Editor’s note: Master Sgt. Israel "DT" Del Toro Jr. will receive the Pat Tillman award for service at the annual ESPY awards on July 12, 2017. He spoke with us in May 2016.
Master Sgt. Israel "DT" Del Toro Jr. was severely burned and wounded during an explosion in Afghanistan 11 years ago. The doctors gave him little chance to live. Now he's a gold medal shot-putter and the first 100 percent disabled airman to reenlist in the U.S. Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs where he trains at the Olympic Training Center and hopes to make the team that's headed to Rio de Janeiro for the paralympics this summer.
Click the audio player above to hear the full conversation, and read highlights below:
What happened after a roadside bomb exploded under his Humvee:
"When I got hit everything slowed and I started thinking of my family. Me and my wife were finally going to get married by the church. We were going to go to Greece for a honeymoon. I was going to teach my son how to play baseball Then something clicked and I got out of the truck, but when I got out of the truck I was on fire from head to toe. I realized that creek was behind me, so I tried to run to it, but the flames overtook me and I collapsed. I lay there thinking I was going to die there, that I’d broken my promise that I’d always come back, that I would let my son would grow up without his dad. Then one of my teammates helped me up (and) we both jumped in the creek to extinguish the flames."
How he felt the first time he saw himself in a mirror after the explosion:
"I call that my darkest hour. Because I saw myself and I broke down. ... I wanted to die....I was 30 years old at the time... if I think I’m a monster what’s my 3-year-old son going to think? Because no father wants his son to be afraid of him."
Seeing his young son after nine months:
"He comes running out and he stops and I got scared because ... I’m still covered up in bandages and all that and I think, oh my God, he’s afraid ...he’s not going to want to hold me or anything. He tilts his head to the left and he says “Papi” and I’m like “yeah, buddy” and he just comes over and gives me the most amazing hug in my life."
Why he re-enlisted despite being 100 percent medically disabled.
"It’s very hard to find a job that you truly love and I really love my job. And the other reason is I want to retire on my terms. I don’t want to retire on the terms of the guy who left that bomb to end my life. I don’t want to give them that satisfaction. Maybe I’m stubborn. I want to retire when I’m ready to retire."
Why he’s an athlete:
"Sports is a great recovery tool for any person that is going through something like I did...losing fingers, being disabled when you weren’t before. Being able to do sports and know that you can still be outside enjoying life is a very comforting thing. "