HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Just before 3 p.m. on April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded on Boylston Street in Boston ripping through a crowd that had gathered at the finish line of the city’s annual marathon. The explosion killed three and injured another 264 people.
Joe Fortini was a senior at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth when he watched the tragedy unfold.
“I had just gotten back from the gym and I was with all my friends watching TV when it came on the news,” said Fortini.
Like so many others, Fortini watched the footage of spectators and runners alike sprinting to safety as first responders charged onto the scene.
The Plymouth, Massachusetts’s native realized that day that the menace of terrorism was not some distant abstract, but rather a real and local threat.
“Before that, I guess I didn’t realize that stuff like that could happen here,” he said. “You don’t realize the enormity of it until it comes to your backyard.”
The actuality of the situation only grew more serious as authorities identified a fellow UMass-Dartmouth student, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, as being responsible for the horrific attack.
“I had seen the kid around campus,” said Fortini, thinking back how he struggled to process the information. “He was in class with some of my friends. My friends played soccer with him. He was in the dorm that my girlfriend at the time was in.”
Four days later, on Fortini’s birthday, authorities raided the college campus as part of a statewide manhunt.
“We were evacuated from campus,” Fortini said. “The National Guard came in with the Black Hawks. You had the FBI, state police, bomb squad, everybody was there.”
Law enforcement did not find Tsarnaev on campus, but did gather evidence that law enforcement officials used to capture and prosecute the terrorist.
Witnessing the attacks first hand and realizing that evil could lurk so close by, Fortini made the decision to join the Massachusetts National Guard to defend his country and community.
Five years after the bombing, Fortini’s decision to join the Army National Guard will bring him full circle to those fateful days in 2013. On April 16, 2018, Fortini, who is now a first lieutenant, plans to lead the 387th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, Massachusetts National Guard as the unit conducts anti-terrorism operations along the Boston Marathon Route.
Explosive Ordnance disposal units, or in layman’s terms, military bomb squads, are incredibly skilled and close knit communities. They only accept the most trained and qualified soldiers into their ranks.
“It really requires what has been characterized as a very special kind of courage,” said Lt. Col. Jay Rose, the former commander of the 387th EOD. “You are working in a discipline where men and women are asked to go to these dangerous situations and give everything they got, including up to laying down their lives to protect other people and preserve the mission. That is extremely admirable and it’s an extraordinary privilege to be associated with people like that.”
Fortini did not enter the Army as an EOD technician. Rather, he commissioned into the Quartermaster Corps. However, he quickly realized that path was not the one he wanted to travel.
“It just wasn’t for me,” said Fortini.
He started looking for other career opportunities and thought back to the Boston Marathon and the reason he joined the military in the first place. He started reaching out to officers within the EOD community, including Rose.
“He struck me as someone who was mature for his age and experience,” said Rose. “Someone who was very focused on learning quickly to be an effective leader. He gave me the sense that he wanted to really truly give as much as he could during his time in uniform.”
With Rose’s encouragement and recommendation, Fortini tried out for a position with the 387th EOD.
He had to prove that not only did he have the aptitude for the job, but had the physical and mental capacity as well.
To test that, he was strapped into an 80-pound bomb resistant suit and given a variety of tasks to accomplish.
“Some people will get claustrophobic and freak out,” said Fortini describing the cramped and sweltering protective gear. “But if you really want it, you’re not getting out of that suit.”
After passing the initial qualification tests and background check, Fortini found himself at the Naval School of Explosive Ordnance Disposal at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. There, the US military trains personnel in the handling and disposing of all sorts of explosive material.
“It’s a very long, very hard school,” said Fortini talking about the 11-month training program. “They say they smash a four year degree into a ten month period.”
After completing the challenging course, Fortini returned to Massachusetts and the 387th EOD. After only five months of being with his unit, Fortini was entrusted with the charge of being the units acting commander. One of the many responsibilities of the position is to execute security operations during large-scale events like the Boston Marathon.
The 387th EOD is part the Massachusetts National Guard’s 500 service member force that will assist local, state and federal authorities in maintaining public safety during the Marathon.
Fortini is excited to be a part of the shield that ensures the Boston Marathon is a safe and fun event for everyone involved.
“The reason I joined is because of what happened at the 2013 Marathon, now I get to be part of it,” he said. “It’s surreal, honestly.”
Fortini plays down his role and the importance of it.
“I’m just humbled and honored to do my part,” he said.
Rose, on the other hand knows that there is more to Marathon Monday for Fortini than he is willing to admit.
“It has the potential to be a little emotional for him,” admitted Rose. “There are going to be some memories that come flooding back as the day unfolds, but if there is anything that is certainly going to be felt, it is a sense of pride.”
“Joe took the fear that so many people felt in those series of dark days and turned it into something incredible,” said Rose. “He acted on those feelings in a really different way and made an extraordinary commitment to not only serving in the military, but also to doing something so few in the military do.”