Severely Burned USAF Sergeant Re-Enlists After IED Blast

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro Jr.Photo by Bob Owen. Copyright 2010 San Antonio Express-News, reprinted with permission.
After being injured in Afghanistan in 2005, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro Jr., left, takes an oath during his re-enlistment ceremony at Randolph AFB, Monday, Feb. 8, 2010. At right is Maj. Gen. Anthony Przybyslawski, who performed the ceremony.

When Air Force recruits look at Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro's battle-scarred body, they know they will be listening to the voice of hard won experience.

Severely burned over more than 80 percent of his body in an IED explosion in Afghanistan, Del Toro has spent the last four years convincing the U.S. Air Force to allow him to re-enlist.

This week, he again reported for duty, proud to be the first 100 percent combat disabled Air Force technician to re-enlist.

VIDEO: Sgt. Israel Del Toro is back on duty after being told hed never walk again.Play
Burned Air Force Sgt. Israel Del Toro Returns to Duty

"I had to fight them. I had a lot of people behind me, supporting me," Del Toro said. "From day one, everyone knew I wanted to stay in. I never changed my mind."

He had plenty of reasons to change his mind.

Assigned to an Army unit to call in airstrikes in a remote part of Afghanistan, Del Toro had followed the instructions of an Army lieutenant hoping to ambush Afghan insurgents when their Humvee rolled over the roadside bomb Dec. 4, 2005.

Jumping out of the truck, in flames from head to toe, Del Toro said he thought to himself, "I'm going to die here. I'm never going to see my wife and son again."

After being led by the lieutenant to jump in the creek to douse the blaze, Del Toro said he laid on the ground and said simply, "That sucked."

Airlifted to the closest military hospital in Afghanistan, Del Toro -- "DT" to his buddies -- kept conscious by thinking of his 2-year-old son and namesake. He remembered the doctor cutting his watch off his wrist -- and nothing else until he came out of his coma at Brooke Army Medical Center three months later.

Told he had nearly died three times and that he would likely never walk again or breathe without the use of a respirator, Del Toro was devastated. And angry.

"Pretty much, I kind of felt they could go to hell," he said.

Instead, he embarked on a four-year mission to prove to his superiors that he could still serve his country. He was out of the hospital in less than three months and began campaigning for re-enlistment.

"I love my job," he said. "I love what I do."

His wife, Carmen Del Toro, said she's thrilled her husband's years of grueling determination paid off.

"He doesn't look the same, but it doesn't matter. I'm so happy for him," she said. "It's time for him to keep going."

Commander: Injured USAF Sergeant Is 'Blazing New Ground'

Del Toro lost all of the fingers on his left hand except for his thumb and had the fingers on his right hand amputated at the knuckles. He suffered inhalation burns and has survived more than 120 surgeries with more to come.

His re-enlistment fell under the Air Force's limited assignment status provision, which was tweaked in 2008 to allow more severely wounded airmen to return to the job if they are able.

USAF Personnel Center spokesman Kenny Pruitt told that, of five 100 percent disabled airmen who were eligible to reapply for enlistment under the new guidelines, Del Toro is the only one who took the opportunity.

"I will never be able to deploy. Which kind of sucks. I wish I could," Del Toro said. His injuries also prevent him from being stationed at overseas bases.

Instead, he'll train incoming recruits to do the job he once held -- a joint terminal attack controller, or JTAC. JTACs are Air Force personnel who are assigned to Army units on patrol or on the attack, the most forwards units in the war. When they come under fire, the Army relies on the JTAC to call in air support and direct that fire onto enemy positions. It is one of the most dangerous and exposed jobs in the war zone.

"DT is going to have instant credibility. Instant credibility in that 'I've been there, done that,'" Lt. Col. Patrick Barnett told "It's going to be an eye opener for them."

Barnett, Del Toro's squadron commander, said that while they've got other injured technicians on active duty, including one who lost part of his left leg in a landmine accident, Del Toro is the most severely injured technician he's seen ever allowed to re-enlist.

"I think DT is kind of blazing new ground in how the Air Force deals with their wounded warriors," Barnett said. "Guys like DT that can still contribute in training, training men to do the job he was doing, releases other men that are healthy and otherwise able to deploy."

Both Barnett and Del Toro said it took a lot of convincing to get him back on active duty. Though his enlistment ended during the course of his recovery, Del Toro was granted several extensions until he could get a medical evaluation.

"I understand he had a lot of struggles to do this," Barnett said. "Just across the Air Force, the standard policy is if you are wounded, and wounded this severely, that you're just going to be medically retired."

But Barnett, who met Del Toro several years ago as he was recovering from his injuries, said he understood right away why the technician wanted back on active duty.

"Guys that do the kind of jobs and that are in the squadron I'm training ... they are all type A personalities. They want to do the job. They want to contribute," he said. "They don't care if they've lost a leg or, in DT's case, are burned horribly."

Burned USAF Sergeant Pushing Body to Match His Spirit's Determination

That kind of determination is a long journey from Del Toro's childhood when he was admittedly "anti-military," thinking there was no way he'd ever let the government control his life.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Del Toro was just 12 when his father died of a heart attack and 14 when his mother was killed by a drunk driver.

"The last thing he ever told me was promise you'll always take care of your family," Del Toro said of his father. "I always kept that in mind."

After dropping out of college to help his ailing grandparents care for his three younger siblings, despite a full academic scholarship at the University of Illinois, Del Toro was watching television when an Air Force commercial stirred something in him.

"Something just inside of me said, 'Do this. You got to do this,'" he said. "This is something I wanted to do for me."

So he became the first member of his family to join the military. Four years later, he watched the World Trade Center come down on television while stationed in North Carolina.

"I knew it was coming," he said of the war on terror. "It was just a matter of time."

Having just returned from a deployment in Bosnia, Del Toro was redeployed to Iraq in 2003.

Two years later, he was in Afghanistan, despite having a son he'd only seen for four months out of his two years and a wife who threatened to leave him if he re-enlisted.

"Before the accident, I was kind of angry about his job," Carmen Del Toro said. Stuck in Italy where her husband had been based with a young son and thousands of miles away from her family in her native Mexico, "I said, 'You better finish with your four years and that's it. No more.'"

Then she got the call that he'd been injured. She rushed to be by his side and Del Toro's Air Force buddies made sure Carmen was taken care of.

"She saw all my friends from across the world being by my side and her side," he said. "They never left her alone."

"All these four years, he was fighting to keep his job. He was working himself a lot. He's been through a lot of surgeries and a lot of rehab to be there," Carmen Del Toro said. "It's when I realized how much he loves his work."

Del Toro said he knew the Army lieutenant's call on the battlefield in 2005 was a bad one, but he had to follow orders.

He was young, "never been in any firefights or anything. He was itching to," Del Toro said, adding that he warned him, "Sir, it's not like in a video game."

But he credits that same lieutenant with helping to save his life. He insists he's not mad at him now.

Adjusting to Life of Stares, Comments, Loyalty

Del Toro admits he gets stares when he's off-base. The San Antonio area is full of injured servicemen and women, he said, but he can't avoid the looks when he goes home to Chicago. He said they bother his wife and son more than him.

Carmen Del Toro said their young son doesn't remember much of his father before the accident, but is fiercely proud of him now and wants to be a soldier when he grows up. She said the family was once on a soccer field when another child came up to him and called Del Toro "gross."

"He said, 'You better be quiet,'" she said. "'He's my dad'"

Del Toro said he just ignores the comments and stares.

"Little kids probably have better manners than the adults. They come up and ask what happened," he said. "I've got no problems answering them."

He's also prepared to share his story with any of the recruits that come his way. He hopes to complete the four years his enlistment calls for, but understands his battered body might not allow it.

"As much as my heart wants to stay in and continue, I don't know what will happen. My body might say, 'Hey, you can't do it brother,'" he said. "At least I gave it the good college try."