The Hero in the Cowboy Hat: Carlos Arredondo's Story, by Eugene Richards

6 minute read

After the tragic events at the Boston Marathon, a hero in a cowboy hat emerged. Carlos Arredondo was identified as helping Jeff Bauman in a now iconic photograph by Charles Krupa that appeared on front pages around the world. In 2006 Eugene Richards began photographing Arredondo, an antiwar activist, after he lost his first son in Iraq and eventually published his story in War Is Personal. Richards spoke to LightBox producer Vaughn Wallace about his relationship with Arredondo. Richards’ answers have been condensed and edited below.

We first heard about Carlos Arredondo in 2006 as we were researching War Is Personal. We came across the website for Gold Star Families for Peace as we looked for families impacted directly by the war. We had no preconceptions about who we were including in this book about the costs of Iraq. But we knew we didn’t want to be intrusive with someone who had just lost his child. That’s a heavy thing.

Janine (my wife) and I read a news report about someone who was quite angry, someone who accidentally lit himself on fire after learning — on his birthday — that his son was killed in Iraq. His son Alex enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17, and Carlos felt personally responsible for his life. When a group of Marines arrived at his home to notify him of Alex’s death, he became extremely emotional — as with many people I’ve photographed, it’s the ultimate nightmare.

“At that moment, not expecting those words, my world tumbled and I stopped breathing. I felt my heart go down to the ground and rush up through my throat,” Carlos later told me.

Carlos didn’t feel that the Marines allowed him enough privacy in this nightmare, so in his grief he reacted strongly, attacking the Marines’ van with a hammer before dousing it in gasoline and accidentally setting himself alight. Carlos never intended to inflict harm upon the Marines — he later apologized to them. He attended his son’s wake two weeks later on a stretcher.

Something didn’t quite read right to us — every other parent we talked to remarked about how they had felt like acting out in the way he actually did. We wanted to find out what the truth was, so that’s why we contacted him. But what we found instead was a person very emotional and reactive in the wake of a traumatic loss.

Carlos is a highly charged guy who’s always trying to do the good thing. After the death of his first son, he and his wife Melida both made a commitment to the peace movement. For years now they’ve been attending funerals of fallen soldiers and other public events and protests, work and aspiring for peace. I think it’s interrupted his ability to work. Full of passion and emotion, Melida is often the person who holds him together. In some respects, he seems to be unstoppable.

I’ve been with him as he pulls around a wagon with a photograph of Alex in a casket — an action that elicits a huge public response. Just blocks from the Boston Common, people spat on him, cursed him and taunted him for carrying a picture of a dead person in a coffin. This is something very revealing and terrible about the concept of what photographs can do. If you have the right image of carnage, you’re a hero. If you have the wrong image of the aftermath, you’re a villain.

This country reacts so strongly to those photographs — stronger even than to pictures of mortality. The casket is a metaphor for the unwatchable. People would come up and tell him he has no right to show this photo. And he would tell them that it’s his own son. It’s a conflicting image — that’s why people want it removed.

I visit Carlos and Melida periodically as friends. We don’t see each other that often, but we’re there for each other. When there’s a problem, they know that I’m there. Melida called me when Carlos’ remaining son, Brian, committed suicide in December 2011. You’re simply overwhelmed. You become incredulous because there’s nothing you can do. It’s an enormously helpless feeling. We offered to defray the cost of the funeral with the proceeds from War Is Personal.

I didn’t initially see the iconic image of Carlos from the Boston Marathon. I think Janine eventually told me it was him. Like a lot of people, it took a considerable amount of time for the true scope of this tragedy to sink in. You read a good deal about a tragedy and there’s a part of you that shuts off in direct response.

Carlos called me on Tuesday and we spoke for only a few moments. I find it ironic that people are just now starting to recognize that his life’s dedication is all about the pursuit of peace, and that it’s been that way since Alex’s death. It took an obvious act of terror to get people to realize Carlos’ story. Reporters keep saying that his life has come full circle, but I never considered it full circle. They like to see it as something very positive, which is profoundly stupid. His protest, and the last several years, have not been in a vacuum. He’s in support groups, he contacts families, he attends funerals. Even when I was photographing him for War Is Personal, Carlos was openly weeping for other people’s sons.

His story is an old story, and it’s embarrassing that we do not cover the consequences of war as we should. If a country is going to support a war, and if the media supports this country’s war, then we need to also examine the extent of this war at home and abroad. I hope this profoundly changes his life so that people give him the support he needs.

Maybe now people won’t spit on him or taunt him as they did before.

Richards is an award-winning American photographer. See more of War Is Personal at

War Is Personal
Carlos Arredondo grieves for his oldest son, who was killed in 2004 during the Iraq war, at his home in Roslindale, Mass., March 19, 2006.Eugene Richards
Carlos Arredondo views his son Brian for the first time since his death. Brian had been the sole surviving son of Arredondo, an antiwar activist who lost his first-born son in the Iraq war in 2004. Brian, 24, took his life on Dec. 19, 2011, the day after the announcement of the end of the Iraq war. Jamaica Plain, Mass., Dec. 26, 2011. Eugene Richards
Before leaving the funeral home on the day of the initial viewing, Melida Arredondo asked her husband to hold hands with their son Brian. Jamaica Plain, Mass., Dec. 26, 2011. Eugene Richards
The Arredondos hold their deceased son's hand. Jamaica Plain, Mass., Dec. 26, 2011. Eugene Richards
The viewing room at the Mann and Rodgers Funeral Home. Jamaica Plain, Mass., Dec. 26, 2011. Eugene Richards
After viewing his son Brian at the funeral home, Carlos Arredondo hangs a banner honoring both of his sons at a makeshift memorial at First Church Jamaica Plain Unitarian Universalist. Jamaica Plain, Mass., Dec. 26, 2011. Eugene Richards
Carlos Arredondo walks past a memorial to his deceased sons in his apartment. Roslindale, Mass., Dec. 26, 2011. Eugene Richards
Carlos Arredondo holds his wife before leaving the viewing. Jamaica Plain, Mass., Dec. 26, 2011. Eugene Richards
Makeup was applied to Brian's face, causing Melida to remark that the young man's freckles had been removed and that he now had the tan he always wanted. Jamaica Plain, Mass., Dec. 27, 2011. Eugene Richards
On the day of the wake, Carlos Arredondo grieves for his deceased son, 24-year-old Brian. Jamaica Plain, Mass., Dec. 27, 2011. Eugene Richards
On the day of the wake at the funeral home, Melida Arredondo touches the face of Brian. Jamaica Plain, Mass., Dec. 27, 2011. Eugene Richards

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