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Paralympian Israel Del Toro dishes on his training, Prince Harry and his bucket list

May 21, 2016 (Photo Credit: EJ Hersom/DoD)
Master Sergeant Israel Del Toro never thought he'd​ be a motivational speaker, nor an airman who competes as an athlete all over the world. But this, he says, is ​where his military service took him, and he ​doesn't want it to end. 

"Right now, it's one of the things I want to change," Del Toro told Air Force Times on Monday. "Because of my situation, I'm in a limited assignment status, and I have to get out at 20 [years], even if I make rank again." 

Del Toro suffered third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2005. He endured more than 100 surgeries to re-enlist in 2010, going on to serve as a tactical air control party instructor for five years before becoming the Air Force's first disabled service member to be selected for the  World Class Athlete Program in Colorado Springs. 

In February, Del Toro, 41, was surprised to learn he had retroactively been promoted to master sergeant. 

While Del Toro was addressing cadets at the Air Force Academy, one of his many speaking engagements around the country, academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson walked up to him on the auditorium stage and asked why he wasn't in proper uniform.  



“Didn’t you know you’ve been promoted to master sergeant?” Johnson said. 

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Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro has replicas of master sergeant stripes "tacked on" his sleeves by his wife, Carmen, and his son, Israel Jr., Feb 26 at the Air Force Academy. Del Toro was officially promoted during a surprise ceremony officiated by Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, the academy's superintendent, in front of several hundred staff members and cadets.
Photo Credit: Bill Evans/Air Force
Somewhere along the way, his bump in rank was never transferred. The official date of his promotion is now listed as Aug. 1, 2014.

“I'm speechless, I don’t have words for this,” Del Toro told friends, family and cadets  after Johnson made the announcement. “It’s a great feeling, being a senior NCO. It’s something I’ve always wanted.”  

Air Force Times caught up with Del Toro, and spoke about his participation in the recent Invictus Games, his connection to veterans and what he wants to accomplish before he puts in — or nudges past — his 20 years. Comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: You became the first airman to re-enlist after becoming eligible for a medical retirement with a 100 percent disability rating​, and later became the Air Force’s first disabled airman to be selected for the WCAP. What pushed you to change the Air Force’s policy?   

A. I applied and made my case ... but sometimes it’s tiring being the trailblazer, being the first. But I saw it as, this is an opportunity for the Air Force to show that even though you’re wounded, if you excel in sports, you can be a para world-class athlete and try to make it to the Olympics. It was just a way to help other service members who are physically disabled like I am to say, these are your options to stay in the Air Force. My job is to train 24/7 to get to the Paralympics. I’m a shooter, so air rifle, and I’m a thrower, so I throw shot put, discus and javelin. I own world records in all three of those. 

Q. What was your experience as a motivational speaker at the Invictus Games?

A.​I’ve done public speaking, I’ve talked to bases, high schools. My ​biggest speech before that was here at the ​academy, when I spoke to maybe 600 cadets. But to be asked to speak at such a big event ... it’s was very dumbfounding. I’m in awe they even thought of me. For me, it was an opportunity to open the eyes to the world about us service members who are wounded, but are still alive. ... Those guys [who didn't come back] gave the ultimate sacrifice, but there’s a lot of us that get hurt who survive and are just living our lives, pushing forward. T​his was an opportunity to show the world ... we’re still here.  

Q. What are the challenges for you physically?   

A. It’s very ... "Groundhog Day." I pretty much get up in the morning, and either go shoot and then ... throw a little in the afternoon, and then go to the gym in the evening, or [vice versa]. I’m exempt from the Air Force [physical training test] due to my condition, but I have my own workout with my strength coaches, who help me do what I got to do. 

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Del Toro races on a recumbent bike during the 2016 Invictus Games.
Photo Credit: EJ Hersom/DoD
Q. What’s critical for your training?

A. Having enough time to relax. You won’t be 100 percent after a day of traveling, or what not. You have to be able to focus, to get ready ... to either shoot or to throw. I got done with the Invictus Games last week, and this past weekend, I flew to Arizona for another competition, Desert Challenge. ​I flew Friday morning, threw Friday evening, and I wasn’t up to par. I was tired, exhausted, and the javelin for me felt like it was a thousand pounds.

Even as the U.S. ambassador for the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando, Florida, Del Toro competed in cycling, powerlifting, shot put and discus. He earned a gold medal in the men’s shot put in his disability category. Del Toro will compete in the Warrior Games at West Point  June 15 -21.

Q. There have been reports you palled around with Prince Harry. What was memorable about that?

A. Me and Prince Harry we were sitting there watching volleyball. And I leaned over to him and was like, “Do you want to place a friendly wager?” And he stands up and busts out $20 dollars! At first I was amazed he was even carrying money in his pocket. And then he was like “$20 dollars? Okay, it’s on!”... He bet that the British would beat us. Of course it’s a championship, and after the U.S. crushed, he disappeared, and I was like “C’mon, where you at?”

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Former President George W. Bush fist bumps with Del Toro during the 2016 Invictus Games Symposium on Invisible Wounds. Hosted by Bush and Britain's Prince Harry, the symposium focused on ways to destigmatize the victims of post-traumatic stress and other injuries that are not readily visible.
Photo Credit: EJ Hersom/DoD
The next day, I met [professional wrestler] John Cena, and I acquired his services to help recover my $20 dollars from the prince. He’s like, “I got ya.”  

Q. Do you think you may be able to get the Air Force to reconsider your retirement?

A. If I make it to senior master sergeant, I would like to be able to pin on and retire as a senior and get those benefits, because my options are limited because of my situation. So a little more I can get in my retirement is a little better. … Hopefully, I’ll be able to change this, but if not, I’ll be retiring in June 2017. 

Q. What’s on your Air Force bucket list, just in case?

A. When I came back in, I wanted to fly, and [in 2009] I got to fly in a T-38 [jet trainer]. I want to jump again. And here, at the Air Force Academy, they’re going to help me get back on jump status and jump with the students. In June, I’ll be going through a refresher course for that. Also, the Italian and New Zealand military attachés want to fly me out to their countries to speak. Lastly, I want to do one last control, meaning talk to an aircraft and drop bombs at a range. And I want to do that closer to my retirement.​

Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East and Europe for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at opawlyk@airforcetimes.com.

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