Through these flames, I am stronger

TSgt Israel Del Toro, US competitor at the 2014 Invictus Games

When I was twelve, my father died of a heart attack. A year later, a drunk driver killed my mother. The oldest of four, I became the provider for my family. As my brothers and sisters became old enough to provide for themselves, I began my search for a purpose in life. I found it after I watched an Air Force recruiting ad on television and spoke with a very persuasive Air Force recruiter.

In 2001, I watched the World Trade Center come down. Shortly after, I deployed to Bosnia. When I returned, I met my soulmate a beautiful woman named Carman. After a whirlwind, international romance we were married. A year later, my son Israel III (little DT) was born. A year after that, I deployed to Iraq with the 82nd Airborne. The United States Army awarded me a Bronze Star for the Battle of Fallujah and somehow I made it out of there unscathed.

Then in 2005 I got my wish to deploy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan, where the action was. I was assigned to Combined Task Force Bayonet in Kandahar, supporting the 503rd Infantry Regiment. On December 4th, 2005 my entire life changed. While on day three of a patrol tracking a group of Taliban fighters north of Kabul, we were crossing a creek in a Humvee when we rolled over a pressure plate IED. My body took the brunt of the blast and suddenly my entire world was fire. From head to toe, my entire body was engulfed in flames. I hit the ground and tried to pull myself out. All I could think about was that I was going to die here, and I was never going to see my family again. Then the lieutenant was grabbing me and dragging me back to the creek and extinguishing the flames. All around us gunfire erupted and the ammunition in the destroyed Humvee started exploding. I called one of the Army scouts over, a Private who had a functioning radio (as mine had been melted beyond use). Instead of getting on the medevac frequency, I had him relay coordinates for airstrikes. After I made sure our guys were out of the crossfire and the bad guys were dead, we called for medevac.

Now my long fight for survival was beginning. I wasn’t going to let my three year old son know the pain of losing a father like I had. As I slipped into a coma that would last for 4 months, all I could think of was finally getting to sleep.

When I finally woke up that was when the pain started; both physical and spiritual. My own wife couldn’t hug me to comfort me when I woke up, she could only squeeze my big toe. Doctors gave me a 15% chance of living. They said I would never walk again. They told me if I did somehow survive, I would be on a respirator for the rest of my life. I was being fed through a tube and people had to bathe me. I had 80 percent of my body covered in third-degree burns, to include my face. My therapist and my wife were helping me to the bathroom one day and I accidentally saw myself in a mirror. I realized I didn’t recognize myself. Now I became terrified of how my son would react when he saw me. That was the first and only time that I wished I had died. My wife and therapists convinced me that all he wanted was a father, and they were right.

I started fighting every day to recover, pushing through the pain and the limits that I was being told defined me. Most of my left hand was amputated; the fingers on my right hand were removed down to the first knuckle. I have nerve damage in my right leg and inhalation burns in my lungs. My eyesight is diminished. My days were filled with a gruelling regimen of surgeries, skin grafts and physical therapy. But I refused to quit. I brought the attitude that had allowed me to excel in sports and in my job before the blast: stay positive and never, ever quit. After being told it was likely I wouldn’t survive, and even if I did I would never walk again and require a respirator for every breath I would take, I was told I would be in the hospital for the next year and a half. A month and a half after being told of all of these limitations, I walked out of the hospital and was breathing on my own.

When we say “Remember The Fallen,” we must remember that there are casualties of these wars who didn’t die. They are still out there, trying to find a way to live their life to the best of their abilities. Over one hundred surgeries later, I have found a mission in life.

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My life isn’t over and it isn’t over for the hundreds of others competing with me for a chance at the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando. We have suffered and we have survived. That is what resounds with me about the Invictus Games, the rehabilitative power of sport. Competitive sports were something I missed and being involved has been instrumental in my recovery, both mentally and physically. Sport makes it easier to cope with your injuries and overcome depression. You accept who you are now, you get up, and you start training. I compete to show my son that even though Dad got hurt, he’s not sitting around feeling sorry for himself. You can still be active and work out after a life-altering injury.

The camaraderie that the Invictus Games brings can’t be duplicated anywhere outside of being in the military. After having been allowed to continue serving my nation as the first 100% disabled Airman to re-enlist, I will be able to live out one of my dreams by retiring on my own terms. For veterans who have already left the service, the Invictus Games gives them the chance to regain some of the experience of being a member of a military team. The Games allow us to tell the world that we are all still here. We’re alive, we’re having fun, and we are competing. Prince Harry was right when he said that the Invictus Games show the very best of the human spirit. They are allowing myself and my fellow wounded, ill, and sick veterans to adapt to our new lives and find healing: mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and socially. They remind the world that there are service men and women who are still out there, trying to find their way. I am honored to be allowed to participate and look forward to the Invictus Games Orlando 2016.

To quote Lou Gehrig, “I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”

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