Editor’s Note: Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger is now available, here. The book has six chapters, starting with “People.” Here on the website, we will run one piece from each chapter. The below piece, from the opening chapter, was published in a February 2009 issue of NR.
Fort Bragg, N.C. — Captain Ivan Castro will tell you he’s an ordinary man, basically. You may wish to disagree. He is an officer in the U.S. Special Forces, and blind. He was blinded while fighting in Iraq about two and a half years ago. He did not then leave the military. He persevered, to an astonishing degree. He has attracted interest all over the country, as well he might.
He was born in Hoboken, N.J. (same as Frank Sinatra), in 1967. His parents were from Puerto Rico. His dad was a cook and other things, and his mother was a factory worker and other things. How he got that interesting name, “Ivan Castro,” he doesn’t know. His sister’s name is Olga! The family moved to Puerto Rico when he was twelve.
He wanted to be a policeman, a fireman, a soldier — “something with action,” as he says. He went to a military high school, and joined the Army when he was 20. He expected to stay for four years. He fought in the Gulf War — and continued in the military. “I had done so much in those four years,” he says, “it just didn’t make any sense for me to get out.”
After the Gulf War, he was in Bosnia, Colombia, and other places. And then he was back in combat, this time in Afghanistan. He was a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne. In due course, he was in Iraq. It was in September 2006 that the mortar blast came. His injuries were extensive: his right eye gone, his left eye beyond repair, his lungs collapsed, etc. There is a long list of injuries and problems. “Believe it or not,” he says, “we keep discovering things that are coming up — injuries we weren’t aware of.”
I have come to see him in his office at Fort Bragg. He is a personable, gregarious man, the kind who puts people at ease. There is also about him the air of command. He’s the kind of soldier about whom people say, “Officer material.” A white cane leans against the wall. On another wall is a picture of Captain Castro and his wife with President Bush. There is also a letter from Bush.
And Captain Castro has a specially equipped computer — one that reads him his e-mail, for example. He’ll tell you, “I used to hunt and peck. But when you’re blind, you can’t do that. So I had to learn to type.”
When that mortar round went off, “I was fighting to stay alive, fighting not to give up. That’s all I remember. I knew I didn’t want to die. I knew I wanted to come back to my wife and son.” He was unconscious for six weeks. Then he woke up and began his recovery. His wife and mother-in-law never left his bedside.
After his surgeries and rehabilitation, the 82nd was “going to send me to the Warrior Transition Battalion” — that would ease the transition out of the military and into some other kind of life. He would begin life as a disabled vet. “But that was not my intent. My intent was to stay in the Army, to continue my service. I had been doing it for more than 18 years. Why should I give it up now?” (Others might have thought of reasons.)
“I wanted to serve as long as they gave me the opportunity, and I wanted to be productive.”
He told Special Operations that “I wanted to serve as long as they gave me the opportunity, and I wanted to be productive. I didn’t want to be sitting down licking envelopes and shredding paper.” They agreed. His group commander said, “I’m going to treat you like everyone else, like every other captain here. And I’m going to expect a lot out of you” — which is what this captain wanted.
Why did he not simply give up, and slink away? “My mother, my dad: They were really hard workers. My mother was a survivor. They divorced when I was five, and she worked really hard for everything she had — and she taught me to work hard as well.” Castro worked a lot as a kid, and “I was the man of the house. When something broke, I had to fix it. Had to figure it out.” His military training made him tough, too: Ranger School, the Special Forces Qualification Course. Those are not cakewalks.
Also, he feels he has an example to set: for his peers, for the soldiers who were under his command. About those soldiers, he says, “They kind of look up to me. I can’t let them down.” There is the public to consider, too: “When I don my beret, and go out with my cane, people stop and stare.” He can feel it. And “if you’re a Special Forces Ranger, everyone expects more from you. You’re never cold, you’re never hungry, you’re never tired.”
Plus, “I got a son who’s 15. I got bills to pay. I’m a husband. Just because I’m blind or injured doesn’t mean I don’t have to pay my mortgage or stuff like that.” His wife, Evelyn, was a speech pathologist in a public-school system. Now she works with injured service members in an Army hospital. Castro describes her as his hero. For one thing, “she never expected to be married to a blind guy.”
He also has laudatory words for military doctors and nurses: “We think about the soldiers that get hurt, and we don’t think of the doctors and nurses who every day have to see the trauma and suffering that service members go through. It’s tough on them. I’m pretty sure they have some post-traumatic stress as well.”
Last year, Ivan Castro ran five marathons. (Best time: 4 hours, 11 minutes. He hopes to break the four-hour barrier this year.) He also did a triathlon. And climbed Grays Peak in Colorado (14,270 ft.). He lives life with gusto, whether running a marathon or visiting a museum: “I went to the Air Force Museum in Dayton. I didn’t see it with my eyes, but they let me put my hands on the aircraft. Incredible.” At Fort Bragg, he oversees the Spanish-language lab and carries out various administrative and logistical tasks, “making sure that soldiers are ready to deploy.”
He wanted to command an A-team, but “that wasn’t meant to be, so maybe, by taking this job here, I can clear somebody from having to do this job,” and let such a person “do the things that I wanted to do: go out and lead.” (Have you heard anything nobler than that lately?) “Right now, my main focus is what I can do to help other service members, and anyone else. It’s not about Ivan.”
He speaks before groups all over the country: various associations and organizations. He does a lot of teaching, too, particularly of those who face severe challenges, physical and mental. And he wants to accept no limitations. “If someone tells me I can’t do something, I have to keep myself from punching him in the nose. Instead of saying that I can’t do something, let’s figure out a way for me to do it.”
And how are his spirits? “I’m not going to lie to you: We all have our good times and bad times. I’m just like anyone else.” When the doctors told him he would never see again, “I was extremely, extremely bitter. I was at the point where I asked the Lord above, ‘Why me?’ I was bitter with the Lord, angry with the Lord.”
One day, “my wife came in and told me, ‘Ivan, if you could only see the hospital ward: You just don’t know how fortunate we are.’ It’s sad to say, but other service members have had to make a huge sacrifice. I have to be grateful for what I have, instead of dwelling on what I don’t have. I miss not seeing, I’m not going to lie to you. But I have two legs, two arms, I can talk, I can eat, I can laugh. I have my memory.”
Further, “I’m a military guy, and I speak in military terms: God has a mission for me. A plan, an operation.”
Castro has what he calls his “demons in the darkness,” or “demons in the closet.” And “the closet is my brain. I don’t see anything. I’m totally blind. I have no light perception. And when the demons want to take over, as soon as they try to, I try to keep them out. I think about all the things I’m grateful for: my wife, my son, the Lord above, His mission for me.” There are days “when I walk into the wall, both literally and figuratively. I try to take a step back and not get angry and figure out a way to go around things.”
And “you know the best thing about being blind?” (I couldn’t imagine what the answer would be.) “I saw for 39 years. So I was able to see the world for 39 years. I’ve traveled around the world. I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good thing about now is: Everything is beautiful, in my mind. The grass is always green. There’s never graffiti on the walls. There’s no trash. Everybody looks good — everybody’s in shape, everybody’s a movie star or rock star.” And race is out the window: “There’s no brown, white, or black.”
A visit with Ivan Castro will teach you, or remind you, not to complain. It will remind you what a free people owes its warriors. And it will remind you to be in awe of those who do the awe-inspiring.