(NEW YORK) — There’s no denying that Israel Del Toro is a fighter.
After being wounded by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, the former Air Force sergeant was told he would never walk or breathe without a respirator. Nevertheless, he fought to be re-enlisted in the Air Force five years later, ultimately competing in the first-ever Wounded Warrior Games.
With the 9th Annual Wounded Warrior Games beginning June 21 in Tampa Bay, Florida, Del Toro told ABC News’ Bob Woodruff the last thing he and his fellow service members want is pity.
“We want to inspire, to see us conquer obstacles and win even though that’s not the primary goal,” Del Toro said. “It’s to show people the human spirit doesn’t give up and it keeps going.”
Del Toro, known by his friends and family as “DT,” was critically injured in December 2005 while serving in the U.S. Air Force. After receiving third-degree burn wounds on 80 percent of his body in an IED explosion, Del Toro thought he was going to die.
“I’m thinking I’m gonna die there, I’m thinking I broke my promise to my family. I always come back,” he said. “I broke my promise to my son that I’ll never let him grow up without a father.”
When he finally awoke in March 2006 at Brooke Army Medical Center in Houston, he didn’t know any time had passed. Doctors gave him a 15% chance to live. He was terrified to see how his 3-year-old son would look at him.
His recovery took five years. He underwent 120 surgeries and countless hours of therapy, but his love for his country and his job kept Del Toro fighting. In 2010 he decided to re-enlist in the Air Force, becoming the first airman with a 100 percent disability to re-enlist — leaving many questioning as to why he refused to just take the money and stay retired.
“It’s not about the money. I love my job, I love serving in the Air Force, I love being an airman, so why would I want to give that up?” Del Toro said.
Through his years of service and dedication to the field, he has helped a multitude of other injured and ill service members overcome their obstacles with the help of the Wounded Warrior Games.
The Games started in 2010 as a way to enhance the recovery and rehabilitation of wounded warriors and to expose them to adaptive sports. The event hosts over 300 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Special Operations Command. In addition, the Games also host athletes from the United Kingdom Armed Forces, Australian Defence Force, Canadian Armed Forces, Armed Forces of the Netherlands and the Danish Armed Forces.
“I’ve been part of the Warrior Games since the beginning, either as an athlete or a coach or a mentor or an ambassador,” Del Toro said. “Sometimes some of the guys are nervous to do it and when I’m able to encourage them to do these Games you see that sparkle in their eyes, that they feel like themselves again.”
These athletes go head-to-head for 10 days, competing in sports like archery, volleyball, swimming, track and field, basketball and more.
“Sometimes we go into our little bubble and we’re afraid to go outside our bubble because we’re afraid people will not accept us, but when we do the sports, they just see athletes,” he said. “They just see normal people out there doing great things and that’s the great thing about sports.”
The Games not only had a major impact on Del Toro and his fellow service members, but also on the Duke of Sussex. Prince Harry visited the Games in 2013 and was able to see first-hand how they can empower athletes suffering from illnesses and injuries. From there the Invictus Games was born, bringing together over 500 fighters from 19 different countries to participate.
“The Invictus is great, what Prince Harry did to expand it worldwide is amazing,” Del Toro said. “[Prince Harry] loves being next to the guys. He was a service member himself and I remember meeting him back in Colorado and playing volleyball against him, and who else can say that they got to spike a ball to the prince?”
Del Toro has become a public figure for the Games and has spoken at both the Warrior and Invictus Games, alongside former President George W. Bush and Prince Harry. He was honored with the Pat Tillman Award at the 2017 ESPYS and was featured in an episode of “Bumping Mics” on Netflix with Jeff Ross and Dave Attell, letting the two comedians “roast” him and using humor as a way to cope and show others not to let their injuries keep them down.
“Sometimes people feel like they can’t laugh anymore after what happened to them,” Del Toro said. “[Ross and Attell] asked me to come on ‘Bumping Mics’ and I’m like sure this will give me a great opportunity to show the world that what happened to me was terrible, but I can still laugh at myself, I can still tease myself.”
In April 2019, Del Toro decided to retire from the Air Force, completing his final jump with his teammates, surprising his wife Carmen with a wedding renewal ceremony and being honored with videos from friends who weren’t able to attend such as President George W. Bush, former Vice President Joe Biden, Guy Fieri, Jon Stewart, Chris Cooper and more.
As the 2019 Wounded Warrior Games kick off June 21, Del Toro is ready to show everyone he’s still standing as he competes in 10 different events and begins his career journey as a motivational speaker.
“We all have a spark, a fire, inside of us that drives us, that pushes us,” he said. “Mine is my son. You might need me sharing my story to find your spark, to show that there’s so much life out there and to not give up on it.”
The 2019 Wounded Warrior Games take place June 21-30 in Tampa Bay, Florida.
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