A flash and a boom
How an enemy mortar shell changed everything.
On Sept. 2, 2006, those dreams collapsed. Castro was leading a team of snipers on a rooftop in Yusufiyah, 20 miles southwest of Baghdad, when a mortar shell landed five feet away. "All I remember," he says, "was the flash and the boom."
Two soldiers were killed instantly. Shrapnel chewed up the left side of Castro's body, breaking his nose. It shredded his right cheekbone, blew out his right eye and lodged in his left. His upper left arm broke, the bone sticking out of his flesh. Both of his lungs collapsed. The top half of his right index finger - his trigger finger - was blown off.
After he was evacuated from Iraq, U.S. surgeons removed the shrapnel from his body but then found an aneurysm in a neck artery - one of several conditions that threatened his life. "There were a lot of scary moments," says Evelyn.
To be with Ivan while he recuperated, Evelyn quit her job. She plastered the walls of his room at Naval Medical with old snapshots of her husband, forcing Ivan's doctors and nurses to look at the pictures. "And I would tell them, 'Look, this is my husband. It's not this that you see here with all these tubes and stuff,'" she says defiantly. "I wanted them to care."
She and Ivan desperately held on to hopes that he would regain his sight. But doctors told them that scarring in his remaining eye made that impossible. "The part that hurt the most was hearing Evelyn cry," says Ivan. "I thought, How is it that I did this to her? That I ended up blind and a burden?"
One thing the Castros did not have to worry about was money. The Army continued to pay Ivan's salary, as well as his medical expenses and related costs; stipends covered lodging and meals for Evelyn, even laundry. In addition, he qualified for about $23,000 a year in disability benefits from Social Security.
They also had a plumped-up financial cushion to fall back on if needed: $100,000 from an armed services program known as wounded warrior insurance. The policy compensates soldiers for combat injuries based on a grisly payout scale: Lose hearing in one ear and you get $25,000; lose a hand and get $50,000. Blindness qualifies for the maximum payout.
In late 2006, castro was finally discharged from the hospital. But the arduous recovery process is far from over. Every month or so, Evelyn drives Ivan six hours from their home in North Carolina to Naval Medical in Maryland for checkups, additional surgeries and follow-up procedures like fittings for a prosthetic eye. For several weeks at a time, he attends blind rehab at a VA hospital in Augusta, Ga., spending eight hours a day on activities such as learning to read braille and to navigate with a cane.
When the surgeries and rehab are over - in a few months, perhaps - the Army will decide whether he can stay in the military or must be discharged. Castro passionately wants to stay. "I've been doing this for 18 years," he says. "Why would I give it up and start from scratch?" While the odds are against a blind soldier remaining in the army, it's not unheard of; one other officer blinded in Iraq is staying on as a military instructor. Castro isn't clear on what he would do, but he's eager for more than busywork. "I want to be productive, and I want to enjoy it," he says.
There's a lot at stake financially too. If Castro stays in the Army for at least two more years, he'll qualify for a standard military pension, which will continue to rise for each additional year he serves. At the 20-year mark, for instance, he'd be entitled to nearly $87,000 a year, which includes $54,000 in veterans' disability benefits; after 24 years he'd receive at least $94,000.
But if he's discharged, he'll instead get about $74,000 - veterans' benefits plus special combat-related compensation. He'd also have to find a new career. "I'm hoping I could work as a military contractor," he says. "But if that doesn't happen, I don't know what I'd do."
As Ivan and Evelyn wait to find out what his future with the Army will be, he works furiously at getting back in shape. When he's home, every weekday he goes to the gym for weight training. Running partners - fellow servicemen or their spouses - take him out for laps. He takes 60-mile trips with a local cycling club, riding a tandem bike with a sighted partner in front. "I want to show the medical board what I can do, not what I can't do," says Castro. "I want to show them that physically I'm there - in better shape than some guys on active duty."
On the morning of Oct. 28, 2007, Castro got a chance to show just what he can do. It's the day of the 32nd annual Marine Corps Marathon and, 10 minutes before the main start, he takes off with the wheelchair entrants. In his left hand is a black shoelace tied in a loop; holding on to the same shoelace is his running partner Lynn Salgado. She guides him, tugging on the shoelace to nudge him one way or the other and calling out features of the course; behind Castro runs another friend, Amy Moyes, spreading her arms protectively to shield him from other runners. Less than 4 and one half hours later Castro runs up the last hill and finishes, placing in the top half of male runners.
As with so many other challenges he has met, he couldn't have finished the marathon without sometimes unfathomable reserves of inner strength and drive. But that's no longer enough. Now Castro can't get anywhere without a little help.