BOSTON (April 28, 2014) -- Many Americans have seen the shaky photos and videos taken when the bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. Among the many people who went to the aid of the injured, there are glimpses of runners who stripped off their shirts to tie tourniquets around the shattered limbs of bomb victims.
One of those unknown runners was Col. Everett Spain, an Army engineer who is earning a doctorate in management at the Harvard Business School. On April 18, in a ceremony on the school's Baker Lawn, Spain received the Soldier's Medal, the Army's highest award for valor in a non-combat situation.
But Spain has shunned any publicity, avoided interviews with the civilian news media.
"First and foremost, I was brought up to believe that military officers should never seek praise for themselves," Spain said. "Our purpose is to serve others through character and leadership."
Despite Spain's modesty, his actions are a matter of public record in images taken during the Boston Marathon attack. He was only about 100 yards from the finish line when the bombs exploded.
He was escorting Steve Sabra, a 58-year old visually impaired runner who frequently selects Harvard Business School students to be his race guides. Spain's wife, Julia, escorted Sabra on the first 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of the race. Tom Hennessey and Scott McBride, both Harvard Business School students and Navy veterans, also escorted Sabra. Hennessy ran from the 10K to the 20K mile markers, and McBride from the 10K to the 30K, where Spain took over to escort Sabra to the finish line. McBride decided to tag along to the end.
The trio was 100 yards from the finish line when the first bomb detonated about 50 yards ahead. Moments later, the second bomb detonated about 210 yards behind the first.
Spain is a 22-year Army veteran with combat experience. In Iraq he received the Purple Heart while with the 1st Cavalry Division, and later served as the aide-de-camp of Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, during "The Surge." He is also a graduate of the elite U.S. Army Ranger School.
So the moment the bombs exploded, Spain instinctively grabbed Sabra's elbow and sprinted to the finish line. McBride escorted Sabra to his family waiting in the reunion area while Spain ran back to the site of the first explosion.
"It's what Soldiers do," Spain said. "Scott had positive control of Steve and was taking him toward safety, so it was my responsibility to run to the critical point and see if I could help. I've served with thousands of brave and selfless service members and civilians throughout my time in the Army, and they all had high expectations of me and each other to always try to do the right thing."
He found several severely wounded people on the sidewalk, including a man bleeding profusely from his lower left leg while his daughter, distraught and wounded herself, frantically tried to stop her father's bleeding. Spain immediately removed his shirt and tied it tightly around the man's wound.
"My husband, Ron, had lost a large portion of his leg," said Karen Brassard, recounting the moment. "I had a sweater and tried to make a tourniquet, but it just didn't work. My daughter panicked; she thought she was going to lose her dad. Then Everett came and tied another tourniquet and got my daughter to calm down enough to let Ron go so that they could take him to a tent. Everett had been in battle and had seen stuff like this. He was so self-assured, so calm that my daughter trusted him. It was amazing to watch."
Spain then moved to a woman lying in a pool of blood in the doorway of an athletic store while another responder tried unsuccessfully to put pressure on the wound. Spain secured a jacket from the store, tied its arms into a tourniquet just above the woman's leg wound, and used a sturdy clothes hanger to tighten the tourniquet. He and the other responder then held the woman's legs in the air until emergency medical technicians arrived several minutes later.
Spain heard the athletic store's fire alarms and searched for possible victims trapped inside that store and two neighboring buildings. When he exited the third building, uniformed responders asked him if he was all right, then ordered him to depart the area.
Spain was smeared with blood (not his own), and a concerned bystander escorted him to the race's medical tent. There Spain saw a woman with multiple serious limb injuries and severe burns wheeled in on a gurney and left alone. She was shaking and turning pale, which Spain recognized as symptoms of shock, so he got another blanket and then stayed with her, talking to her and comforting her. Several minutes later, Spain accompanied her in an ambulance to Boston Medical Center, holding her hand and reassuring her the entire way.
Thinking back on that day, Spain says that he doesn't remember being scared because his training kicked in automatically.
"I remember a lot of that day vividly, but some things I simply do not remember, for example treating one of the victims who captured in photographs."
Spain and his family have kept in touch with the people he aided and their families. Six survivor families, including all of those that Spain met that day, attended the ceremony where he received the Soldier's Medal. The Soldier's Medal is the Army's highest award for valor in a non-combat situation involving personal danger and voluntary risk of life. The award requires the same level of valor as the Distinguished Service Cross, had the situation involved combat.
"Without hesitation we were on board with the Soldier's Medal because it isn't easy to run back into danger with no idea how any more bombs there were or what you're going to see," said family member Karen Brassard. "It's not a natural instinct to do that. He is such a genuinely good man, and I think he deserved such recognition, even though that's so anti-Everett."
Spain says it is difficult to explain why he reacted as he did that day.
"I can say with perfect honesty that it was not me who ran toward the smoke, but the values deliberately imprinted on me by my faith, my family, my friends, my mentors, the many character-building institutions I've been privileged to be associated with, and our American spirit," Spain said in his speech during the ceremony. "Those values ran toward that smoke."
Spain says that any Soldier has the training and the values to do what he did.
"I'm no hero; I'm simply a work in progress," he said in his speech during the ceremony. God has His own timing, and I hope I was able to be a small help to others during their time of need. The truth is that all past, present and future U.S. service members and their families would have done the same things I did, and more."
On April 21, just a few days after the Soldier's Medal ceremony, Spain and his wife ran the Boston Marathon again and finished together. Julia is also at Harvard getting a masters degree in extension studies, with a concentration in international relations.
"Julia and I ran the whole thing together," Spain said. One of the families that he assisted gave them invitation entries. The family received the entries from the Boston Athletic Association to give to whoever they wished. "It was Julia's first marathon and it was a great experience as a couple."
Spain will graduate from the Harvard Business School in May with a doctorate in management. His previous assignment was commander of U.S. Army Garrison Schweinfurt in Germany. His next assignment is to the faculty of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point teaching in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership.