When the bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, Brennan Mullaney and Eusebio Collazo were together on the course at mile 25.
Mullaney, now a captain in the Army reserves, served 15 months in Iraq. Collazo of Humble, Texas, a former Marine corporal, was injured in Iraq's Anbar province by mortar shrapnel; he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
They were approaching Boylston Street as members of a national nonprofit group that promotes healing among veterans, Team Red, White & Blue. And then suddenly the tables turned, and they found themselves helping to heal and comfort a city that had never experienced a roadside bomb.
"The real crazy symbolism here is that this was essentially an IED, an improvised explosive device," said Army Maj. Mike Erwin, who founded the team in 2010 to help veterans heal and re-integrate into their communities through running and other physical activities. "What runners and the community experienced in Boston is the exact same thing that hundreds of thousands of service members have experienced since 2002, when they started using IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan."
As smoke wafted across Boylston Street and maimed marathon spectators lay across a bloody sidewalk, one veteran, an Army colonel and runner, shifted into combat mode as he crossed the finish line. He turned back into the chaos, peeled off his Team Red, White & Blue T-shirt and tied it as a tourniquet on the limb of a bombing victim.
More than 10,000 veterans and supporters in 36 states have signed up to be part of the organization, running, trail running, training for triathlons and doing yoga.
"Exercise is therapeutic. It allows you to think and process. And it's a hell of a lot better than sitting across from a shrink," Erwin said.
So the Boston Marathon became a maximum therapy session Monday for 17 Team Red, White & Blue participants, running the rolling hills from Hopkinton, through Natick, Newton and Wellesley, and then into Boston until, by the time Mullaney and Collazo approached, it became a war zone.
"Some lady on the street said there's been a bomb at the finish line," Mullaney said. "We looked at each other and thought, that's a terrible joke to play on someone. We kept running, but then I started to pick up on clues that maybe something really did happen."
Sirens blared from all directions and, up ahead on Commonwealth Avenue, race officials had shut down the course. The vets went from people running to heal, to people counseling their fellow runners. "It is a lot like the tables have turned," Mullaney said. "There's a number of civilians who've been put in a war zone, and there's a number of veterans who've experienced that and can say, 'We're here.' "
In the chaotic aftermath of the bombing, Team Red, White & Blue team members from across the country began posting on Facebook a photo and a short video of the shirtless colonel aiding a victim on the sidewalk.
Wrote one: "A picture of Team RWB in action today in Boston, taking his shirt off to provide first aid to the injured. We are posting these pictures and videos as they come in because we feel it is important to remind one another of the positive things happening amid the chaos and the evil."