Dan Magoon was standing on the sidewalk on Seaport Boulevard the other day, shaking his head.
“This happens all the time,” he said, pointing at a bus that was full of men and women who had given parts of their bodies for their country on foreign battlefields.
“If the bus isn’t on a perfectly level surface, the lift won’t operate,” he said.
So the driver moved the bus back and forth, like he was rocking a baby to sleep, and at some point, someone yelled, “That’s perfect. Leave it there.”
The lift began lowering the wounded warriors to the ground. One of the first wheelchairs to hit the pavement belonged to a man named Tom Davis. Tom lost a leg in Iraq and gained a new status when he came home, as one of the premier hand cyclists in the world.
He retired from the Army a while back, but Tom Davis still carries himself like a soldier. Always will.
I put my hand out and he hit it, hard. I mean, really hard.
“What’s up, brother?” Tom Davis said in his flat Michigan accent.
In 2006, Tom Davis, a sergeant and squad leader, was riding shotgun in a Humvee in Ramadi. Their rig hit an IED and the Humvee was blown 20 feet into the air and flipped over. A private on board, Brett Tribble, was killed almost instantly. Davis was trapped under the rig, in the bomb crater, which began filling with water.
An Army medic named Jason Dickerson grabbed Davis and pulled Davis free, saving his life. Insurgents began raining machine gun fire down on the wounded Americans, but soldiers from a pair of other Humvees that escaped the blast fired back, fending off the attack.
At Walter Reed, the surgeons cut off Davis’s left leg. He was still in the hospital when someone brought him a handcycle. It was like handing a bat to a young Ted Williams.
Dan Magoon, a Boston firefighter who did three combat tours with the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, played the pied piper, and the men and women in wheelchairs followed him, rolling down the street and into the park that, in addition to the new church up on the corner of Sleeper Street in the Seaport, is the only sacred ground in a neighborhood of million-dollar condos and $60 steaks.
About eight years ago, Magoon and a bunch of Boston firefighters were sitting around Florian Hall, the firefighters shrine in Dorchester, having a couple of beers. They started talking about their friends who never made it back from war.
It got emotional, as these things do, when men and women who lost brothers and sisters in war sit down and remember them. So they pushed their beers away and enlisted a new army, a group of cops and firefighters and paramedics and EMTs, the people who deal with the wars on our city streets, and they pledged to build a memorial to their brothers and sisters who have died in service to their country since 9/11.
That’s how Massachusetts Fallen Heroes was formed, and, after enlisting the support of some corporate donors, the fruit of their labors is the magnificent park sandwiched between the high-rises and the high-end restaurants on Seaport Boulevard and Northern Avenue.
When they were all assembled at the place where the names of the fallen are etched on clear glass, Dan Magoon began to speak.
“We are here to remember our friends who made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said, and when he said that, all the veterans who surrounded me bowed their heads, as if in prayer.
“We’re here to remember your friends, too,” Dan Magoon told the wounded warriors.
“People thought we were nuts when we said we wanted to build this memorial. It’s the first of its kind in the nation. Maybe we were nuts. But here it is. And here we are. And we didn’t just get this built. We’re here to support our Gold Star families and our veterans, returning not just from Iraq and Afghanistan, but from all over the world. For us to have you part of our Marathon weekend, to be here with us when we lay the wreaths here, it’s all we could ever ask for.”
A veteran with two prosthetic legs walked slowly to the front and put a wreath on an easel. He did a slow salute. And then he walked back and blended in with everybody else.
We retired to the Scorpion Bar, where the staff, a bunch of earnest, well-scrubbed kids, bent over backwards to be nice to the wounded warriors. It was much noticed and much appreciated.
Tom Davis sat there with his brother from another mother, Alfredo “Freddie” De Los Santos, just shooting the breeze. Freddie lost his leg when a rocket-propelled grenade tore into his Humvee in Afghanistan. Tom is white, Freddie is black, and if you point that difference out to them they will look at you with blank stares. They’re Army brothers. They train together.
On the course, they want to kick each other’s butts. Again, like brothers.
Dan Magoon was standing off to the side, watching it all.
“This the sixth year we’ve hosted these guys,” he said. “It never gets old.”
Then Dan Magoon nodded his head and said, almost to himself, “I love these guys.”
At times like this, he can’t help but think about Army Sergeant Chris Rafferty, a guy from Brownsville, Pa., who was his mentor and his brother. He was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2006. Rafferty left a lovely wife named Wendy and two beautiful little girls named Samantha and Kayla.
Magoon’s greatest tribute to Chris Rafferty is not just honoring the dead, but fighting for the living. Mass Fallen Heroes is way more than a memorial in the Seaport. It’s a living, breathing organization that helps vets and Gold Star families and anyone who put their hand up and swore an oath to protect their fellow citizens and the Constitution.
Last year, when there was some kerfuffle over whether openly gay veterans could march in the St. Patrick’s parade in Southie, Dan Magoon made it clear to the veterans who organize the parade that he was on the side of the gay vets. They got to march.
Magoon doesn’t care what color you are, where you were born, whom you love, where you pray, and even if you don’t pray. If you served this country, Dan Magoon will serve you. That’s how he rolls.
That said, I personally witnessed Dan Magoon lie to all the wounded warriors from the Achilles Freedom Team the other day. He guaranteed it would be sunny for the Marathon.
Nobody’s perfect. And so neither was the weather on Monday, when Tom Davis and the rest of the Achilles team set off from Hopkinton.
When it was over, Tom Davis had won the handcycle division in Boston for a fourth time. He made his way to the bus parked on Clarendon Street, by St. James. The Hancock Tower conspired to create a fierce wind tunnel.
In the back of the bus, Tom Davis sat with his wife, Jamie, and his brother Freddie De Los Santos and he didn’t want to talk about how he won again. He wanted to talk about how Des Linden became the first American woman to win Boston in 33 years.
“She’s from Michigan,” Tom Davis said, pointing to the dark blue University of Michigan wool cap that covered his head. “Good day for Michigan.”
It was a good day for Vermont, too, because Alicia Dean is a Green Mountain girl and she kicked butt, winning the women’s handcycle division.
Tom Davis’s only disappointment is that there was no one from Ohio State on the bus, so he had no chops to bust.
As angry showers lashed Back Bay, Tom Davis and Freddie De Los Santos sat in the back of a warm, idling bus, appreciating the moment, appreciating each other, thinking of their brothers who never made it back, knowing that, unlike war, a little rain never hurt anyone.Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.