Chris Jackson/Getty Images(ORLANDO, Fla.) — Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro was nearly killed by an IED explosion in Afghanistan, collapsing when the flames overtook him and burned his body. But he persevered, always thinking of his son, and after becoming the first 100 percent disabled veteran to re-enlist in the Air Force, he’s ready to compete again at this week’s Invictus Games in Orlando.
Del Toro was on deployment in Afghanistan when, on Dec. 4, 2005, an IED explosion severely burned more than 80 percent of his body.
“We crossed this creek and I feel this intense heat blast on my left side,” Del Toro told ESPN.
“People talk about your life flashing in front of you … for me, everything started just coming in waves,” said Del Toro, then a father to a 2-year-old son. “And when I got out of the truck I was on fire from head to toe. I collapsed cause the flames overtook me.”
“I’m thinking I’m gonna die here,” he said.
Del Toro jumped in a creek to douse the flames. He was having trouble breathing.
But he said his lieutenant told him, “You’re not gonna die here. … you said you would never let your son grow up without his dad. You gotta fight.”
Del Toro then woke up months later, in March 2006. He was told 80 percent of his body was covered in third-degree burns.
“You almost died on us three times,” he was told.
He said he was also told he might not walk again and would be on a respirator of the rest of his life.
He then noticed he didn’t have his fingers.
He said he was told: “Your military career is probably over.”
But Del Toro started the recovery process.
“Learning to walk, you never think it would hurt so much,” he said. “It was just some of the most unbearable pain … but I had to do it,” he said, for his son.
“Never throughout my recovery, even when I saw my body … never did I wish I died. Until I did see my face for the first time,” he said.
He said caregivers initially cover up mirrors to ease the severely burned into seeing themselves.
“When I did see myself [my face] for the first time I break down,” he said. “I was scared.”
“I’m a 30-year-old man, and if I think I’m a monster, what’s my 3-year-old son gonna think? I don’t want my son to be scared of me. But I’m thinking in my head, ‘He wants his dad.’ That’s all he wants, is his dad,” he said.
In May 2006, Del Toro was out of the hospital “walking and breathing on my own.”
His son, Israel Jr., told ESPN of seeing his dad for the first time: “I ran out the door. And my dad was all burned, I didn’t really recognize him.”
“All of a sudden he [Israel Jr.] stops,” Del Toro said. “I was like, ‘Is he scared of me?'”
“I just gave him the greatest hug,” Israel Jr said. “I really just wanted my dad home.”
With his son as motivation, Del Toro made his comeback.
He was awarded the Purple Heart. Then in 2010, he became the first 100 percent disabled veteran to re-enlist in the Air Force.
And as a part of his return to physical fitness, in 2014 he competed in the inaugural Invictus Games — a competition for wounded servicemen and women created by Prince Harry. He’s now back for the second Invictus Games, beginning today in Orlando.
More than 500 veterans from around the world are expected to participate. The games “shine a light on the holistic recovery and rehabilitation that occurs through sport for the wounded, ill, and injured Service men and women who participate in them,” according to the official Invictus Games website.
Most importantly, the games represent “coming back from rock bottom,” Prince Harry said.
“All [these competitors] want to do is get back to that status amongst their family that I am still the same person. I may look different or I may have a disability now, but I’m stronger now than I ever have been,” the prince said. “This is a big moment for everyone to say thank you to the guys who put their life on the line. Thank you to the people who serve our country and put themselves in harm’s way so we don’t have to.”
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