What the Blind Can Do

Army Capt. Ivan Castro, center, accepts the ceremonial torch from Air Force Capt. Tony Simone during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo., May 1, 2012. Since his combat injury in 2006, Castro has sought to redefine the word “disability” as he completes one monumental feat after another while still serving on active duty in Special Operations. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

If you have followed this blog since the start of the summer you have read some pretty remarkable stories of wounded veterans using adaptive sports to get their lives back.

You read about the story of Brad Snyder, the blind Navy Explosive Ordnance
officer who broke World Paralympics swimming records in London less than a
year after being hit by an Improvised Explosive Device in Afghanistan. You’ve read the inspiring story of Jim Castaneda, who, to his 10-year-old son, was “better than Superman” for having the courage to persevere in the face of adversity at the 2012 Warrior Games. And you read the recovery story of Christopher “Aggie” Aguilera and his co-pilot, Tony Simone—the only two survivors of a horrific helicopter crash just two years ago.

After hearing all those remarkable stories, however, I am still floored when I meet people like Army Capt. Ivan Castro. I caught up with him on the final leg of a 3,800 mile bicycle ride across the country, where he taught me what it is the blind can do.

He was extremely tan from the long ride and wearing sunglasses, I couldn’t tell at first that his entire right cheek was a prosthetic, that he is missing his right eye or that shrapnel had taken sight from his other eye. He was wearing long sleeves, so I couldn’t see the scars there either. I didn’t know that pieces of his arm and shoulder were gone. I did, however, notice the black steel bracelet around his wrist inscribed with the names of the two soldiers who lost their lives in the blast that nearly killed him.

He never takes that off.

A native of Hoboken, New Jersey, Castro has served in Special Operations since 1999, and still serves on active duty today. He’s fought in every climb and place from Bosnia to South America, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2006, he was commanding a joint recon-scout sniper platoon from a rooftop in Youssifiyah, Iraq, when an 82mm mortar shell exploded five feet from his position. He was severely wounded and evacuated back to the States in critical condition. It took nearly 40 surgeries to repair his body, but his vision could not be restored.

Ivan Castro

“I had no clue what the blind could do,” said 44-year-old Castro. “As a service member you don’t think about these things. You train, deploy, and it’s like a black and white situation. Black, you come back in a body bag—white, you come back fine. We don’t think about that gray area … when you come back injured.”

For the past six years he has used adaptive sports to push the limits of his recovery. He has completed more than 30 tandem marathons, rode a tandem bicycle from San Francisco to Virginia Beach, and now has his sights set on hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “I have both legs, both arms, I can breathe and speak on my own, and I have a network of help from family, friends and the Special Operations community. Part of what has made my recovery so successful has been sports like cycling.”

After he was injured he couldn’t walk, so he had to start from scratch on a
mechanical bike. He graduated from recumbent cycle to upright bicycle to elliptical, spinning, then on to tandem cycling with a sighted partner—once a week, twice a week, and then three times a week.

“It’s fun, but not easy on the nerves,” said Castro. “When you’re on a bike and you’re blind, you are putting all of your faith and confidence in your pilot. It’s one thing when you’re walking around with a cane, or even running, but when you’re on a bicycle and you’re going 60 miles per hour down some hill somewhere in Colorado, anything can happen. It’s an incredible rush, feeling the inertia, but not being able to see what’s in your path can make it scary if you don’t trust your pilot.”

Castro rides tandem during the Sea to Shining Sea bike ride. S2SS photo by Mike Sanders

“Bill [his civilian pilot] had the patience, maturity and skill level to take me across the country,” said Castro. “That’s not something that was easy to find. If you talk to any cyclist they will tell you they would like to cycle across America, but very few have what it takes to do it. I’m very grateful to Bill and to World T.E.A.M. Sports for giving me the opportunity to do this.”

Undeterred by things most of us might consider “obstacles,” Castro is on a personal mission to redefine how we understand and perceive persons with disabilities.

Perhaps this is why he was the first blind service member asked to walk into Brad Snyder’s hospital room after he was hit by an Improvised Explosive Device last September. Perhaps this is why he was chosen to stand next to the First Lady and receive the torch from Tony Simone and Aggie during the opening ceremony at the 2012 Warrior Games.

“I don’t dwell on what I’ve lost,” he explained. “I just concern myself with positive people always and am grateful for what I have. It was a Marine who came into my hospital room and inspired me, just as I might have inspired Snyder. Civilians like Bill and the USO volunteers that have come along for this ride—they do their part to drive me. I’m not a one-man show, and I’m not special.”

“I depend—just like all of us do—on other people, and as long as I have my network of support, I know exactly what it is the blind can do,” he concluded. “Anything I want.” — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Disabled Veterans Cycle From Sea to Shining Sea

Sea to Shining Sea riders embrace in the Atlantic Ocean, July 28, 2012, after cycling more than 3,800 miles from San Francisco to Virginia Beach. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

For the past two months, a group of 14 disabled veterans rode bicycles, hand cycles and recumbent cycles nearly 4,000 miles through 14 states—from Sea to Shining Sea.

They started May 28th dipping their rear tires in San Francisco Bay, before heading east on their cross country journey.   Through scenic Napa Valley and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the World T.E.A.M. Sports cyclists rode through Lake Tahoe and endured 100-plus degree temperatures in the deserts of Nevada and Utah before pedaling up the steep inclines of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

They toured America at 10 miles per hour, through small towns and big cities, experiencing the sights and smells of the heartland—a pilgrimage through the country to help them understand exactly what it is they sacrificed their bodies and minds for. They rode through the Arkansas River valley into Kansas, arriving in St. Louis for the Fourth of July. In each town and city, Americans lined the streets to welcome them. They continued east through southern Illinois, Indiana, Ohio  then south through Washington D.C. and Richmond before arriving at their final destination in Virginia Beach, today.

Following the cyclists for the entire trip has been a USO Mobile RV, on a mission to provide valuable field support such as water, food and shelter from inclement weather.

“The driver of the RV—Lou—was probably [one of] the most consistent and uplifting personalities we had with us along the way,” said Army Capt. Ivan Castro, an active duty Special Operations officer who was blinded and maimed by a mortar round in Iraq. Castro rides tandem with a sighted, civilian cyclist.

“We’ve had some tough climbs, some scary descents and some crazy hot weather,” he added.  “But every morning Lou is there to shake my hand, give me some kind words of support and hand me a cup of coffee just the way I like it. It’s the same USO I know and love, but it’s always here—traveling along with us. It’s amazing the way the USO can bring comfort to an otherwise uncomfortable situation.”

“We’re here to provide any level of support these riders might need at every moment along the route,” said Emily Flint, the Special Events coordinator for the USO who traveled in the RV for the entire ride. “One day that might mean handing out waters, sandwiches, or providing much-needed logistical support. At other times the USO Mobile is literally the only respite the cyclists have from the unforgiving weather. It’s been a grueling trip at some points—especially because of the weather—but we are proud to support the endeavors of men and women who have been injured while serving our country.”

World T.E.A.M. (which stands for The Exceptional Athlete Matters) Sports has organized all kinds of athletic events for disabled and able-bodied citizens, from mountain climbing to white water rafting, biking, and more. This is the second Sea to Shining Sea ride for wounded veterans, and the first which the USO has  co-sponsored.

“We’re honored that the USO chose to support our effort to recognize the riders for both their sacrifice and resiliency,” said World T.E.A.M. Sports CEO and President Paul Tyler. “Support from an organization like the USO means so much to this group of riders who dedicated two months of their lives to crossing the country they defended.”

To learn more about the day-to-day experiences of the ride and the riders, visit the Sea to Shining Sea website and read the daily blogs by S2SS Communications Manager Richard Rhinehart and ride director Mike Claver. — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

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