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Special Forces soldier not your average USAF Marathoner

  • Published
  • By Kathleen A. K. Lopez
  • Air Force Materiel Command Public Affairs
(Editor's note: Sergeant Ivan Castro became a U.S. Army Ranger in 1992. Upon his commission, in February 2004, 2nd Lt. Castro became an infantry officer, waiting patiently until his promotion to captain, when he could be reassigned to a unit within U.S. Army Special Operations Command's elite Special Forces, headquartered at Ft Bragg, N.C. During his time in the infantry, Castro was one of those guys with nerves of steel - charged with responsibility of a Scout Reconnaissance and Sniper Platoon, taking care of business in the middle of the night.

That was until Sept. 2, 2006, a fateful night, when, just having relieved fellow soldiers on a rooftop outside Youssifiyah, Iraq, a round of mortar fire exploded about 100 meters away from him. When he looked to the left to call on a comrade, a second round of 82mm mortar peppered the space just five feet from Castro: a deafening sound, an explosive light and, then, darkness.

When he awoke six weeks later, Castro's broken or damaged arm, shoulder, neck, heart, nose, cheek, finger, buttocks, back, legs, lungs and nerves were mending, along with the aneurism, and multiple abrasions and contusions.

But, his eyes weren't mending: The right eye never stood a chance, as it was destroyed on impact; the left eye, despite valiant attempts through multiple surgeries, couldn't be saved: Castro was blind - total darkness.

He credits four related explanations why he is alive today: First, "the Lord above; everyone who laid a hand on me; my wife, Evelyn, and mother-in-law, Eva Galvis; and my sheer will and determination to stay alive - I wanted to see my son, Ivan, grow up."

Promoted to the rank of captain in February, Castro is now the only blind officer to serve in USASOC Special Forces. The executive officer for the 7th Group Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Castro's duties no longer involve him in combat. Rather, they contribute to the mission of troops whose duties do. He also overlooks the Spanish lab department in his unit and teaches spin classes. And, he runs marathons. Something he didn't do before his injury.

On Sept. 20, Castro will compete in the 12th annual U.S. Air Force Marathon at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. He won't compete in a special category. Rather, he'll be at the starting line along with thousands of other runners hoping either to cross the finish line, or, like Castro, beat their previously run best time. Marathoning is a sport of determination, challenge and, for Castro, trust.)

Army Capt. Ivan Castro remembers the exact moment he knew he wanted to run a marathon.

As he lay in his hospital bed at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Castro listened to the tending doctor and nurse who were on either side of him. They were comparing their experiences at the Marine Corps Marathon, held annually in mid-October in Washington, D.C.

"It was like I was watching a ping pong match, except I was following their voices," Castro said.

Blinded by mortar fire while serving with the Infantry in Iraq, Castro couldn't rely on his caretakers' facial expressions, only the enthusiasm in their voices.

"As they left, I thought to myself, 'I love running. I miss running. That's what I'm going to do,'" he said.

But he had a long way to go before he could run 26.2 miles. In fact, the first time he tried standing, it took three people to support him, and he could only remain on his feet for a couple seconds, before breaking out in a cold sweat.

The next time those medics checked on him, Castro said he started "poking around," asking questions about the Marine Corps Marathon course. Castro also told them that he was going to run the race the following year.

"'Yeah, sure you are. That's a great goal,' they said. I could hear the doubt in their voices," Castro said. "They thought I couldn't do it."

Castro knew he could. But, first, he'd have to lose the excess weight. Initially losing 50 pounds after his accident and unable to walk, Castro started eating like a "madman;" his five-foot, eight-inch frame subsequently tipping the scales in excess of 200 pounds.

"I started to use working out as a stress release; my little happy place," he said. "And I stopped eating everything in sight," he said with his humor intact.

The next several months, Castro would work toward his goal. Between his many surgeries, his routine consisted of healthier, more controlled eating, and dedication to his physical therapy schedule. When he was strong enough, he began running: first, on a treadmill, then, slowly, converting to pavement.

He decided to test his progress by running in the Army Ten-Miler, held annually in early October, also in Washington D.C. He ran the race connected to a guide (a fellow runner) at the wrist with a shoestring. Castro followed his guide's verbal instruction. Feeling good afterward, he was even more determined to run the Marine Corps race.

"I recovered in a hospital that incorporates both the Navy and the Marines," he said. "I wanted to complete that marathon so I could show the docs and staffs what a great job they did putting me back together."

Not only did he complete the marathon, but, he enjoyed it - despite the pain he has grown accustomed to feeling. This past spring, he ran the Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon in White Sands, N.M., and the Boston Marathon. There have been 10-kilometer races here and there, and Castro competed in his first triathlon in Colorado Springs in July.

"People ask me why I keep running," he said. "I do it because I like it, and because I can still take one more step. I love the challenge of competing against myself."

Now Castro is training for the U.S. Air Force Marathon Sept. 20. It's a completion of what he considers the U.S. Armed Forces ground-pounding "trifecta."

"Running is not a team event," Castro said. "But putting me back together was a team event," he said, referencing the unknown Air Force medics who cared for him in Balad, Iraq, as well as aircrews and aircraft that transported him back to the United States.

"I'm running the Air Force Marathon to support the team who supported me," he said. "We are one team; one fight. Whether it's fixing me, or taking on our day-to-day jobs, we are all together as one. We cannot do our business without our brothers and sisters in the air, at sea or on land."

He will run the event tethered to Lt. Col. Fred Dummar, Special Operations Recruiting Battalion commander. The two train together, and have previously competed together in other races.

The USAF Marathon organization eagerly anticipates Team Castro and Dummar running its race, as well.

"We are honored that Captain Castro deliberately chose to run our race, especially as the Air Force celebrates its 61st year as an independent service," said Molly Louden, USAF Marathon director. "He is an inspiration. He faces challenges most of us will never know. And yet, he is exemplary as an Armed Forces member and athlete."

Castro said he is not trying to start a movement. He just wants people, especially his fellow combat-wounded warriors, to know there is life after blindness.

"Sure, I have asked, 'Why both eyes? Why not just one? Why couldn't I see some light, or shadows?' Then I remind myself to trust in God and be grateful to Him. We all can complain that we have the worst time. But, somewhere, someone else has it worse."