RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas —
Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro continues talking to Airmen about his experiences in Afghanistan even as he struggles to recover from burns he received in combat.
The tactical air controller is fighting to stay in uniform so he can continue serving his country. The sergeant suffered severe burns over 80 percent of his body while on a combat patrol in December 2005.
After an improvised explosive device nearly killed him, it was three months before he had his next memory -- waking up at San Antonio's Brooke Army Medical Center. Burns and scars covered his body.
"I could have been bitter and depressed," the sergeant said. "And at times I was. I mean, who wouldn't be?"
But he vowed not to give up. He wanted to get better for his family and to get back into uniform. It took him until June 2006 to earn a release from the medical center, but that was nearly eight months earlier than doctors predicted.
Since then, Sergeant Del Toro has been touring Air Force bases, speaking to Airmen about the importance of being prepared for deployments. And he talks to them about being responsible Airmen and noncommissioned officers. He even took part in a panel that focused on what type of combat award the Air Force should institute.
Sergeant Del Toro's recovery has not been easy, but his drive to be with his family and to get back into the Air Force has made it faster.
"I don't know if I just have more drive or good genes that help me heal faster," he said.
Now back with his family, the sergeant is concentrating on getting well enough to return to duty, whatever that duty may be. It does not matter to him what that may be. He just wants to wear his uniform each day.
"I want to be a controller again," he said. "But if I can't, if my calling is this speaking circuit thing -- and that's the best way I can help the Air Force -- then so be it. I just want to stay in the Air Force, that's the biggest thing."
When not on the road on a speaking engagement, Sergeant Del Toro is still going through painful physical therapy, working out and spending time with his family. He takes things one day at a time.
"Just because you get hurt doesn't mean you can't be part of the military," he said. "Your duties don't stop."
Sergeant Del Toro was on patrol in Afghanistan as the only Air Force tactical air control party member with a scout team supporting two Army companies. The team tracked a group of Taliban that escaped into a nearby town. Lured into a surprise attack, an explosion rocked the team and hit the left side of Sergeant Del Toro's Humvee. The blast engulfed him in flames and suffocating clouds of smoke.
"I rolled on the ground and tried to put the fire out," Sergeant Del Toro said. "It wasn't enough, so I ran to a nearby river to extinguish the flames completely."
After that, Sergeant Del Toro remembers trying to call in air support and a doctor telling him he was going to make it. His next memory was of waking up at the medical center.
On the road, the sergeant recounts his ordeal. He makes sure people know he is no hero. He prefers they see him as an Airman who loves his job and who wants to continue doing it.
I talk to the young Airmen and tell them how to prepare for deployments and to take their jobs seriously," Sergeant Del Toro said. "Being aware of your surroundings in a combat environment is important -- not just to you, but for everyone around you."
Sergeant Del Toro also explains the importance of updating contact information and performing financial planning before deployment.
"I was in a coma for three months," he said. "If I hadn't planned appropriately, my unit would not have known how to reach my wife and she wouldn't have known what happened to me."
On a visit to Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, Feb. 22, Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Gen. T. Michael Moseley recognized Sergeant Del Toro. The general promoted him to technical sergeant for his many contributions and for telling the Air Force story and the importance of its role in the war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"You represent the Air Force very well," General Moseley said at the promotion ceremony. "You are doing great things for our service and it's an honor and a privilege to serve with you."
The sergeant's wife, Carmen, and son, Israel, were at the event. Getting a new stripe came as a total surprise to the sergeant.
"I never saw this coming at all," he said. "I was worried that I was going to get medically retired and never have a chance to sew on that next stripe."