How Boston survivors are staying strong 5 years after the marathon attack

It’s been five years since twin blasts near the Boston Marathon’s finish line changed thousands of lives forever.

Since then, survivors of the April 15, 2013, attack have endured surgeries, post-traumatic stress and hearing loss. They’ve had to relearn how to walk and to rebuild their lives.

They’ve also written books, launched charitable organizations, run more marathons, had babies, and developed lifelong and even romantic relationships with their heroes. They proved to be “Boston Strong.”

HuffPost recently caught up with five of these incredible people. Here are their stories.

Rebekah Gregory

It’s been a whirlwind five years for Rebekah Gregory.

The 31-year-old, who lost part of her left leg from the blasts, has divorced, run the Boston Marathon on a prosthetic limb, married her college sweetheart, had her second child (something doctors told her wasn’t possible), wrote a memoir, and this year started a nonprofit to help children with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“When I look at my life ... it’s just been absolutely crazy. It’s unrecognizable really,” she told HuffPost. “I almost feel like we were given a second chance at life that other people, unfortunately, didn’t get that day and that’s a huge responsibility.”

Her son, Noah, is also a survivor. At 5 years old, he was by her side when the bombs went off.

Although Noah was physically shielded from the blast by his mom, he was still emotionally scarred and he’s needed therapy for post-traumatic stress. His experience inspired Gregory to launch her nonprofit in February. Rebekah’s Angels works to provide therapy for children dealing with PTSD.

“I really felt a calling for it when I noticed how well Noah responded to therapy and treatment. Even though Noah wasn’t as injured as I was, emotionally he was really messed up from the bombing,” she said. “There was a time when he wouldn’t leave the house. He was afraid to interact with the world.”

We were given a second chance at life that other people, unfortunately, didn’t get that day and that’s a huge responsibility -- Rebekah Gregory

While doing research on her son’s condition, Gregory was surprised to learn that most children who experience trauma don’t get treatment. “So mentally they’re never OK,” she said. Years later this can lead to substance abuse or violent behavior or suicide, she noted.

“There’s a lot of things for the military and adults with PTSD, but no one has honed in on childhood PTSD,” she said.

Her foundation’s goal is not only to provide treatment for children nationwide but also to cover the costs. They’re seeking private and corporate donations to support this mission, she said.

Besides the nonprofit and various speaking events, Gregory is kept busy raising Noah, now 10, and daughter Ryleigh, 2. In November, she also underwent surgery because of shrapnel still in her leg.

“I have hundreds of pieces still lodged in my body and every time they come to the surface, they have to go in and do another surgery, but they don’t realize the damage until they’re in there,” she said.

Despite that ongoing struggle, Gregory considers herself fortunate.

“It’s tough some days, but I think that everybody goes through their own stuff,” she said. Everyone may not have survived a bombing attack, but as she sees it, “every single person has life blow up in their face.” 

Scenes from the day of the attack:

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Boston Marathon bombing: April 15, 2013
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Boston Marathon bombing: April 15, 2013
Runners continue to run towards the finish line of the Boston Marathon as an explosion erupts near the finish line of the race in this photo exclusively licensed to Reuters by photographer Dan Lampariello after he took the photo in Boston, Massachusetts, April 15, 2013. Two simultaneous explosions ripped through the crowd at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, killing at least two people and injuring dozens on a day when tens of thousands of people pack the streets to watch the world famous race. REUTERS/Dan Lampariello (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW SPORT ATHLETICS) MANDATORY CREDIT
BOSTON - APRIL 15: Two explosions went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - APRIL 15: Police officers with their guns drawn hear the second explosion down the street. The first explosion knocked down 78-year-old US marathon runner Bill Iffrig at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - APRIL 15: A second explosion goes off (rear) as a runner was blown to the ground by the first explosion near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 15: A man is loaded into an ambulance after he was injured by one of two bombs exploded during the 117th Boston Marathon near Copley Square on April 15, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Two people are confirmed dead and at least 23 injured after two explosions went off near the finish line to the marathon. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
First responders rush to where two explosions occurred along the final stretch of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Monday, April 15, 2013. Two powerful explosions rocked the finish line area of the Boston Marathon near Copley Square and police said many people were injured. Photographer: Kelvin Ma/Bloomberg via Getty Images
BOSTON - APRIL 15: Boston Police struggle to remove barricades to reach victims of the first explosion that went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon,. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - APRIL 15: A second explosion goes off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 15: A member of the bomb squad investigates a suspicious item on the road near Kenmore Square after two bombs exploded during the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Two people are confirmed dead and at least 23 injured after two explosions went off near the finish line to the marathon. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 15: Two blood stained feet of a man hang outside an ambulance outside a medical tent located near the finish of the 117th Boston Marathon after two bombs exploded on the marathon route on April 15, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Two people are confirmed dead and at least 23 injured after two explosions went off near the finish line to the marathon. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
BOSTON - APRIL 15: A man comforts an injured woman on the sidewalk at the scene of the first explosion on Boylston Street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - APRIL 15: A man helps two crying women to evacuate the scene after two explosions went off on Boylstron Street near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A video grab shows the victims of one of the blasts at the finish line of the Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts on April, 15, 2013. At least two people were killed and 23 others wounded when two explosions struck near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, sparking scenes of panic, police said. AFP PHOTO / Marc Hagopian / AFPTV (Photo credit should read Marc Hagopian/AFP/Getty Images)
BOSTON - APRIL 15: Boston Police look at blown out windows at the scene of the first explosion on Boylston Street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - APRIL 15: A man runs from the scene on Exeter Street after two explosions went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. (Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - APRIL 15: Katherine Swierk, left, is reunited with her aunt Terry Days, center, and friend Jocelyn Cascio outside Copley Square in Boston after two explosions went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. Swierk was a race volunteer and Cascio ran the race, dropping out after 25.6 miles. (Photo by John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - APRIL 15: (EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS IMAGE CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT) Injured people lie on the sidewalk near a barrier at the scene of the first explosion that went off near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Blood and debris are seen on the sidewalk along Boylston Street a day after two explosions hit the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts April 16, 2013. Two bombs packed with ball bearings tore through crowds near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, killing three people and triggering a massive hunt for those behind an attack the White House said would be treated as "an act of terror." REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST SPORT ATHLETICS)
Boston Marathon runners Lisa Kresky-Griffin and Tammy Snyder (L) embrace at the barricaded entrance at Boylston Street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts April 16, 2013. Two bombs packed with ball bearings tore through crowds near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and triggering a massive hunt for those behind an attack the White House said would be treated as "an act of terror." REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT ATHLETICS CIVIL UNREST)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 16: Claire Schaeffer Dufy walks with a sign she made to support her runner husband, Scott, near the scene of a twin bombing at the Boston Marathon on April 16, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. The twin bombings, which occurred near the marathon finish line, resulted in the deaths of three people while hospitalizing at least 128. The bombings at the 116-year-old Boston race, resulted in heightened security across the nation with cancellations of many professional sporting events as authorities search for a motive to the violence. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 15: The outter perimeter near Massachusetts Avenue and Newbury Street is secured by police after two explosive devices detonated at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Two people are confirmed dead and at least 23 injured after two explosions went off near the finish line to the marathon. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)
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Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes

Of all the stories Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes can tell, the best is not the one about what they’ve lost but the one about what they’ve found.

The bombs took three legs from the Boston couple, who were watching the marathon as newlyweds. But this month they released their first children’s book, drawing inspiration from their own relationship with service dog Rescue.

Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship highlights the bond between a girl learning to live with two prosthetic legs and her service dog. It is loosely based on Kensky’s own life, with the characters in the book sharing her and her dog’s names.

The book, which was illustrated by Boston Marathon runner Scott Magoon, aims to educate others about people with disabilities. It has also served as a kind of therapy for the couple.

“Even when we were in a bad place, this was a project that we could work on that would brighten our moods and get us thinking critically and analytically, imagining what children would think and how they’d feel,” Downes told HuffPost.

“It’s been so exciting to see kids really getting it, really getting the emotions of the book,” Kensky said of the response so far. “Because we often don’t trust kids to be able to handle sadness, hopelessness, kind of some of the feelings that we as adults try to shield kids from.”

Instead, they said they’ve found children to be extremely understanding, albeit inquisitive and even amazed by their physical differences and prosthetics. In a video of them discussing the book, Downes recalls comparing himself to a Transformer robot to a curious young boy, which really wowed the child.

Hopefully we’ve paved a trail here, and we’re hoping other people will come in and help fill the gaps -- Jessica Kensky

“We need more people with different disabilities in media,” Downes said. “They deserve to have a hero.”

“Hopefully we’ve paved a trail here, and we’re hoping other people will come in and help fill the gaps,” Kensky said.

In addition to authoring their first book, the couple completed the Boston Marathon in 2014 using handcycles, which are arm-powered bicycles. Two years after that, Downes completed the marathon on a prosthetic running blade. 

He was the first bombing amputee to complete the marathon on foot after the attack.

As for Rescue, he was honored last November as the Dog of the Year by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for his impact on the lives of Kensky and Downes.

A portion of the proceeds from their book will go to NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services), a nonprofit that provides service dogs. The group donated Rescue to Kensky about six months after her first amputation.

“Our hope is that we raise funds and awareness for NEADS and the great work that they do,” Downes said. “We hope by doing our little part we can support a lot more teams of amazing humans.”  

MORE: Where survivors of the bombing are today

14 PHOTOS
Where survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing are today
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Where survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing are today
BOSTON, MA - JULY 4: Ritajayne Rivera wears American themed sneakers with the date of the Boston Marathon bombing written on them before the start of the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular in Boston on Jul. 4, 2017. Rivera was near the first bomb during marathon. (Nicholas Pfosi for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 16: Marc Fucarile and Patrick Downes, Boston Marathon bombing survivors and members of the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans, are introduced during a ceremony before a game between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays on April 16, 2017 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27: Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman talks with Amy Purdy after his lap in the IndyCar two seater at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 27, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
CAMBRIDGE, MA - MARCH 26: Jessica Kensky and her service dog Rescue at their home in Cambridge, Mass., March 26, 2018. Jessica and her husband Patrick Downes were injured in the Boston Marathon Bombing. Her dog, Rescue, changed her life and she has written a children's book 'Rescue & Jessica' based on her experiences with losing her legs. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
ROME, ITALY - OCTOBER 28: Actor Jake Gyllenhaal (L) and writer Jeff Bauman (R), victim of Boston marathon bombing 2013 attend the red carpet of the movie 'Stronger' during 12th Film Fest of Rome at Auditorium Parco Della Musica in Rome, Italy on October 28, 2017. (Photo by Primo Barol/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 16: Boston Marathon bombing survivors Patrick Downes, left, and Jessica Kensky pose for photos with Kensky's service dog Rescue at the 2017 ASPCA Humane Awards in New York City on Nov. 16, 2017. Rescue was named the ASPCA's Dog of the Year. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Meb Keflezighi, of the United States, 2014 winner of the Boston Marathon, kisses the hand of Bill Richard, who lost his son, Martin, in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, after Keflezighi finished the 121st Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., April 17, 2017. REUTERS/Gretchen Ertl
BOSTON, MA - MARCH 15: Lynn Crisci, survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, poses for a portrait in Boston on Mar. 15, 2017. People who suffered PTSD from the Boston Marathon bombings say they have never been fully recognized as survivors of the terrorist attacks. As the fourth anniversary of the bombing nears, survivors who did not receive compensation from the One Fund say they feel marginalized. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 22: Adrianne Haslet-Davis, Boston Marathon bombing survivor, is honored wearing her 2016 Boston Marathon completion medal during the second quarter of Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals between the Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on April 22, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 1: David Ortiz #34 of the Boston Red Sox greets Boston Marathon bombing survivors during a ceremony honoring his accomplishments off the field on October 1, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
NEWTON, MA - APRIL 18: Boston Marathon bombing survivor Patrick Downes, center, runs along Commonwealth Avenue near 'Heartbreak Hill' in Newton, Mass., during the 120th Boston Marathon on April 18, 2016. (Photo by Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - APRIL 17: The family of the late Martin Richard, the 8-year-old Dorchester boy who was killed three years ago in the Boston Marathon bombings, acknowledges the crowd as they are introduced to the crowd while standing on top of the Boston Red Sox dugout between innings of a game between the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park in Boston on April 17, 2016. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - JULY 21: Rebekah Gregory, a Boston Marathon bombing survivor throws out the first pitch at Minute Maid Park on July 21, 2015 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
NORTH ANDOVER, MA - MAY 28: Air National Guard Lt. Col. John Klatt invited Boston Marathon bombing survivors, Celeste Corcoran, from Lowell, and her daughter Sydney, 20, to fly in formation over the Merrimack Valley. Klatt is one of the top performing aerobatic pilots in the country. He will be performing with his fellow stunt-pilots of the John Klatt Airshows this Saturday and Sunday along with the Blue Angels at the Quonset Air Show in Rhode Island where the Corcorans will be his VIP guests. Celeste flew in the front seat of Klatt's plane while it does a roll, while Sydney was in the front seat of pilot Dell Coller's (red) plane. The other plane was piloted by Jeff Boerboon. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
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Roseann Sdoia 

Tragedy has been known to bind people together, like bombing survivor Roseann Sdoia and Boston firefighter Mike Materia.

The couple, who exchanged wedding vows on Cape Cod last fall, met five years ago when he came to her rescue after the bombs went off.

“Our whole relationship has not been textbook dating,” Sdoia told HuffPost.

Materia and two others ― Boston police officer Shana Cottone and then-college student Shores Salter ― rushed to her aid following the blast, with Materia holding her hand the entire way to the hospital. She lost most of her right leg that day. 

Fast forward to this week. They are six months into their marriage, with Materia preparing to participate in the Boston Marathon for the first time while raising money for the Ed Walsh Foundation, which benefits Boston-area families and organizations.

“He’s not a runner at all,” Sdoia said, “so this is really kind of a huge challenge for him.”

But she plans to be there cheering her husband on, having inched her own way back into crowds over the years.

“There’s a list of things in life that you say you always want to do,” Sdoia said. Then, some life-changing event comes along and opens your eyes.

“I’m just kind of living life more so and really kind of enjoying life,” she said of her outlook these days.

Last year Sdoia published her first book, Perfect Strangers: Friendship, Strength and Recovery after Boston’s Worst Day, which documents her struggle as well as her relationship with her three heroes: Salter, Cottone and Materia.

She does book signings, peer mentoring, public speaking and “pays it forward,” as she puts it, by visiting with and helping other amputees.

As for her physical condition today, she considers herself lucky. “I had multiple things wrong but they weren’t as bad as other people,” she said.

Mentally, she’s still coming to terms with it all.

Although all of us amputees were injured on the same day, in the same way, we’ve all had different journeys -- Roseann Sdoia

“It’s still weird to say that I was blown up. It’s still weird to say I was in a terrorist attack,” Sdoia said. “Some days I wake up and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have a leg.’ It’s just so weird. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

If there’s one thing she does seem sure about, it’s not feeling sorry for herself.

“Although all of us amputees were injured on the same day, in the same way, we’ve all had different journeys,” she said. “I’m very, very fortunate.” 

Dave Fortier

It was Dave Fortier’s first marathon, with his 13-year-old daughter waving him on ― until the bombs went off.

His daughter wasn’t hurt, but the blasts left Fortier with hearing loss, shrapnel damage and PTSD, as well as a newfound mission to ensure that survivors of the Boston attack or any other tragedy aren’t forgotten.

“People don’t realize that after these things happen, the injuries go on and on and on,” he told HuffPost. “There are [survivors] actually being operated on this week.”

In the wake of the marathon attack, Fortier co-founded One World Strong with fellow survivors Celeste Corcoran and Michelle L’Heureux. The focus of the nonprofit organization is to help connect trauma survivors to others like them who understand what they’re going through. Fortier said he was helped by the Semper Fi Fund, which arranged for injured Marines to talk to some of the Boston survivors.

People don’t realize that after these things happen, the injuries go on and on and on -- Dave Fortier

“They came to visit us in the hospitals and rehab centers, and they made it very clear that it wasn’t a one-time visit,” he said of the Marines’ efforts.

He considers One World Strong ― which is supported by donations ― to be a civilian version of that group, similarly striving to ensure that no one is left behind.

“The lights and the cameras and everything move away, people move on, and there are the folks who were injured or impacted, they’re starting to realize their new reality, and that’s where One World comes in,” Fortier said.

Since they began outreach efforts in 2015, One World Strong’s members have connected with survivors and their families globally. They’ve connected with people impacted by the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut; the 2016 attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida; the 2017 massacre in Las Vegas; and this February’s shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Internationally, One World Strong has worked with survivor groups from last year’s bombing in Manchester, England, and the 2015 terror attacks in Paris. They’ve also connected with those hurt by terror that received far less attention in the U.S. media, like the twin truck bombings in Mogadishu, Somalia, last October that killed more than 500 people and left more than 300 others injured.

“It was in our news for maybe two minutes,” Fortier said of that attack. “When you mention Mogadishu, [Americans] might mention ‘Black Hawk Down’ or Somali pirates, but there are people in Mogadishu that were injured like people in Boston.”

“We don’t look at borders, we don’t look at color, we don’t look at religion, we don’t look at politics. It’s just people,” he said of his group. “This started out as an attempt to kind of pay it forward and it has turned into something really powerful.”

Fortier will be running again in Monday’s Boston Marathon, for the first time with his now-18-year-old daughter by his side.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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