ORLANDO, Fla., May 12, 2016 —
Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro, who goes by the nickname DT, is all about smiles and inspiring others as he competes at the 2016 Invictus Games held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World here.
From May 8 through today, more than 500 wounded, ill and injured service members from 14 nations have been competing in 10 sporting events, cheered on by thousands of family members, friends and spectators.
Del Toro began the week by participating in a 2016 Invictus Games Symposium on Invisible Wounds presented by the George W. Bush Institute here, along with former President George W. Bush, Prince Harry and former Royal Marines Lance Cpl. John-James Chalmers.
Throughout the symposium, the leadership, along with Del Toro and Chalmers, brought up the importance of fighting the stigma of invisible wounds such as post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries. For service members with invisible wounds, DT said they need access to care in rural areas, Prince Harry said they should seek help and talk about it early on and Bush said diagnostic tools should be really good and widespread.
Del Toro spoke about the seriousness of the issue but also joked with Bush, who he’s known since his injury 10 years ago.
“He always busts my chops,” he said about his relation with Bush. “Every time he sees me, he has something to say to me. Earlier this year, we went to an event, and he hadn’t seen me since I had left Texas, and he found out that I left Texas. He was like, ‘I hear you left the great state of Texas?’ I was like, ‘Come on.’”
Del Toro’s competition began with powerlifting. “I knew I wasn’t going to win anything because I just got cleared for my shoulder about three weeks ago, so I wasn’t at my top peak,” he said. “Mostly, I did it so other people could see that this guy with no fingers and part hands is able to lift 200-and-something pounds of weight and still be out there. That was my biggest goal.”
Del Toro said he had never weight-lifted before as a sport before his injury; just in conjunction with playing baseball, football and soccer in high school and college and while he was in the Air Force. His junior year of high school, his football team won state.
“There could be a guy out there thinking he can’t do this because I was like that. I thought I would never be able to get under another bar and bench press until the coach got me under there,” he said. “If I’m able to do that for somebody else like they did for me, then I did my job.”
Del Toro, a tactical air control party, or TACP, was injured by an improvised explosive device detonation during a deployment in Afghanistan. His body took most of the blast, and nearly 80 percent of his body was burned. Though he is disabled, he is still able to serve in the Air Force.
“I am missing some of my muscles so it’s a little harder in training, but I just keep at it, and I just keep going to try and get as strong as I can,” he said. “Some of the items I use to adapt can’t hold as much weight so that must be a good thing, if I’m able to break my bands. I must be doing something good.”
Del Toro said he went from barely being able to lift any weight to lifting 215 pounds.
“Sometimes, I look back at some of the pictures of when I first got hurt -- of when I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t even move my arms -- to where I’m at now, competing at cycling, powerlifting, rowing and owning records. It’s just amazing to see how far I’ve come,” he said with a big grin.
During cycling competition here, Del Toro came in fifth in the men’s recumbent criterium and seventh in the men’s recumbent time trial in his disability category. He said he felt good about the races.
“I was pushing it pretty hard,” he said. “With the time trial, you just go as hard as you can until you’ve got to puke.”
During the criterium, he worked with his teammates to draft off of to earn fifth place.
Del Toro said his strongest sport is field, and it was. He earned a gold medal in the men’s shot put in his disability category.
“It was great to win a medal, but the biggest thing was just to come out here and show the world that we’re still out here pushing and enjoying life and playing sports,” he said.
DT recommends adaptive sports to service members and veterans who may still be struggling with their disabilities.
“I’m still active, so I still have that camaraderie with my teammates,” he said. “But a lot of these guys are out so they’re able to use sports and get together. It’s the closest they’ll come back to being in the military and have that camaraderie.”
Del Toro said participation in sports can be very calming. He goes out for a ride or shoots the air pistol or air rifle.
“It’s very soothing. I can just focus on that target and hit it -- get that perfect 10.9. It’s nice,” he said. “My son will come out with me and tell me, ‘Stay strong, finish strong.’”
Del Toro encourages service members or veterans to seek help if they require it
“Like the song says [at Invictus] -- you are the captain of your soul. You determine what you want to do in life. Don’t let the odds determine what you’re going to do. You do that. You create your own fate,” he said.