally, the amazing resiliency of this New England city was in evidence even on the day of the bombing, including amongst the citizen-soldiers in attendance. I am amazed at how the soldiers at the Boston bombing immediately fell back on their instincts and training to provide support to injured men and women, as well as assist law enforcement and emergency medical services personnel. Even surrounded by their own social fabric, torn by a tragic event too similar to their wartime experiences, they were able to overcome their present civilian capacities and act like the heroes they are.

In honor of these men and women, from those injured to those that healed them, those in blue to those in green, I will run again next year. This time, I’ll cross that famed gold-and-blue finish line.