26 May 2010

Wounded Warriors Fighting Back to Active Duty

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro and his wife, Carmen, finally had the church wedding and reception of their dreams in August 2009, four years after a roadside bomb almost killed Del Toro, burning over 80 percent of his body, and seven years after they tied the knot in a civil ceremony. In February, Del Toro became the first airman to re-enlist with a 100 percent combat medical disability. Photo courtesy of Israel Del Toro.

“People try to call me a hero. I’m not a hero. I’m just a regular guy who had a bad day.”

That's one way of putting it.

Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro was on fire.

A roadside bomb had exploded under the Humvee that Del Toro was riding in while supporting soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in a remote part of northern Afghanistan.

Flames engulfed his entire body. He jumped out of the truck and made it to a nearby creek with help from an Army lieutenant. Rolling into the water, “I heard the same sound you hear when you stick a hot pan in cold water,” he said.

Since the Dec. 4, 2005, explosion, Del Toro, now 34, has undergone more than 120 surgeries. He’s learned to walk and run with a carbon brace and breathe without a respirator, something his doctors expected would never happen for a man burned over 80 percent of his body.

When you look at him today, nearly five years later, it’s hard to see the old Israel Del Toro. His lips, part of his nose and his eyelids were burned off. He lost both ears. Facial reconstruction is ongoing.

But one thing hasn’t changed: He’s still in the Air Force.

Spc. Jake Altman aims at his target while competing for the German proficiency badge at the German Infantry School in Hammelburg, Germany, in February. Photo: Dan Blottenberger/Stars and Stripes.

The Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy allow disabled troops to apply for permission to continue on active duty after being found “unfit for duty” by medical boards. It’s not a simple process, and not everyone who is approved to return makes a successful long-term transition.

The services use special evaluation boards made up of medical experts, peers, senior leaders and recruiters to judge each application, military officials said in interviews this spring.

About 200 soldiers, 58 Marines, 33 sailors and six airmen have petitioned for, and won, the ability to continue to serve even though the military has found them unfit for duty.

The Marine Corps has approved all requests from disabled Marines who want to remain on active duty, said Capt. Rob Adams, who heads up the Marine Corps’ disability section. Currently, seven Marines considered 100 percent disabled are serving, including Cpl. Matthew Bradford, who in April became the first blind double amputee to re-enlist in the Marines. Last year, the Army approved 70 percent of those who asked for special permission to “continue on active duty,” according to Army Lt. Col. Kathie S. Clark, a medical policy officer within the Army’s personnel office.

“They are back in the fighting force,” she said in late March. “They are given assignments within the limitations of their (medical) profile. We have some who can deploy and some who can’t.”

Read the stories of SPC Altman, TSgt Del Toro, and Major Andrew Lynch, who spent eight months at Walter Reed relearning to walk, eat and eventually fire a weapon again after an EFP blasted through his Humvee destroying his right eye and causing TBI.

And Mrs G of the Mudville Gazette has written about TSgt Del Toro a few times.

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