In 2010, MSgt Israel Del Toro became the first airman with a 100 percent disability rating to be allowed to re-enlist. Few others combine the qualities of hero and barrier breaker to the degree that he does.
Even before he joined the Air Force, Israel Del Toro was no stranger to adversity and challenge. He grew up in Illinois, on the south side of Chicago. At age 12, he lost his father, who died from a heart attack. When Del Toro was just 14, a drunk driver killed his mother. The oldest of four children, he assumed the responsibility to care and provide for his siblings, with the assistance of his ailing grandparents. This responsibility led him to leave college, in spite of having received a full academic scholarship to the University of Illinois.
Even though he had never seriously considered military service, he decided to join the Air Force in 1997, after his siblings could take care of themselves. He ended up completing the challenging training to become a Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) operator, calling in air strikes. He served in Bosnia and subsequently in Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he earned the Bronze Star for engaging enemy forces while under heavy fire for five days straight. In 2005, he returned to combat as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Calling in air strikes for an Army unit in a remote part of the country, his Humvee rolled over an IED on December 4, 2005. With severe burns on over 80 percent of his body, the loss of one hand and most of the fingers of his other hand, he remained in a coma for about three months. At the time, his doctors believed that he had less than a 20 percent chance of survival. Over time, he proved tougher than his disabilities and his circumstances. In spite of the fact that he was told he would need a respirator to breathe and probably not be able to walk again, he walked out of the hospital two months after coming out of the coma.
The struggle to survive, to endure numerous surgeries, skin grafts, and brutal physical therapy and demonstrate a remarkable recovery later became a four-year battle to prove that he could still serve his country and should be allowed to remain in the Air Force. After two long years of difficult physical therapy to regain the ability to use muscles and limbs, he was still classified as 100 percent disabled. His determination prevailed, and in 2010, he became the first fully disabled airman to be permitted to re-enlist. Although disappointed that he would not be able to deploy, he immediately threw himself into the job of training others for the dangerous and critical job of being a JTAC. His own combat experience, so evident from his scars, gave him unquestionable credibility and authority as an instructor.
One reason that Del Toro is such an inspiration is that he has remained driven to accomplishment, such as when he became part of the World Class Athlete Program at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, training at the Olympic Training Center. He has competed as a wounded warrior in cycling, track and field, and in power lifting and took part in the 2014 and 2016 Invictus Games, a competition that the United Kingdom’s Prince Harry began as a means to use athletics to inspire and support wounded warriors toward recovery and rehabilitation. In 2014, Del Toro earned the silver medal for power lifting, and in 2016, he won the gold medal in the shot put competition. He achieved another personal goal in February 2017, when he made his 131st parachute jump, his first in 11 years, after reaccomplishing parachute training, this time along with Air Force Academy cadets. Prior to his injuries, he had trained to jump in combat with Army airborne units and was a jumpmaster and master parachutist with 130 jumps. In February 2016, he unexpectedly received a promotion to master sergeant in a ceremony at the Air Force Academy, after he had addressed an auditorium filled with Academy cadets. The promotion was retroactively effective August 2014, after the office of the Academy’s command chief master sergeant discovered that Del Toro was entitled to the promotion. On July 12, 2017, Master Sergeant Del Toro received the Pat Tillman Award for Service at the annual ESPY awards. After receiving the award and thanking his teammates, his nurses, and his family for their support, he said with characteristic humility and humor, "Thank you for letting this guy who just had a bad day at work feel like someone special tonight."