By Austin M. May, 47th FTW Public Affairs
/ Published December 04, 2006
LAUGHLIN AFB, TEXAS --
Staff Sgt. Israel Del Toro is a typical Air Force Tactical Air Control Party Airman -- loves his job, speaks highly of those he serves with, and speaks his mind.
He says he feels the war in Iraq has drawn so much attention lately some people seem to forget there are American troops fighting hard in Afghanistan as well. Sergeant Del Toro, however, will never forget.
Dec. 4, 2005, Sergeant Del Toro was taken out of combat by an enemy's improvised explosive device. The lead vehicle he was riding in was crossing a creek when it was hit by the IED, and Sergeant Del Toro's body took most of the blast, he said. Engulfed in flames, he hit the ground and tried to put himself out.
"I remember thinking I was never going to see my family again," Sergeant Del Toro said. But a lieutenant from his Humvee grabbed him and dragged him into the creek, telling him "Don't worry D.T., you're not going to die here." The lieutenant was right; Sergeant Del Toro survived, though nearly 80 percent of his body was burned.
"D.T.," as the Chicago native is known among friends, remembers everything from the attack up until the point where he was put into an ambulance and taken away.
The next thing he knew, he was waking up in Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. It was March. He was told about the many visitors he had received during the time he was unconscious, including President George W. Bush.
Once he had recovered enough, he and his family were moved into base housing, first at Fort Sam Houston, then later to Randolph Air Force Base, which the sergeant enjoyed.
"Compared to other branches, no one comes close to taking care of their troops like the Air Force," he said.
A year after the incident, Sergeant Del Toro's doctors tell him he should still be in the hospital recovering, but he is way ahead of schedule, he said.
"There are guys in the hospital with fewer injuries than me who have been there longer," he said.
The sergeant said his biggest motivation to get better is his family - his wife and his little boy, Israel. The key is to keep a positive attitude, he said.
Initially, the family had difficulties adapting to their sudden change of lifestyle. Before his incident, the Del Toro family's finances had been the sole responsibility of the sergeant.
Since his wife spoke hardly any English and had no access to the family's bank accounts, the difficult situation they were facing wasn't looking to get any easier.
That is when his other family stepped in, he said.
Sergeant Del Toro's Air Force brothers and sisters, mostly members of his career field, took matters into their own hands and saved the day. Until he regained consciousness in March and was able to authorize his wife access to their accounts, she and their son survived mostly on donations and the unwavering support of Air Force organizations.
Two individuals in particular stand out in the sergeant's stories.
Chief Master Sgt. Ralph Humphrey, the family liaison officer at BAMC, contacted then Senior, now Chief Master Sgt. Ruben Gonzalez, 47th Operations Group, a personal friend, and explained the situation.
"Chief Humphrey told me of a family who needed special assistance," Chief Gonzalez said. "He told me there was an injured Airman with a wife who only spoke Spanish." The Chief leaped at the opportunity to help.
"I know D.T.," he said. "He would have done the exact same thing for me."
Sergeant Del Toro said he owes the two chiefs everything.
"Without them, I probably wouldn't be here," he said. "I am indebted to them for the rest of my life."
The 31-year old sergeant is told constantly he is a hero, but said he doesn't see himself that way.
"I'm just a regular guy who loved his job," he said. "I just happened to get hurt."
With his eyes beginning to well with tears, the self-proclaimed "adrenaline junkie" told about an incident which left a lasting impression on him, one which he wasn't even awake to experience.
While he was unconscious in the hospital, President Bush came to visit him.
"I'm told he stayed in my room, which was about 98-degrees, for a full 20 minutes," he said. "And he didn't really make it public, which impressed me and my wife. The ones who really care, they keep it quiet."
Sergeant Del Toro was awarded the Purple Heart, presented by General T. Michael Moseley, Air Force Chief of Staff, and the Bronze Star, awarded to him by the Army.
"That doesn't happen very often," he said, a touch of honor in his voice. "Usually they only award that to higher-ranking people."
Sergeant Del Toro came to Laughlin to tack on Chief Gonzalez's eighth stripe Nov. 30, and noticed the fitness center here was named after Airman 1st Class Raymond Losano. Airman Losano, who was one of the TACPs Sergeant Del Toro trained, was killed in action in Afghanistan in April, 2003.
Sergeant Del Toro's story could be that of any Airman, Soldier, Sailor or Marine. His positive attitude and strong will are what determine how the tale unfolds from day to day. To sum it all up, he relies on the words of another individual once faced with an immense challenge. The sergeant, a self-proclaimed "big sports fan," paraphrased one of his favorite players, Lou Gehrig.
"You might think I got a bad break, but I'm honored to have worked with some of the greatest guys out there.'"