Wounded Warrior Israel Del Toro's Advice For Life And Sports: 'Never Effing Quit'
If you want to get Israel Del Toro talking, check out the photos on his walls at home.
"There's pictures of guys I met," he says. "Athletes - most of them are athletes because I love sports."
Del Toro, or "DT" as his friends call him, is a senior master sergeant who teaches parachute jumping at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
His photos feature him with sports stars and celebrities - even President George W. Bush and Prince Harry.
Actually, there's a couple with Prince Harry.
Pointing to one where they're both smiling, Del Toro says, "This is his favorite picture of us. He even said, 'I love this picture of me and you DT' and even signed it with my quote, you know, 'Never effing quit.'"
Del Toro is one of the more than 52,000 troops wounded during the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. One thing that's helped him recover is the military's sports competition for wounded, injured and ill troops: the Warrior Games.
The games, running from June 1-9, will be held this year at the Air Force Academy.
Del Toro isn't participating this time around. Instead, he's going to mentor troops like Air Force Master Sgt. Michael Christiansen, who in 2004 injured his spine permanently when an explosion threw him into the side of a Humvee in Iraq.
"DT is an inspiration -- what he's been through and how he's overcome everything," says Christiansen, with the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base.
Christiansen will race a recumbent bicycle, play sitting volleyball and participate in other events. One of his inspirations: Del Toro.
"I mean, I've got my injuries but DT, he's been through a lot," he says.
Del Toro joined the military in 1997, seeking a challenge in life. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he was deployed. In 2005, Del Toro was in Afghanistan when an IED exploded under the truck he was in.
"I'm on fire from head to toe and then collapsed and think, 'I'm going to die there,' and a teammate helped me up," he recalls. "Luckily there's a creek about 200 meters behind us and we jumped in to extinguish the flames."
Not fully aware of the extent of his injuries, Del Toro was able to relay instructions to an air support team with the help of a soldier with a working radio. He held onto life by thinking of his 3-year-old son and remembers the rescue in bits and pieces: being flown to a forward operating base, arriving in a field hospital, seeing his teammates, his watch being cut off.
He woke about four months later, in March 2006. He was at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, covered in bandages with third degree burns over 80 percent of his body, fingers missing and doctors telling him that he'd never walk again or breathe without a respirator.
"Everyone's waiting to see what I'm going to say," Del Toro says. "They're all looking and I couldn't talk because I had a trach [tracheostomy] so they were just reading my lips. What I repeated was some colorful words, but pretty much I told them you can go to hell."
His physical therapy was off-the-charts painful.
"My hands, you could have rubbed a feather across and it felt like you were cutting me with razor blades," he says. "And then learning how to walk, you think it's easy but it was probably some of the most painful stuff I had to go through. Every day I had to do it because I wanted to show my son if you keep a positive mind -- if you find that fire inside you -- you'll overcome any odds."
Del Toro exceeded the expectations doctors had for him.
In two months, he was ready to go home, but he found himself filled with doubts because the burns and recovery had left scars on his face.
"The only time I had ever wished I'd died was when I first saw my face," he says. "If I thought I was a monster, it's like, 'God, what's my 3-year-old son going to think?'"
He listened to his wife, Carmen, and a therapist who told him that his son really just wanted his dad.
"I was like, 'OK, I'll just keep going,'" Del Toro says. "So when I finally saw him when I got out of the hospital, he comes running out and, you know, I'm all bandaged up and he stops and all that fear comes rushing back. It's like, 'Oh my God, he's terrified of me. He's not going to want to hold me.' And he looks, tilts his head to the side and he says, 'Papi?' And I'm like, 'Yeah buddy,' and he comes up and give me the most amazing hug I've ever had."
Many at the Warrior Games are facing the challenge of recovering from serious war wounds - both visible and invisible, like post-traumatic stress and brain injuries.
Air Force Lt. Col. Cary Hepp says about 300 troops will participate in the games this year. Teams from Britain, Australia and Canada are expected to join.
The games are as much about adapting to sports as they are about supporting each other, Hepp says.
"We just bring everybody together from the different services to compete and inspire us with telling us how they overcame the obstacles that they may have faced," he says.
For Christiansen, it's a chance to grow and adapt to challenges in life.
"This has given me that drive and excitement in my life again to be able to compete and show that I've come somewhere from being injured -- from basically just sitting around, not thinking there was anything more from me in that aspect," Christiansen says.
Del Toro agrees. He's won sports honors at the games and elsewhere, including a gold medal in shot put at Prince Harry's Invictus Games for wounded troops and, last year, an ESPY, the Pat Tillman award for dedication to service and sports. At 43, he's not slowing down, forging ahead as a U.S. Paralympian eyeing the 2020 games in Tokyo.
But he's also forging a path for wounded troops to stay in the military if they choose. In 2010, Del Toro was the first airman to reenlist even though he was eligible for a full military disability retirement. The Air Force supported him in transitioning to an instructor role.
"I still had a job to do, so that's what I did," Del Toro says. "I was showing the military that I still had value. I could still contribute to the military."