Israel Del Toro: Like a Phoenix

Oct. 30, 2017

Del Toro, left, talks to Wesemann during jump training. Photos: TSgt. Cecilio Ricardo; Bill Evans/USAF; E. J. Hersom/DOD; Christian Murdock/The Gazette; USAF; Christian Murdock/The Gazette

MSgt. Israel Del Toro—known to friends as “DT”—had never believed the old saying that people about to die see their lives flash before them. Then it happened to him.

In December 2005, then-Staff Sergeant Del Toro was in Afghanistan, riding with a team of soldiers tasked with killing or capturing a high-value target and destroying a supply route used by the Taliban around Helmand province. A TACP, or tactical air control party specialist, his job was to call in air support when needed.

Heading up into the mountains to resupply another coalition team, the Humvee he was riding in drove over an IED, or improvised explosive device. There was a flash and explosion.

Some of the images came fast, others slowly. He and his wife were finally going to get the church wedding that had been delayed three times by deployments. They were going to honeymoon in Greece. He was going to teach his son how to play ball.

As the images faded and he regained his senses, Del Toro realized he had to get out of the burning vehicle, fast. Engulfed in flames “from head to toe,” he remembered having just passed a creek.

“I tried to run to it but the flames overtook me and I collapsed,” he said. “I remember thinking to myself that I’m going to die here. … Then one of my teammates helped me up and we both jumped into the creek to [extinguish] the flames, and the only sound I hear is that sizzle sound. Only it wasn’t a pan, it was my body.”

Up in the mountains, the team that DT’s unit was trying to reach was caught in a crossfire and needed close air support. Even as medics cut his clothes off his severely burned body, DT talked a US Army scout through the TACP procedures. The scout called in the air strikes for him.

Having lost his own father at the age of 12, Del Toro swore his own son wouldn’t grow up without a dad. As he begged the medics to let him sleep, they repeatedly reminded him of this promise. “Fight for your son, DT. Fight for your son,” said one. “He just kept saying it until the medevac came,” Del Toro recalled.

When the chopper arrived, Del Toro’s teammates began to carry him to it. But he insisted, “?‘Hell, no! I walked into this fight; I’m going to walk out.’ I hobbled my naked butt to the helicopter,” he said.

Throughout the flight to his forward operating base, he drifted in and out of consciousness. He remembers seeing some of his Air Force and Army buddies at the field hospital. He remembers the doctor cutting off his watch and telling him he was going to be OK. That was Dec. 4, 2005.

When he woke up in March 2006 at Brooke Army Medical Center at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, Del Toro thought it was still December in Afghanistan.

He had suffered third degree burns over more than 80 percent of his body and had gone from a “200-pound muscle head” to a mere 115 pounds. The inhalation burns in his lungs had nearly killed him three times. Doctors gave him a 15 percent chance of living and broke the news that if he did survive, he would never walk again or breathe without a respirator. They said he would be hospitalized another year-and-a-half and that his military career was over.

DT refused to accept that prognosis.

“I couldn’t really talk,” he recalled, because of a tracheostomy. “I might have given some colorful words, but pretty much, I just told them they can go to hell.” Two months after the grim forecast, “I was out of the hospital, walking and breathing on my own.”

First, though, he’d have to make it through what he called his “darkest hour.”

_You can read this story in our print issue:


The Darkest Hour

Del Toro was making amazing progress in recovery. His positive attitude, strength, and perseverance were an inspiration to everyone he encountered.

He hadn’t yet seen his face, though.

Because of the severity of his burns and disfigurement, all the mirrors in his line of sight had been kept covered. Doctors wanted to give him time to heal and ease into his new reality.

One day, as his wife and therapist were helping him to the bathroom, one of them tripped and accidentally pulled the towel off the mirror.

“I saw myself for the first time and I broke down. I told them, ‘Why did you guys let me live? I should have died out in the field. You guys should have let me die those three times. Why did you let the doctors save me?’?”

DT was inconsolable. Everyone else was crying, too.

“It wasn’t a vanity thing. … I was a 30-year-old man and I had a three-year-old son and I thought, if at 30 years old I looked like a monster, what’s my three-year-old going to think?” he wondered.

His therapist, whom DT refers to as his “guardian angel,” wouldn’t let him give up.

“You don’t realize how many people look up to you,” the therapist said, “not only the medical staff, but the other service members that are in here with you. They see you go through some of the most excruciating pain a human can possibly go through, but you’re not quitting. You keep pushing. You keep asking, ‘Get me back out there,’?” he recalled.

Del Toro had convinced himself, though, that his son would be terrified of him, and he just didn’t know how to live with that. His wife and therapist kept assuring him that his son, also named Israel, wouldn’t care what he looked like. He just wanted his dad.

It would be another month-and-a-half, in May 2006, before DT came to believe that. When he walked in the door of his house, he looked “like a mummy” because his wounds were all wrapped up. He was happy to see his friends and family, but he was focused on his son, whom he hadn’t seen since August 2005.

“I hear his little feet stomping. Dat Dat Dat Dat. And he stops right in front of me. … I’m like, ‘Oh crap, he’s scared of me,’?” said Del Toro. But his son “just [tilted] his head to the side” and asked, “Boppy?” Del Toro answered, “Yeah, buddy.” DT said, “He comes up and gives me the most amazing hug. It’s probably the best sensation I’ve ever had besides him being born.”

“Gary was right, my therapist, all he wanted was his dad. He didn’t care what dad looked like. He knew who I was, it was my voice or I don’t know what it was maybe a child’s intuition, but all he wanted was his dad.”

Stay Strong, Finish Strong

Although he walked out of the hospital on his own power after just two months, it would take three more years before Del Toro really started to feel strong again. His status was “limbo,” as he called it—as a patient, he couldn’t work and couldn’t get promoted. Recovery took five years, 120 surgeries, and countless hours of therapy.

He was charting new ground. Wounded troops of the Vietnam era had simply not survived injuries comparable to his.

“At that time, the Air Force didn’t really know how to deal with wounded service members,” DT observed.

As a noncommissioned officer, Del Toro felt compelled to change that. He had to prove to himself—and the Air Force—that he could still serve.

“I missed my teammates downrange, but I knew all these wounded guys were now my teammates,” he said. “I had to take care of them. … I had to fight for them and try to get better things for them.”

Eventually a medical board gave him a choice: He could retire with 100 percent disability and come back as a civilian and teach TACP students, or he could put the uniform back on and do the same job. The civilian alternative offered more money, but for Del Toro there really was only one option.

“It’s very hard for someone to find a job they truly love, and I truly love serving my country,” said DT. “I truly love being a TACP.” He knew he couldn’t be a frontline operator anymore, couldn’t go downrange, but he could still teach young airmen how to call in air strikes.

“I always wanted to retire on my own terms, not on the terms of the SOBs that left the IED on the road and tried to ruin my career, ruin my life,” Del Toro insisted.

On Feb. 8, 2010, then-Technical Sergeant Del Toro became the first airman with 100 percent disability ever to re-enlist. Maj. Gen. Anthony Przybyslawski, then vice commander of Air Education and Training Command, administered the oath before a packed base theater at JBSA-Randolph, Texas.

“He’s bringing back his skills to the Air Force as a tactical air party controller. He’s going to be an instructor,” Przybyslawski said at the ceremony. “He has credibility and the ability to teach from experience. That’s why we need him; that’s why we want him. He’s going to serve us and he’s back on the job.”

After his re-enlistment, Del Toro was assigned to the Air Force Services Activity at JBSA-Lackland, Texas. Initially, though, he stopped at the Air Force Academy, as the first Paralympian in the Air Force’s World Class Athlete Program. This allowed him to train full-time for national and international athletic competitions. The man who doctors said would never walk again—the most recognizable face of the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program—was training at the Olympic Training Center and competing in cycling, track and field, and powerlifting.

Del Toro today works as an instructor in the academy’s parachuting airmanship course, where he trains cadets trying out for the Wings of Blue, the school’s parachute demonstration and competition team. On Feb. 18, he made his 131st parachute jump alongside members of the 98th Flying Training Squadron in Colorado. It was his first jump in 11 years.

Seven days later, he pinned on master sergeant’s stripes. Then-Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson surprised him after a speaking engagement to say there was a mismatch with his Air Force Specialty Code after he returned from Afghanistan, resulting in a retroactive promotion to August 2014.

“It’s tremendously exciting for us to share this day with Master Sergeant Del Toro,” CMSgt. Max Grindstaff, the academy’s command chief at the time, said during the ceremony. “He represents the best of the best, a true commitment to service before self, and is an inspiring example of strength, faith, and honor to all airmen and our 4,000 cadets. Specifically, the trailblazing he’s done for his fellow wounded warriors exemplifies the best of what makes us great.”

As an NCO and instructor, Del Toro conveys his hard-won wisdom. He knows his scars are a constant reminder to his students of the very real dangers they will encounter in the field, but he encourages them to stay focused on the mission.

“I always say, if they look at me and see the severity and possibility of what can happen to you in this job—and they still want to do this job—then these are guys I want in my Air Force. These are guys I want in my military. … These are my teammates I want downrange having my back,” he said.

His friends frequently rib him over his “Hollywood status,” because of all the celebrities he’s encountered through his journey. He’s met former President George W. Bush several times. Comedian Jon Stewart presented Del Toro with the Pat Tillman Award at this year’s ESPY awards and the TV personality often sends him “crazy texts.” Kat Von D, star of the reality TV show “LA Ink” did one of the tattoos on his arm—a phoenix surrounded by fire. Del Toro said this image represents his “spiritual animal,” because when a phoenix dies, “it turns to ashes and from the ashes is new life.”

Also emblazoned on his arms are the words his son used to say to him as he trained, that he continues to live by today: “Stay Strong, Finish Strong.”