FORT BRAGG, NC – Some people would believe that being blind is a curse, that it is a condition that would leave you helpless and limit you to what you can accomplish. Others would look at this belief like it is an enemy, and fight back with everything they have.
Capt. Ivan Castro has fought this enemy, and he continues to fight this enemy every day.
While on a mission in the village of Yusufiya, Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006, Castro was struck by a mortar round. At the time, Castro was serving as a platoon leader for the Scout Reconnaissance Platoon, 1st Battalion 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
“We went out there, and the day before, our mortar platoon got hit,” said Castro. Castro explains that during that attack on the mortar platoon one soldier lost his life.
The very next day, Castro was given the orders to occupy the position that the mortar platoon had been attacked at. He knew that this position was a horrible position, and that it was dangerous. Following orders, he took the position.
Castro said that he knew the enemy already had this position locked in. Knowing this, he told his soldiers to come down off the roof of the building that they were occupying. Castro went on to the roof to look for a position to occupy that the enemy had not already targeted. While on the roof, Castro and his platoon took enemy mortar fire.
“When I got up on the roof, immediately mortar rounds came in,” said Castro.”One mortar round landed on the ground. When that one landed I looked over to my left to tell my guys to jump off the roof. Right when I did that, the next mortar round landed five feet to my left.”
The mortar round that landed to left of Castro broke his nose, cheekbone, and it instantly enucleated his right eye. A fragment entered his left eye and his neck, he also sustained an open fracture of the humerus bone in his arm and his deltoid muscle was torn. As a result of the violent blast from the mortar round, Castro’s lungs collapsed and he suffered a pulmonary embolism.
“Immediately, guys jumped on the roof top and pulled me off,” Castro said.
After the combat medics that were attached to his platoon provided first-aid, Castro was medically evacuated to Baghdad. Castro’s final destination would be the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“I spent six weeks in the Intensive Care Unit,” said Castro, “I was hooked up to every possible machine known to man in the ICU. I was basically on life-support.”
When Castro had come to, the doctors lowered the sedation levels in order for his wife, a family member, to be the bearer of the unfortunate news.
“They told me that I had a fragment in my eye and I was going to go into surgery,” said Castro, “but the worst news was to find out that Pfc. Justin Dreese and Sgt. Ralph Porras had died…from that one mortar round, the same mortar round that I was injured by.”
A few days later, Castro came out of surgery and the doctors informed him that they would not be able to restore his vision.
“They told me that I would be blind for the rest of my life,” said Castro.
He explains that he went through stages of grief, depression, sadness, and survivor’s guilt. Castro said that at the time, he had wished and felt as if though he should have died along-side the men who had died that day.
As time went on, Castro realized that through faith and religion he could carry on and continue his fight. He realized that, being a man of faith, there was a plan for him, that there was a reason, that it was not his time to go.
“God decided that it was not my time, that there was something else that I had to accomplish,” said Castro, “God gave me this cross to bear.”
With a smile on his face, Castro explains that bills do not stop, that they continue to keep coming whether you’re injured or not.
“I was still a father, a husband, and an officer in the United States Army,” Castro stated, “I was still a leader, and I still had guys deployed.”
As an outstanding example of resiliency, Castro was determined to continue doing the best that he could. He realized that he had to keep moving forward, and not back down in the face of adversity.
Being blind for the first time in his life, and not ever before have to face life’s difficulties as a blind man, Castro knew nothing about being blind. He didn’t know what it meant. He didn’t know how a blind person did anything.
“I had to re-learn how to walk again and how to balance,” said Castro. “How do I shave? How do I put toothpaste on a toothbrush? How do I get in and out of the shower? How do I walk from one point to another without falling down and cracking my head open?”
Castro faced the problem of having to re-learn everything over again. There was one thing that he did know; he knew that he wasn’t going to let this problem take him down.
Soon after setting his goal, Castro started researching what he could to further his rehabilitation. He started to learn more about being blind, and what programs and activities were in place to facilitate him reaching his goal.
“I quickly came to realize that if I put all my effort and hard work into my rehab,” said Castro. “That I would be able to turn this around, and be able to live a productive life.”
Not only did Castro realize that if he focused on recovery and looking forward towards the future and what it could hold for him, as long as he maintained a positive attitude and outlook on life, he realized that he had the support of everyone around him. Castro had support from his family, friends, and the support from his command.
“There is one thing we have in our organization, that says: your reputation will follow you and once you’re part of the family, you always will be,” Castro explained.
United States Army Special Operations Command, United States Army Special Forces Command (Airborne), and the USASOC organization as a whole supported Castro’s goals and helped take care of him and his family while he was going through recovery.
While Castro was in the hospital going through an intensive recovery process, he came to the conclusion that in order to turn his situation around he needed to formulate a plan, give himself a mission. This was something that, to Castro, every soldier, every leader should do so that he could tackle this situation that he was faced with. So he did.
“The first thing I needed to do was to get physically fit to get out of that hospital,” said Castro.
In-between surgeries, Castro decided that he was going to increase his cardiovascular training and double-up on his resistance training. Castro had, at that point, committed to living a healthy life with a healthy diet. With the support of his family, friends, command, and the support that he found through his faith, Castro moved forward.
“After everything, I realized that I had two choices: either sink or swim,” said Castro.
Castro maintained the view that he could be sitting in his house, watching television all day and doing nothing, or he could be trying to make a difference. Castro had two things that kept him going, positive attitude and gratitude. He realized that he still had two arms, two legs, his memories, and everything else.
“The only thing I didn’t have was my sight,” said Castro.
Being able to carry on and move in a positive direction with his life after what had happened was the least that Castro said that he could have done. For the Soldiers that had lost their lives, it would be unjust to them to quit and give up, Castro explained. So with keeping his Soldiers and other friends who have made the ultimate sacrifice uppermost in his mind, Castro pushes the limits of rehabilitation and exceeds all expectations.
In 2007, the year after Castro was wounded and hospitalized for 13 months, he runs his first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon. After this amazing achievement, Castro moves forward at full speed, competing in multiple marathons, races, and many other events.
To this day, Castro has competed in over 20 marathons, 15 half-marathons, two 50-mile races, three triathlons, and has cycled across the country traveling more than 3,870 miles.
Castro continues to prove that he can do anything, even if he is blind. His accomplishments have proven this fact time and time again. Although he may be blind, he makes it a point to show others that he is still the same as anyone else.
“On top of my blindness, I have everybody’s struggle,” Castro said, “I have kids, a spouse, I own a house, grass has to be cut, light bulbs go out, bills have to be paid….”
The list goes on as Castro explains that his life is the same as everyone else, and that he has to keep going, for his kids, his wife, and his brothers in arms. This is resiliency in its purest form: the ability to grow and thrive in the face of challenges and bounce back from adversity.
Castro explains that if someone could walk away after hearing his struggle, he would want them to take away with them one last piece of advice.
“One: to have extreme patience; two: to never quit, never surrender, never except defeat, and to keep on moving forward. Never look back, just keep on moving forward,” said Castro. “No matter what is going on in your life whether its family or bills, whether its physical struggles you may have, it could always be worse. Maintain a positive attitude and have gratitude, ask for help, and it will always work its way out.”