This is the story linked at the bottom of the page on TSgt Del Toro.
Fighting to stay in.
JTAC’s brave history, life-changing injuries lead him to another challenge.
By Patrick Winn - Staff writer
Posted : Friday Aug 21, 2009 14:52:36 EDT
This story originally appeared in the June 11, 2007, print version of Air Force Times.
SAN ANTONIO — It was a chilly morning in the pebbly terrain north of Kabul, Afghanistan. Israel Del Toro, an Air Force staff sergeant embedded with scouts, had crept atop a hill with an Army lieutenant and his M4 carbine. They were alone, unseen by Taliban militants roughly 100 feet below.
“Hey, D.T.,” said Lt. Brian Findley. “How good are you with that scope?”
“Dude, I could hit a dime with this if you wanted me to,” Del Toro said. “You want me to take the shot?”
These are the hours before Del Toro’s memory went black.
Though he had trailed the Taliban militants for three days — and watched for them by night on a punishing sleep/wake schedule — Del Toro did not shoot. Instead, he watched the Taliban fighters push deeper into the umber foothills.
It was his last game of Taliban cat and mouse. Hours later, after eating lunch with Afghan National Army allies, his Humvee tire rolled over pressure-plate explosives buried at the roadside.
“We had just crossed a creek when I felt that blast,” he said. “That heat blast I’ll never forget.”
Del Toro recalls crawling, fiery and smoking, into the dirt. And then, limping on Findley’s arm, sinking into the nearby stream to cool his cooking insides.
His flesh hissed like water in a skillet. He heard ammo stashed in the flaming Humvee crackle and explode.
He went cold and strained to breathe, struggled to mouth the code words alerting airlift medics over half-fried communications gear.
Here, Del Toro’s recollections dim in and out. Stay awake, Findley begged. Remember your kid, D.T.? Fight for your kid. A helicopter ride. At the hospital, the doctor cutting loose his favorite watch.
Then three months of darkness.
What the bomb blast took from Del Toro: his face, his hands and his career as an elite JTAC, an in-theater “joint terminal attack controller” summoning tactical jet strikes.
What it gave him: medals, an uneasy hero status, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley’s recognition and President George W. Bush whispering thanks as Del Toro slept unaware in a burn treatment ward.
Less certain is how Del Toro, surely among the Air Force’s most severely injured survivors, can remain useful to the service. He is 32, badly disfigured and still recovering from the 2005 blast. He is no longer fit to skydive or fire machine guns or radio for missile attacks.
“I know I can never be an operator calling in airstrikes on the enemy,” Del Toro said. “If my role in the Air Force is to speak in front of people and tell them my story ... let that be my role. At least I’m still in the Air Force.”
Del Toro is desperate to stay in the service. His most valuable commodity may be his tale of combat, suffering and survival.
“I never saw myself doing this,” Del Toro said. “I’d rather be in a firefight, facing a bunch of enemies, than be in a crowd of 300 or more people, speaking in front of them.
“But General Moseley told me, ‘D.T., you have a story to tell.’?”
Sign me up
Long before adulthood, Del Toro knew grief well.
The deaths started in 1988 and kept coming. First his father, from Mexico: a heart attack. The next year, his mother, from Texas: killed by a drunken driver. The oldest of four, Del Toro was a teen-turned-provider, helping to put siblings through Catholic school with his grandparents in New Lenox, Ill., a town past Chicago’s fringes.
“I promised my dad, before he died, that I’d always take care of my brother and sisters,” Del Toro said. “I never thought twice about it.”
By 22, a college stint behind him, Del Toro was working tough shifts at an ammonia plant. His factory job was headed nowhere. His brother and two sisters were getting old enough to handle their own affairs. An Air Force TV ad sowed the seed, and the good-looking female recruiter he visited days later sealed the deal. Del Toro, seeking challenges and thrills, would join the Air Force.
He hopped from basic training to technical training to jump school. Again, Del Toro was swayed by a recruiter, this one looking for airmen with JTAC potential. The talk of skydiving and bombs left him hooked. And by March 1998, he was fully trained and deployed for the first time in postwar Bosnia.
His family wasn’t thrilled about this perilous new calling. But Del Toro adored it.
“Most people don’t know what JTACs are. We call ourselves the bastard children of the Air Force,” said Del Toro, his smile suggesting pride. “My family hated my job ... but I could never see myself in an office, sitting at a desk with no windows.”
A bittersweet sojourn
It was around Thanksgiving in 2000 when Del Toro, his Bosnian tour behind him, lost another relative. His cousin, “a brother to me,” died in Chicago, Del Toro said. “I didn’t want to be around all the sadness.” So he escaped to his father’s hometown, a tiny village near Guadalajara, Mexico. Relatives there barely recognized the athletic, nearly 200-pound grandson who appeared after an eight-year absence.
“Only my aunt really remembered what I looked like,” he said.
In the town’s center, an after-dinner gathering spot, Del Toro heard sweet whistles in the night air. It was a pack of girls traipsing by. “The girls outnumber the guys there, easily, by five to one. They see a young guy in good shape, they get all googly.” A cousin’s wife introduced Del Toro to one of the women, a friend named Carmen, and the young airman got googly right back. They even made plans to stay connected after Del Toro left the village.
Del Toro’s Mexican getaway showed him the woman he would one day marry. But he did not escape the sorrow he hoped to leave in Chicago. An ill uncle, after having a few beers with Del Toro, died before the airman boarded a plane back to America.
“I didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to drink. I’m like, ‘Great, dude, there goes that curse thing again,’?” Del Toro said. “Everywhere I go, I’m getting followed by death.”
The flight home
Del Toro believes death nearly caught up with him in the Iraq war’s early days. He recalls flying with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division on “suicide missions,” embedded with soldiers eager to fight. He remembers the Iraqi shelling was so bad that only two of five scheduled AC-130 gunships could land with his guidance. He remembers sleepless nights listening to gunfire and mortars, laying on a Humvee roof in Fallujah.
It was 2003, his second year of marriage to Carmen and his first year as a father to Israel Jr., his new son. “I had just finished getting married,” Del Toro said. “I didn’t want to come back to my wife in a coffin.”
Del Toro returned from Iraq unscathed. He would not be so fortunate in Afghanistan. Del Toro was dispatched to a significantly less-vicious war zone near Kabul, chasing high-value Taliban targets through rocky hills.
“It was not an area considered extremely volatile,” said Army Lt. Col. Wayne Canipe, Del Toro’s supervisor at the time with the 4th Air Support Operations Group. “There were quite a number of firefights in the spring. They tended to quiet down in the winter months.”
Before his Humvee bucked from that roadside bomb’s blast, the Afghan translator in Del Toro’s company warned of Taliban claiming in radio chatter that they could follow the unit’s movement. “Some people think the Taliban are these indigenous people, that they don’t know what they’re doing,” Del Toro said. “The Soviets weren’t able to beat them ... so they’re not dumb.”
Canipe, through a Spanish-speaking translator, reached Carmen where she was staying in Mexico. Her husband would soon arrive at a Texas burn center, he told her. It was Dec. 5, 2005, Carmen’s birthday.
Within hours, Canipe was aboard a C-17 transport jet bound for the States, speaking to Del Toro as if the ravaged and unconscious airman could hear him. “One of the nurses said it couldn’t hurt.” The accomplished jumpmaster who had come to Canipe’s unit with a tough reputation was fitted with tubes and wires. “He was really tore up,” he said. “The medical professionals literally hovered over him the entire flight.”
When he wasn’t consoling Del Toro, Canipe was praying.
Looking in the mirror
Del Toro’s waking life resumed in a hot room, his skin stinging and bandaged. His wife was there. Most of his fingers weren’t.
It was more than three months after the bombing. Nurses at the military’s most respected burn treatment hospital, Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, had kept his intensive care chambers sterile and as warm as body heat. Burns covered 80 percent of his body. He wanted to hug his wife, but Carmen could only squeeze a toe. She told him, shortly after his coma lifted, that the president came wearing medical gloves and booties, stayed for 20 minutes, thanked him for his valor and even spoke a little Spanish.
“I don’t remember any of it,” Del Toro said.
He ascended into full consciousness over weeks. Some time later, they peeled back his bandages and held up a mirror. Del Toro found his reflection unfamiliar and raw.
“When I first saw my face, I thought, ‘Man, my little boy is not going to recognize me. If I think I’m a monster, he’s really going to think I’m a monster.’ A dad doesn’t want to know his son’s afraid of him.”
Del Toro, averse to hospitals since his parents’ passing, was hell bent on “getting out and getting better.” Defying doctors’ expectations, he was wheeled out of the hospital in May 2006 and was on two feet a month later.
He took some of his earliest steps at a San Antonio ceremony, where more than 200 pilots, family members, airmen and hospital staff watched him slowly walk the stage. Moseley was there, too, for a Purple Heart to be pinned to his service blues.
“You’ve come a long way to be able to walk,” said Moseley, who would return in February to promote Del Toro to technical sergeant. “You represent everything that’s good about the Air Force.”
Del Toro now walks, pumps weights, drives short distances, wrestles with his son and, on Moseley’s advice, hits the public speaking circuit when he can. “Each time, the crowd gets bigger and bigger.”
His odds-breaking recovery continues to impress medical professionals and physical trainers. Roughly one year stands between Del Toro and one of his biggest trials yet: the Air Force evaluation that will decide his future with the service.
Working toward his future
8 to 9 a.m.: Weight and bike training. 9 to 10: Desensitizing his still-sore left hand by prodding the pink flesh and applying an electric massager. 10 to 11:30: Stretching and physical therapy.
Then lunch. Then more therapy until Del Toro, exhausted, slips into an afternoon nap.
His physicians have told him to expect a 100 percent disability rating. His fight to stay relevant in the Air Force comes as the service seeks to shed 40,000 full-time airmen before the decade’s end.
Best-case scenario? Training incoming JTACs, Del Toro said. But his left hand is partially amputated, his right-hand fingers were melted to nubs and his vision in both eyes is now weak.
That Del Toro can even consider an Air Force future is a sign of the times, said Paddy Rossbach, president of the Amputee Coalition of America, which has had long-standing military focus.
Burn treatment innovation, modern prosthetics and a higher regard for injured troops, she said, have cleared the way for guys like Del Toro to keep their military jobs.
“In previous conflicts, as soon as amputees came home, arrangements were made for them to be discharged,” Rossbach said. “Now they come home and that’s not the first thing out of everybody’s mouth. It’s more like, ‘How can we get you back to where you want to go?’?”
The Air Force Surgeon General’s Office permits some exceptions to the annual fitness test, a rite Del Toro would likely fail as is. Most waivers accommodate temporary medical situations: pregnancy or recoverable illness. Modifications, however, are allowed. And there are success stories, such as that of Lt. Col. Andrew Lourake, the pilot allowed to fly jets with a prosthetic left leg.
Still, seriously injured men such as Del Toro should be retained only if they’re truly useful, said Col. John Folsom, a Marine reservist and head of Wounded Warriors, a support network for injured service members.
“No one is owed anything,” Folsom said. “If that was the case, no one would ever be discharged.”
According to Folsom, Del Toro illuminates a need for fitness standards that correspond with each Air Force Specialty Code. Otherwise, he said, exceptions will be made on emotional appeals.
“Is this man being made a poster child or is this going to be a new metric for all [Defense Department] components to follow?” Folsom said. “We don’t need a feel-good decision process. We need a metric that makes sense.”
That said, if the Air Force believes Del Toro would strengthen the service through sharing his story, Folsom says, “Right on.”
“Just be prepared to make that policy,” he said.
Jamie O’Brien strained to make out Del Toro’s rasp, echoing through the auditorium several months back at Providence Catholic High School, his and his siblings’ alma mater.
O’Brien, a former classmate still living in Illinois, knew Del Toro was building his motivational speaking repertoire. So she invited him back to his hometown to share his life story with students at their old high school.
Del Toro, in battle uniform, broke down his JTAC life, his brush with death in Afghanistan, his camaraderie with other burn ward patients.
His voice was thin, O’Brien said. But his story was strong. “He still had that same personality, even though his speech had changed because of the damage to his lungs,” she said. “He’s still very sarcastic and very funny.”
The word “hero” makes Del Toro squirm. “I’m just a regular old guy who loves his job and got hurt.” In darker moments, he feels like he failed. Like he let the “bad guys” get him. But his supporters say his humility and refusal to go bitter lend even more power to his words. “If he doesn’t inspire you,” Canipe said, “there’s something wrong with you.”
Del Toro has about half a dozen speaking gigs down, mostly at military bases. Each time, he gets a little looser and a little surer that, robbed of his elite skills, this cinematic account is now his greatest gift.
“I don’t see myself as a motivational speaker,” Del Toro said. “All I’m doing is telling my story.”