Face of Defense: Wounded Airman Lives for Son, Hopes to Stay on Active Duty
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 8, 2008 Air Force Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro has made remarkable strides in his recovery in the three years and 102 surgeries since he and his team were ambushed by the Taliban in the mountains near Qalat, Afghanistan.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro works out at the Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, fitness center. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Cecilio M. Ricardo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
His fight to survive started on that mountain, where he refused to leave his 3-year-old son fatherless. He’d lost his father early in life and vowed his son wouldn’t know what that was like.
The fight intensified when he woke up in the intensive care unit at Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
“They told me I was going to be in the hospital for another year, that I may or may not walk again, [and] that I was going to be stuck on a respirator for the rest of my life,” Del Toro said. “I sat there for a few seconds and came back with, ‘You can kiss my ass,’” he said.
Del Toro was part of Tactical Air Command and Control, Detachment 1, 4th Air Support Operation Squadron, when he was deployed in December 2005 to Forward Operating Base Lagman, Afghanistan, in support of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. He was part of a scout team sent to investigate intelligence that the Taliban, including a high-value target, was using a supply route in the mountains near the southeastern city of Qalat.
A couple of days into the mission, an interpreter picked up chatter indicating that the Taliban were observing the unit’s every move.
“The Taliban were talking about … that they could see us when we leave out of the compound, that they see us when we come back in,” Del Toro said. “They saw us if we left with the motorcycles, if we were leaving with the trucks.”
Del Toro’s lieutenant decided to take half a scout team and try to catch the Taliban at their own game. Five members of the 10-man team would head up the mountain after dark and try to catch the Taliban members as they returned the following morning. The rest, including Del Toro and the lieutenant, would provide overwatch from another vantage point.
When a couple of days passed with no action, the lieutenant decided his team would head into the town at the foot of the mountain. There wasn’t much in the town, but a suspicious man going up the mountain drew their attention and the five-man team began to follow.
Del Toro told his lieutenant that he could take the shot, but the officer wanted to capture the suspect.
“I told him, ‘Sir, these guys are like goats here in Afghanistan. They can be in flip-flops. They can be barefoot. [But] they run up these mountains like gods.’”
The lieutenant still wanted to capture the man, however, but as Del Toro had predicted, the man escaped, leaving the team to traverse the one road that led up and down the mountain.
Del Toro’s group was on its way to pick the rest of their team on top of the mountain when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb just after passing a creek.
“They always say your life flashes in front of you. I never believed it, but it’s kind of true,” he said. “I just thought of my family, my son; what we were supposed to do. We were living in Italy at the time. We were going to Greece. I was going to teach my boy how to play ball.”
When Del Toro got out of the vehicle, he was on fire from head to toe.
“I knew that creek was behind me,” he said. “But the flames overtook me, and I collapsed. I did think I was going to die there.”
His comrades weren’t about to let that happen, though. The lieutenant helped him up, and they both jumped in the creek.
Both the primary and secondary radios had been destroyed in the blast, making it impossible to call in air support for the team on top of the mountain that was caught in crossfire.
An Army private with a radio became Del Toro’s mouthpiece.
“He’s repeating everything I’m telling him,” said Del Toro, who, as a joint terminal attack controller, normally would have made the call. “He eventually gets a hold of Lagman, and they say, ‘Hey, tell Gunslinger [Del Toro’s call sign] he has A-10s and British airs coming in.”
That was the last action Del Toro took that day. After the trauma of the blast, the third-degree burns covering 80 percent of his body, and the frigid dip in the creek, his body began to shut down. His brothers in arms knew how to keep him going, though.
“They knew that I had lost my dad when I was young, and how I said I would never let that happen to my son,” he said. “They used that to keep me [awake].”
Del Toro remembers being loaded onto the helicopter that arrived after about 20 minutes. He remembers getting to the field hospital, where the doctor cut off his watch and told him he’d be OK. And that’s all he remembers about that day.
That was December 2005. He woke up in March 2006. Losing four months of his life was surreal, he said.
“Sometimes I’ll try and concentrate and see if I can remember anything,” he said. “But I’m not even sure if they’re memories, or hallucinations or dreams.”
Del Toro did not get much time to dwell on his lost time. He had bigger demons to slay in recovering.
First, there was the news that he may not walk again and that he’d be on a respirator the rest of his life. In an act of defiance, Del Toro left the ICU at the end of April. A month later, he walked out of the hospital, breathing on his own.
Despite all he’d gone through, Del Toro said, he never once wished that he’d died. Still, his biggest personal fear later made that thought race through his mind in what he described as a “real dark hour.”
“When you’re as badly burned as I was, they ease you into seeing your face,” he said. “There was one day where my wife and my therapist - he was my guardian angel – were helping me to the bathroom.
“I don’t know if it was my wife or my therapist … [who] slipped and fell and pulled the towel off the mirror, [but] I saw my face in there and I broke down,” he said. “I just wished I died at that point.”
It had nothing to do with being vain, and everything to do with his son and how he would react to his father’s appearance, he said.
“I was like, ‘My God, if I think I’m a monster, what’s my 3-year-old son going to think?’” he said.
Just as his therapist had assured him, however, Israel Del Toro Jr., after a brief hesitation, gave his dad a big hug when he heard his voice.
Del Toro, who hopes to remain on active duty, has had several speaking engagements since becoming an outpatient.
“I’m still an NCO in the Air Force. I’ve still got a job to do,” he said. “Just because I got hurt, if I use that as an excuse not to go my job, I think that’s a copout.”
Del Toro has accepted that when he’s finished with his recovery - he estimates he’s got another 10 to 15 surgeries remaining - he won’t be able to return to the field as an operator. Instead, he said, he would like to become an instructor.
It’s the attitude one would expect from someone who, until questioned about their whereabouts, didn’t know where his medals were. His Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal, which he received in a June 24, 2006, ceremony, along with the Bronze Star he received for actions in Iraq, were in a box in a closet.
“For me, my medals aren’t a big thing,” the 12-year Air Force veteran said. “I went there to do my job. I saved some guys. I came back. I didn’t expect to be rewarded for it.”
Del Toro, a Chicago native, and his wife, Carmen, live near Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.