Each year at the State of the Union, a handful of symbolically significant Americans are invited to Congress to have their experiences and achievements highlighted by the leader of the free world. Carlos Arredondo and Jeff Bauman top the list of invitees this year. The two were immortalized in photos taken moments after the Boston Marathon Bombing, when Arredondo came to Bauman’s aide, sporting a cowboy hat and constructing a makeshift tourniquet out of a sweatshirt.
Here’s what you need to know about this anti-war activist turned American hero:
1. His Son Was Killed in Iraq in 2004
On August 25, 2004, Arredondo was waiting for a birthday call from his first-born son Alexander, when a Marine van pulled in front of the Florida home he shared with his new wife, Melida. Arredondo would later relate the scene to the Washington Post:
“We’re looking for the family of Alexander Arredondo,” he remembers one of the Marines saying. “I am the family,” he said, and then “it was like my heart went all the way to the ground.”
Arredondo ran into his backyard, phoned Melida, his younger son Brian, stood up and sat down several times in his backyard’s grass, then returned to the front of the house and asked the Marines to leave. When they didn’t:
He remembers a Marine saying, “Sir, don’t do that,” and then he was in the van, first smashing windows, then splashing gasoline, and then igniting the torch, perhaps accidentally, perhaps intentionally, perhaps suicidally, perhaps, perhaps. “I just feel this explosion,” he says, describing what happened next. “It threw me out of the van, and immediately I feel the flames all over me. I feel the sensation of burning. The sensation I was on fire.
The Marines were able to put out the fire that was consuming Arredondo, or the literal anyway. But he emerged from the experience with burns on 26% of his body, and a new vocation: To end America’s war in Iraq.
2. He Attended the Marathon With Other Families of Fallen Soldiers
Tough Ruck were a group of 15 active-duty soldiers for the Massachusetts National Guard, who marched the 26 miles of the 2013 Boston Marathon carrying 40 pound rucksacks to pay homage to fallen soldiers. One soldier in the group was marching for Alexander Arredondo, and Carlos came to the marathon to observe his march.
Since Alexander’s death, Arredondo had committed himself to honoring his son’s memory, by joining with the families of other fallen soldiers to try to end the War in Iraq. His organization was called Gold Stars for Peace; their mission statement read:
“We as families of soldiers who have died as a result of war are organizing to be a positive force in our world to bring our country’s sons and daughters home from Iraq, [and] to minimize the human cost of this war…”
Arredondo traveled the country in a pickup truck with a coffin in its back. The sides of the truck were plastered with photos of Alex, the coffin filled with boy’s prized possessions. Arredondo told the New York Times: ““As long as there are marines fighting and dying in Iraq, I’m going to share my mourning with the American people.”
3. He Was an Undocumented Immigrant for Most of His Life
Arredondo snuck into the United States when he was 19. He married Alex’s mother, Victoria, in 1983. The couple separated shortly after the birth of their second son Brian in 1987, and a long-running custody battle ensued. Arredondo was prohibited from seeing his sons by court order for much of their teenage years. He resumed contact with the boys in 2000.
In 2004, Congress passed a bill making the undocumented parents of those killed in action eligible for citizenship. Arredondo became a citizen on December 12, 2006, legally changing his name to Alexander Brain Arredondo.
4. His Son Brian Killed Himself in 2011
In an interview with Time Magazine from 2009, Melida said: “My son Brian, he is 22, and he can’t seem to do anything without thinking about Alex. We are very worried about him.”
On December 19, 2011, Brian’s biological mother Victoria and her husband found him hanging from the rafters of the backyard shed where he’d been living. Near his body, he’d left of IM conversation between his step-mother Melida, and a marine who was with Alex when he died. His suicide came the day after US Troops were officially withdrawn from Iraq.
5. After the First Explosion He Ran Toward the Smoke
When the bombs went off last April, Arredondo found himself defying official orders and natural instinct by running toward the flames. Arredondo came to the aid of Jeffrey Bauman, fashioning a tourniquet from torn pieces of a sweatshirt he found on the ground. Bauman would lose both his legs. The two have become friends in the months since.
Arredondo’s reaction marks a stark contrast from the first time he was confronted by such catastrophic shock. Then his instinct had been to destroy himself, this time it was to save others. He told the Washington Post:
“You have to get out of that shock that comes with tragedy.In this case, my instinct was to be a humanitarian.”
That humanitarian instinct is likely what President Obama will look to highlight in his speech on Tuesday night.