July 2021

A Hero's Story: Resiliency, Perseverance, and Purpose

by Eric Gonzalez

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome

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Army Special Forces Officer Ivan Castro is one of three blind officers currently serving on active duty in the US Army (as of January 2021). On September 2, 2006, Lieutenant Castro was on a rooftop in Baghdad, Iraq with two fellow Army Ranger soldiers. Castro volunteered to lead his two soldiers to reconnoiter a location recently abandoned because of mortar fire. After the three climbed the rooftop, a mortar round impacted the side of the building. Before they could scramble for cover, a second mortar round exploded a few feet away, killing Sergeant Ralph Porras and Private First-Class Justin Dreese. Ivan was severely wounded. Shrapnel ravaged his body, with multiple injuries: a damaged shoulder, a broken arm, an amputated finger, multiple facial fractures, a collapsed lung, loss of his right eye, and irreparable damage to his left eye.

He was not expected to survive his injuries, but Ivan’s story did not end that fateful day in Baghdad. As he related in his book, that mortar shell sent him on a journey to unfathomable lows, alongside incredible highs. It was a turning point for new adventure and inspiration. When I heard him speak several years ago, he expressed how his faith strengthened his resolve to receive his blindness and use it for greater purpose. It also gave him the humility to receive the help he needed. He learned to take the hand of fellow soldiers during those first steps of rehabilitation. Reaching out to others was not a sign of weakness but of strength and he would in time provide help and hope to others through his own story.

During his recovery at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Ivan overheard the doctors and nurses talking about the Army 10-miler and the Marine Corp Marathon. Ivan decided to make those races a goal. Over the next 17 months he worked at rehabilitation for his physical wounds, his blindness, and keeping his career in the US Army.

As an Army Ranger, Ivan wanted more than to just sit at a desk. He wanted to actively contribute to the Army mission. Both he and the US Army recognized his ability to contribute to the mission in innovative ways, adapting to overcome. The US Army retained Lieutenant Castro, promoted him to Captain and gave him the assignment of executive officer of the 7th Special Forces Group's headquarters company in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. One way he adapted was spending time learning his environment. For his first post-recovery assignment and subsequent assignments, he would spend extra time familiarizing himself by walking and counting steps between locations to get around.

Ivan was motivated to not just move on but achieve even greater feats. He did train for those two races and eventually completed them with the help of running guides. That was only the beginning. He went on to complete more than two dozen marathons and continues to be an avid runner, hiker, and mountain climber. In fact, Ivan made history in December 2013 and became the first blind American to reach the South Pole. His LinkedIn page shows him with Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex at the South Pole as part of the Walking with the Wounded South Pole Allied Challenge.

Today at age 53, Major Ivan Castro serves as Assistant Operations Officer / Total Army Involvement Recruiting Coordinator at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He is a national advocate for the blind, mentors wounded warriors through his counseling and coaching, and continues pursuing new adventures with his wife and adult son.

You can find Ivan’s story in his book, Fighting Blind, published in 2016 with best-selling author Jim DeFelice (co-author of Chris Kyle: American Sniper).