Capt. Ivan Castro has a way of making most problems seem insignificant.
If his name sounds familiar, it’s probably because Castro has a way of inspiring everyone he meets. He is one of the stars of country singer Joe Nichols’ video 'The Shape I’m In.' He stood on stage with then-President George W. Bush during a visit to Fort Bragg. He’s been featured in Runners’ World, Money Magazine and on Fox News. And he has completed an astounding 18 marathons, 11 half marathons, four Army 10-milers, two 50-mile ultra marathons, two triathlons and an ascent to Grays Peak, one of the highest mountains in Colorado.
All this without being able to see a thing.
Castro is completely blind, unable to see even light. He lost his vision in Yusifiyah, Iraq, about 20 miles southwest of Baghdad, in September 2006.
The once-enlisted sergeant first class in Special Forces earned an officer’s commission and, in 2006, was serving as a scout platoon leader with 1/324 Infantry Regiment in the 82nd Airborne Division. On the night that his life changed, Castro’s men had relieved other paratroopers in a position on top of a house during a night of fighting. As an officer, he didn’t have to personally provide fire support for the other soldiers, but he did anyway.
He joined Sgt. Ralph Porras and Pfc. Justin Dreese in their position, just in time for a mortar round to land a few feet away from him, killing Porras and Dreese and severely wounding Castro. When he awoke in the hospital, he learned that the shrapnel that tore through his body had damaged his shoulder, broken his arm, fractured his facial bones and collapsed his lungs. A finger on his right hand was missing. His right eye had been blown out by the blast, and he had a metal fragment in his left eye. His injuries were so extensive that doctors didn’t expect him to survive.
Castro told this story to a group of teenagers and adults this week at the Westminister Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville. Like Castro, most of the audience members were totally or partially blind. The event was organized by the Vision Resource Center in Fayetteville in hopes that Castro’s story would inspire the visually impaired people in attendance.
“When I woke up, a family member had to be the bearer of bad news and told me that I’d lost my right eye and that I had a fragment in my left,” Castro told the crowd. “I also learned that the same blast killed two of my men. You can only imagine what goes through your head after receiving that news.”
Castro said that, though he was tempted to feel sorry for himself, he knew that he had been spared and that God must have plans for him.
“I realized then,” he said, “that I wasn’t going to let this take me down.”
While still in the hospital recovering he overheard a nurse taking about the Marine Corps Marathon and, a lifelong runner, Castro decided he would run it. He didn’t even know then if a totally blind person could run a marathon, but he became determined nonetheless.
“I could not even walk or stand on my own then,” Castro said. “I had to take baby steps, but I had a mission.”
Castro doubled his physical training (PT) scheduled and began researching ways to get back into shape. While laid up in the hospital he had lost 50 pounds of muscle and gained 70 pounds of fat. He knew he had to trim down and bulk up, if he wanted to make it through the 26.2 grueling miles. He learned that he could run the race if a sighted person, attached to him by a tether, would act as his eyes.
“I’m still a man,” Castro told the audience. “I’m still a leader. I’m still an officer. I still have men who look up to me, and I wasn’t going to let them down.”
Castro said he also decided to stop taking the medicines that he felt were making him sick. At that time he said he was taking 15 pills, three times a day. He said he replaced the drugs with “hard work, a proper diet, faith in the good Lord, more hard work and determination.”
It’s been four years and 10 months since that mortar round altered Castro’s life forever, in good ways and bad, and Castro has chosen to stay on active duty in the Army. He’s the only blind Special Forces officer in the Army and one of only a small handful of blind soldiers in the military.
Castro said that Army officials were willing to work with him to find a job where his skills could be put to use, and they found it: He now works in Special Operations Recruiting Battalion and he mentors soldiers who have been injured in combat, particularly those with eye injuries. He said he still wears the uniform, just like everyone else, and is still expected to meet the same standards as other soldiers.
“I still go out and walk through the woods, feel the sun on my face. I still shoot — obviously in a controlled setting. I still jump out of airplanes on a tandem,” Castro said. “The military has come to see that there is a positive for those of us who choose to continue on.”