Friday, December 25, 2009

Face of Defense: Blind Officer Completes Course

By Kristin Molinaro 
Special to American Forces Press Service                                        

FORT BENNING, Ga., : The first blind student to attend the Maneuver Captain's Career Course here graduated with his class Dec. 15 in a ceremony attended by family and friends.

The 20-week course prepares captains for company commands and serving as staff officers at battalion and brigade level.

"When I came here, I was kind of skeptical of how I would be received, being the blind guy," Army Capt. Ivan Castro said. "I thank my cadre and classmates for their support. I learned a lot from my peers, and I hope I taught them something. We all have a cross to carry. You have to pick up the pieces and move on."

Castro, who's served in the Army for 21 years, was injured during offensive operations in Yusifiyah, Iraq, Sept. 2, 2006, while deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division. Shrapnel from an 82 mm mortar that landed five feet from his position on a rooftop struck Castro, a sniper reconnaissance platoon leader, and several others. The mortar killed two soldiers in his platoon and left him blind. Castro also suffered a bilateral aneurysm, collapsed lung, pulmonary embolism, bone fractures and a nicked artery.

"Without command, without reservation, without hesitation, my guys jumped into action," said Castro, crediting his soldiers with saving his life. "If it wasn't for the training my guys received, I wouldn't be here right now."

Castro spent six weeks on life support in an induced coma. Rehabilitation at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., helped him to adjust to life without sight, and within a year, he was running the Marine Corps Marathon. It was a "grueling" process, said his wife, Evelyn.

After completing his rehabilitation, Castro returned to work as the executive officer for the 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C.

"One of your classmates is here today because his fellow warriors refused to cut him away like a bad parachute or let him fall behind," said Army Brig. Gen. Michael Repass, commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, speaking to the graduates. "Our soldiers will go into the jaws of hell if they believe we aren't going to leave them behind.

"That faith has to stick with our soldiers if they are wounded or otherwise incapacitated. We leaders cannot put them on the sidelines and walk away from them. I remain encouraged by the obvious courage ... of Ivan Castro."

Throughout his life-changing transition, Castro insisted he not be treated differently, said Army Lt. Col. Fredrick Dummar, who worked with Castro at the 7th Special Forces Group and attended his MCCC graduation.

"It was critical for him to attend MCCC," said Dummar, commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Recruiting Battalion. "You can't stay on active duty as a captain without it. It would've been not only a fight to keep him on active duty with his injuries, but also to keep him on active duty without attending a mandatory school."

Dummar said because Castro was a Special Forces soldier and wanted to remain on active duty, his case was reviewed.

"We saw what his potential still was instead of what he can't do," Dummar said. "He may not be able to do every job in the Army, but by doing the job he can do, he's freeing up someone who can see to be doing something else."

To keep up in classes, Castro said he used a voice recorder and computer screen-reading software. Castro enlisted his roommate, Army Capt. Gerard Torres, as a running buddy to ensure he kept on the track during physical training.

Torres, who attended the Infantry Officer Basic Course with Castro in 2005, said Castro has been an inspiration to him.

"We've laughed so hard and hated each other like brothers," Torres said. "The things he's taught me since the time I've known him are invaluable. Sometimes you sit there and start feeling bad for yourself, and then you look over, and there's Ivan, running 20 miles."

In the coming weeks, Castro will report to his new assignment as the operations officer for the U.S. Special Operations Recruiting Battalion.    (Issued on : Dec. 24, 2009)

Army Lt. Col. Fredrick Dummar, commander of the Special Operations Recruiting Battalion at Fort Bragg, N.C., congratulates Army Capt. Ivan Castro on graduating from the Maneuver Captain's Career Course at Fort Benning, Ga., Dec. 15, 2009. Castro, who will be assigned to the recruiting battalion, is the first blind student to attend the course. U.S. Army photo by Kristin Molinaro 
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Kristin Molinaro writes for The Bayonet, the post newspaper at Fort Benning, Ga.)