Special Forces soldier blinded in battle, and keeps on fighting

Here’s some Monday afternoon inspiration for you. Ivan Castro joined the Army, and was a Ranger before completing Special Forces training. He earned his officer’s commission and joined the 82nd Airborne Division as platoon leader. In September of 2006, in Youssifiyah, Iraq, he was struck by mortar fire and shrapnel, breaking his arm and shoulder, and also leaving him blind. After spending 17 months recovering, he asked for an assignment with Special Operations Command, getting duty with 7th Special Forces Group.

He’s determined to keep on fighting, even though he’s now blind.

When Capt. Ivan Castro joined the Army, he set goals: to jump out of planes, kick in doors and lead soldiers into combat. He achieved them all. Then the mortar round landed five feet away, blasting away his sight.

“Once you’re blind, you have to set new goals,” Castro said.

He set them higher.

Not content with just staying in the Army, he is the only blind officer serving in the Special Forces — the small, elite units famed for dropping behind enemy lines on combat missions.

As executive officer of the 7th Special Forces Group’s headquarters company in Fort Bragg, Castro’s duties don’t directly involve combat, though they do have him taking part in just about everything that leads up to it.

“I am going to push the limits,” the 40-year-old said. “I don’t want to go to Fort Bragg and show up and sit in an office. I want to work every day and have a mission.”

Since the war began in Iraq, more than 100 troops have been blinded and 247 others have lost sight in one eye. Only two other blind officers serve in the active-duty Army: one a captain studying to be an instructor at West Point, the other an instructor at the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Castro’s unit commander said his is no charity assignment. Rather it draws on his experience as a Special Forces team member and platoon leader with the 82nd Airborne Division.

“The only reason that anyone serves with 7th Special Forces Group is if they have real talents,” said Col. Sean Mulholland. “We don’t treat [Castro] as a public affairs or a recruiting tool.”

Though not fully independent, he spent a weekend before starting his job walking around the Group area at Fort Bragg to know just where he was going. He carefully measured the steps from car to office.

“Obviously, he cannot do some things that a sighted person can do. But Ivan will find a way to get done whatever he needs to get done,” Mulholland said. “What I am most impressed with, though, is his determination to continue to serve his country after all that he’s been through.”

Castro works out regularly at the gym and runs, his legs powerful and muscular. And though he has a prosthetic right eye and his arms are scarred by shrapnel, his outsized personality overshadows his war wounds: Nobody escapes his booming hellos, friendly banter and limitless drive.

He ran the Boston marathon this year with Adm. Eric T. Olson, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command. Last year it was the Marine Corps Marathon. He wants to compete in the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii and graduate from the Army’s officer advanced course, which teaches captains how to lead troops and plan operations.

Mulholland said Castro, who was awarded a Purple Heart like others wounded in combat, will always be part of the Special Forces family.

“I will fight for Ivan as long as Ivan wants to be in the Army,” Mulholland said.

His heroism, bravery, and determination is beyond just admirable and inspirational. It’s awe-inducing. I cannot personally imagine being blind, period, let alone being a blind member of the Army’s Special Forces. Captain Ivan is just another example that the heroes serving in our military are the best and brightest among us.

The next time you start to feel sorry for yourself, or feel like you can’t soldier on, remember Captain Ivan and other soldiers like him, who refuse to give up or let themselves become victims.

On a tip from James, a reader who is also a soldier in the Army (my personal thanks for James for his service, as well!).

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