Tom Archdeacon: Marathon just another challenge for Castro

The two women both stood up during the question-and-answer session at the U.S. Air Force Marathon’s Breakfast of Champions on Friday.

They took turns addressing the guest speaker, retired Army Major Ivan Castro, who had been blinded and badly injured in a mortar attack in Iraq in 2006 and then managed a stunning recovery that enabled him to serve a decade more as the only blind active duty special forces officer in Army history.

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And that’s not the half of it. Along the way he’s run nearly 60 marathons, including Saturday’s 21st rendition of the Air Force 26.2-miler. He’s skied, climbed mountains, biked across America and Europe, trekked across Antarctica with, among others, Britain’s Prince Harry, shoots skeet and just co-authored a book: “Fighting Blind: A Green Beret’s Story of Extraordinary Courage.”

Oh, and he’s a husband, the father of a 24-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter…and a salsa dancer.

Standing up at the podium Friday with his dark glasses, neatly-razored salt and mostly pepper hair, fitted polo showing off his biceps, gleaming silver bracelet and that easy smile and way, he seemed more like a movie star than a wounded warrior.

One of the few reminders of the reality of the situation was Capt. Darlene Matos (Ret.), who stood next to him. She’s his running guide in marathons, his ever-seeing protector all the time.

“My guardian angel,” he called her.

She quietly whispered the direction of the first woman questioner — “she’s at 4 p.m.” — so Castro could face her as he spoke.

One woman said she had battled eating disorders and depression and though she said she “can’t wrap my mind around what you’ve experienced,” she commend him for the inspiration he provides.

The other woman, with a bit of hesitation, said she was autistic and thanked him for the example he set for people with disabilities.

Castro mixed kindness and correction in his answers. He said he likes to use the term “limitations,” not disabilities:

“We all have limitations. And you say you can’t imagine what I’ve gone through, but we all have crosses. Sometimes you don’t know how heavy that cross is to your left, your right or up in front of you. You just don’t know what another person is dealing with.”

He’s a good example.

Behind those stylish glasses, he has no right eye and a left that wanders without seeing. Beneath the polo is a back and shoulders that are scarred and pocked with tiny bits of shrapnel, as are his legs and some parts of his arms.

His cheek has been rebuilt from plastic, his hip replaced.

As for his prowess shooting skeet — his best effort is 15 of 20 – besides his vision, he’s missing his right trigger finger. He lost it in the blast.

“A marathon like this is easy, a 50-miler is easy,” Matos said in a private moment later. “Deciding to get out of bed each morning and smile and be positive, that’s really hard.

“It’s difficult to understand blindness. You don’t realize it’s just as hard today as it was last year. And it’s never going to come to an end. It’s a struggle. Every morning you face that choice.”

And that brings us to that silver bracelet on Castro’s right wrist. It’s engraved with two names: PFC Justin Dreese and Sgt. Ralph Porras — the soldiers killed alongside Castro the day he was blown up and blinded.

“I haven’t taken this bracelet off since back then,” Castro said quietly. “Maybe someday, but right now I can’t let go. I haven’t forgotten.”

‘The flash of light’

It was the morning of September 2, 2006 when Castro, the head of a sniper scout team with the 82nd Airborne Division, found himself on a rooftop in Yusifiyah, Iraq, some 20 miles southwest of Baghdad. He and his men were protecting a task force from Al Qaeda insurgents.

As an officer, he didn’t have to be up there. But it was a dangerous assignment, and he didn’t want his soldiers doing something he would not.

It was the same way when he was a kid growing up in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico. His mother — raising him on her own after they moved from New Jersey — taught him to carry his load.

And so when he found himself losing interest in college, he gave up an athletic scholarship to the University of Puerto Rico, enlisted in the Army in 1990 and soon advanced: Army Ranger, Special Forces weapons specialist, Green Beret and, after completing officers training school, 82nd Airborne as a first lieutenant.

Along the way, he served in Desert Storm, Desert Shield and Bosnia, worked missions in South America and did a tour in Afghanistan.

That fateful day on that rooftop in Iraq, he sensed they were sitting ducks. Another soldier had been killed up there the day before and now they had been ordered — stupidly, he believed — to take the same vulnerable position.

Eventually he spotted a better vantage point and he knelt down to use the radio and seek permission to move.

The first mortar landed nearby and as he screamed for his men to get off the roof, the second one hit.

“All I remember was the flash of light and the boom and after that … I was in a dream,” he once told me.

A terrible dream.

Porras and Dreese were killed.

Castro’s body was so shredded — bones were broken, his lungs collapsed, part of his face was gone, his right eye was “nuked” as he put it, the left was pierced by metal fragments, he had a pulmonary embolism and an aneurysm — that once he was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, a doctor took one look and surmised he’d be dead in a week,.

Castro’s wife at the time walked in, saw him … and collapsed.

Heavily sedated for six weeks, he remembers finally emerging through the fog and hearing he was blind and his two fellow soldiers were dead.

That began, as he says in his book — the prologue of which Matos read to the breakfast crowd Friday — “a journey of and through darkness. But it has also been a journey of light.”

First came the darkness.

He cried, he raged, he sank into despair when he became cognizant of his loss.

“I lost all hope and didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I was very disgruntled with the Man Upstairs. I asked the Lord ‘Why?’ ”

Later came the answer: Not why, but how.

“I overheard a resident talking about the Marine Corps Marathon,” he said. “I had run in high school and college and I said, ‘I wonder if that’s a possibility?’ It became my first goal.”

Never mind that it had taken three people just to get him out of bed and standing and “that lasted, for only two seconds,” he said. He’d lost 50 pounds and all muscle in his legs.

“I didn’t think about that,” he said. “I was gonna run.”

His wife back then pushed him and he got added inspiration from people like the Marine vet who had lost his eyesight in a bomb blast in Iraq in 2004 and had begun a quest to provide guide dogs for soldiers in need.

Castro responded and he began to push himself.

“Running saved my life,” he said.

Some 13 months and 36 surgeries after he had been injured, he did run the Marine Corps Marathon.

He was so hyped up that he went through three guides that day. He outran two women — each of whom lasted about 10 miles with him — and he ended up doing the last six miles with a reporter who had been interviewing him out on the course.

“I don’t know who was happier to finish, him or I,” he joked Friday.

Matos stepped around Castro and leaned into the microphone.

“He didn’t just complete the marathon, he qualified for Boston,” she said as the surprised crowd burst into applause.

Running in total darkness, Castro finished his first marathon in 4 hours and 11 minutes!

“In doing so, I caught the bug,” he said.

Since then he’s run marathons all across the United States and traveled the world on other ventures.

To prep for his 2014 journey across the South Pole with other wounded vets and soldiers from the U.S. and Britain, he went through intense skiing and hiking training in Iceland and Norway.

He’s sky-dived, done triathlons, competed in the Paralympics, had numerous speaking engagements, lobbied Congress to advocate for wounded veterans and always has taken time to mentor and counsel other soldiers in situations similar to his.

“As I always say, as long as I have a breath of air and a heartbeat, I’m going to continue to give 100 percent and try to help others. There’s a reason I was kept alive that day. I was given a second chance at life. I want to make an impact now. I want to break down the stereotypes, the ideas that ‘it can’t be done.’

“That’s why, if I can inspire someone here this weekend — if they can take my words or example and relate it to themselves — my mission has been accomplished.”

Busy schedule

Although he hadn’t trained for Saturday’s competition and the day heated up considerably as the race went on, Castro — connected to Matos by a white shoestring each held and fueled by the cheers of fans, volunteers, military personnel and even other runners — finished the race in 5:31.11

While the marathon medal would end up resting on his chest, it was the saying emblazoned across the back of Castro’s blue shirt that most summed up his effort.

“I’m sorry. I’m blind, not deaf. Therefore I see no obstacles…,” it began.

Matos said he lived up to the billing:

“I might have had the title of guide today, but it was Ivan who led us all through the race.”

As they made their way along the 26.2 miles, they were joined by two other runners, Jackie Ferguson of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. and Paul Yoe of Cleveland.

Castro has run here before — his initial Air Force Marathon was 2008 when he finished in 4:16 — but this was the first time he was the guest speaker at the Breakfast of Champions and Friday night’s pasta dinner and the celebrity draw at the Sports and Fitness Expo at the Nutter Center.

“There was a lot of energy around here,” Castro said. “The city of Dayton and Fairborn and all the areas really make this a special race.”

From here Castro heads to Los Angeles for an appearance and then to Toronto to take part in the Invictus Games, an international, paralympic-style, multi- sports competition created by Prince Harry for wounded, injured and sick armed services personnel.

Castro retired from the Army last November and plans to work on a bucket list that includes hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (2,659 miles), the Appalachian Trail (2,200), the Continental Divide Trail (3,100), taking wounded vets on an excursion across the North Pole and doing the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage that ends in Spain at the tomb of St. James.

“Oh, and row across the Atlantic,” he said with a shrug.

The litany — especially that last test — left the crowd reeling Friday and that’s when Matos scooted around him again and grabbed the mic.

“Ivan is a salsa instructor so how about Dancing With the Stars?” she grinned.

The crowd whistled and applauded and Castro grinned:

“I do like to dance.”

“Let’s see it,” urged someone from the audience.

Castro laughed:

“Hey, you got some music? We’ll throw down right here.”

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