Rise from the ashes: a story of resiliency

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Denise Jenson
  • 28th Bomg Wing Public Affairs
During Wingman Day, on Aug. 27, Airmen filled the Ellsworth Air Force Base theater to capacity, occupying every seat and even sitting on the stage as they anxiously awaited their guest speaker.

Senior Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro, the first 100-percent disabled Airman to reenlist in the service, shared his incredible story and revealed the importance of resiliency.

“People always ask, ‘How do you get through this? How do you keep going?,’ and how I keep going is simply by [living by] some words that my dad told me before he passed away,” Del Toro said. “The last thing he told me was take care of your family. Since that day, I’ve used those words in everything I do.”

Before joining the U.S. Air Force, Del Toro was a kid growing up in Chicago. Watching military movies and seeing commercials for the services inspired him, at the age of 22, to be the first in his family to enlist.

“I went to basic and then [tactical air control party technical] school; I enjoyed learning what I had to do,” Del Toro said. “And [at technical school], I had my first true challenge in the military.”

Del Toro was conducting a night navigation as part of a training exercise. While crawling on his hands and knees through the terrain, with his gear weighing him down, he asked himself: Why am I going to go through this?

“Then, I remembered what my dad told me – to take care of my family,” he said. “The reality of why I joined the military is I wanted to help my grandparents. My grandmother had cancer and my grandfather was paralyzed from the waist down after a stroke, but they were still helping raise my younger brother and sisters. So, I saw this as an opportunity to help them financially.”

Keeping this thought in mind, Del Toro made it through the rest of his training and graduated. From there, he continued on to survival, evasion, resistance and escape school and jump school. Both experiences had situations that challenged him, but these moments pushed him to continue on with his operational career.

“I arrived at my first base at Fort Bragg, [North Carolina,] where I strived to get to my qualification as a certified joint terminal attack controller, which are the ones who call air strikes by themselves,” Del Toro explained. “At this point, I’m at a high. But for a long time, I felt like I was cursed.”

Del Toro felt that any time he was attaining success, he would get knocked down. From losing his parents during grade school and high school, to life-threatening health concerns for both of his grandparents during college, Del Toro’s resiliency was tested, but he always remembered what his dad said: “Take care of your family.”

Throughout the moments of adversity he’d experienced, Del Toro said he always had a great support network – from his grade school football and baseball teammates to his wingmen in the military. They let him know he wasn’t alone and that his friends had his back.

Despite so much loss in his life, Del Toro pushed on and became a qualified JTAC.

After he served a tour in Bosnia, gathering intelligence, 9/11 happened. Del Toro subsequently served three deployments, one to Iraq and two to Afghanistan. It was during his final deployment to Afghanistan that his life was forever changed.

“When I got to Afghanistan, I was the only JTAC supporting two [U.S.] Army company teams, so I was constantly in and out,” Del Toro said. “Then, on December 4, 2005, I got injured.”

Del Toro was on a mission with his scout team. They crossed a street, and about 200 meters after crossing, he felt an intense, hot pain on his left side: His team’s Humvee had hit a roadside bomb.

The TACP said he’d heard people talk about their life flashing in front of them, but he’d never really believed it. However, when he was hit, images flashed through his mind; he distinctly remembers three. The first was of when he and his wife got married by the Catholic Church; the second was of how they were going to honeymoon in Greece; and the final one was his son and the thought that he was supposed to teach his boy to play baseball.

“Then, something clicked in my head, and I got out of the truck, on fire from head-to-toe,” he recalled. “But I had stayed vigilant and knew there was a creek behind me. I tried to run to it, but the flames overtook me.

“I collapsed, and I’m lying there thinking, ‘Holy crap I’m going to die here. I’m going to break my promise to my family that I’ll always come back.’ But most importantly, I was going to break my promise to my son that he wouldn’t grow up without a dad.”

As laid on the ground, one of Del Toro’s teammates picked him up and together they rushed to the creek to douse the flames.

“The reason he jumped in the creek is that when he picked me up, I lit him on fire for a bit, and I was like ‘Sorry dude, my bad,’” Del Toro chuckled.

In the midst of the chaos of unfolding events, Del Toro knew he and his team had to figure out what they needed to do next. An Army teammate of his had a working radio, so Del Toro could still call in airstrikes despite his severe injuries. After some time, he began to feel tired, and if he fell asleep, chances were that he would not wake up.

His teammate, a medic, used the one thing he knew would keep Israel awake: his family.

“He knew the promise I made to my son. He knew my son was my fire, and that was going to drive me and push me to not quit,” Del Toro said, adding, “If you’ve noticed, in all my stories, anytime that I’ve been down, I have my teammate by me to keep me up and pushing me, lighting a fire inside me so I won’t quit.”

Israel remembers the medivac helicopter arriving to come pick them up, flying to their forward operating base and eventually to the hospital where the doctor had cut off his watch. He fell asleep and didn’t wake up until March 2006 – more than four months after his injury. He said this is where the story of resiliency changes from him to his family.

“Sometimes we get so focused on the service member that we forget – the families see the service member at their worst,” Del Toro said. “They’re the ones getting called and being told, ‘You need to get here because they’re going to die.’

Despite having an expired visa, Del Toro’s wife, Carmen, made it to see her husband, all thanks to the intervention of his wingmen.

It was this instance that Del Toro said his wife understood the reason why he never quit in his career: he always had his military family supporting him. When she arrived, she was informed that her husband’s body had been 80 percent burned, and he had a mere 15 percent chance of living. But Carmen firmly believed that Del Toro would pull through.

“When I finally woke up after four months, they tell me about my burns and my chance of living, and that I might be on a respirator for the rest of my life,” Del Toro recalled. “I was told I might not walk again and that my military career is pretty much over.”

On that day, Del Toro made a choice to push forward. He decided that he wasn’t going to accept the odds he’d been given.

“If I had done that when I was young, growing up on the south side of Chicago with no parents, I should have been a gang banger or drug dealer,” he explained. “But I was neither.”

Even during his recovery period, Del Toro never lost the motivation to drive and inspire others. He found a brotherhood in his fellow wounded warriors, helping them through their recovery and motivating them – the same way his friends and family did for him.

“I’m not going to stand here and tell you that I never got sad or depressed during my recovery time because I did,” Del Toro said. “But I had my family and my teammates that kept me from going down that dark hole and hating life, so I was able to keep pushing through.”

Learning to walk again and going through the desensitizing process for his skin were the most physically painful parts of his recovery, but there was a greater fear and pain for Del Toro: the reaction of his son, who hadn’t seen him for such a long time.

“I had to make it through the desensitizing process because if I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to hold my son,” Del Toro said.

After his long recovery period, Del Toro finally made enough progress to go home, greatly overcoming his odds. He was told he’d never walk again, be on a respirator for the rest of his life, and would have to stay in the hospital for at least another year and a half. Del Toro walked out of the hospital breathing on his own, only two months after being given his original prognosis.

“I walked into our house wrapped in bandages, and my wife called my son in to the room,” Del Toro remembered. “I hear him running out and he stops, and I’m like ‘Holy crap, he’s terrified of me,’ and then tilts his head to the side and says, ‘Papi?’ He gives me the most amazing hug I’ve ever had in my life. It was the most amazing moment in my life, other than my son being born.”

With his severe injuries, Del Toro was told he’d no longer be able to serve in the military; however, after four long years of fighting to return to duty, he convinced military leadership that he was still fit to serve. On February 8, 2010, Del Toro became the first 100 percent disabled Airman to return to active duty.

Now a senior noncommissioned officer, he is a JTAC instructor for young Airman, and continues to travel across the Air Force to share his incredible story of resiliency.

“I’ve been able to go out and tell my story of overcoming the odds, and not giving up and believing in yourself,” Del Toro said. “I know I might not be able to touch everybody out there with my story, and that’s okay. But if I can reach that one person or few people that really need it when they’re feeling down, thinking there’s no other way … then all that pain and suffering I went through is worth it.”