Retired Army Maj. Ivan Castro, Who Lives in Total Darkness, Is An Inspiration to Others
By: Michael Futch
Photography by: Cindy Burnham
The Pacific Crest Trail spans 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. It crosses over 57 major mountain passes. It’s a beautiful,
grueling, treacherous trek through scorching desert and rocky terrain.
It was against that backdrop that Ivan Castro faced the latest in a long line of challenges. Castro, a retired Army Special Forces officer, was blinded when he took the brunt of a mortar blast in Iraq in 2006. Since then, he’s gone on to complete more than 60 marathons, including five of the majors; run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain; cycle across America; jog across the Sahara Desert; summit Mount Kilimanjaro; and trek 200 miles across Antarctica to become the first and only blind American and Puerto Rican to ski to the South Pole.
But the Pacific Crest Trail was a unique test for him. He and Darlene Matos, his close friend and primary care provider, started out from the Mexico-California border in April of last year. She guided him for mile after mile each day by holding the ends of a hiking pole between them. He held a second hiking pole in his other hand.
“Day One, we almost quit,” Matos said.
“He was kicking rocks the entire day. Stepping on them and bruising his feet or twisting his ankle or knee. “And we would have quit,” she said, “except we’ve always said that if we’re going to quit, we’re not going to quit on a bad day. If we quit, we’ll end on a good note, surrounded by good people. Because then we’ll be sure in our decision.”
They completed the trail at the northern terminus of Canada, finishing in October after months of carrying their camping gear, water and food on their backs. It’s one more chapter in an already amazing story.
“Physically and emotionally this was actually the hardest thing he’s ever done,” said Matos, herself a Special Forces veteran. “But I’m glad we didn’t quit.”
Other than what he has gleaned from others, Castro remembers little from that fateful incident in Bagdad in September 2006. The blast from a mortar round left him gravely injured and fighting for his life.
His struggle to survive in the ensuing months, his will to carry on like a good soldier, would be from a state of eternal darkness. The blast had ripped a shoulder apart, down to the bone, and drove the frame of his eyewear into his face, and he suffered life-threatening injuries, including a broken arm, nose and cheekbone, as well as collapsed lungs.
A long road to recovery lay ahead of him.
“I was completely peppered, head to toe,” he said. “I was a mess.” With a laugh, he now describes himself as “a mixture between Daredevil and ‘Scent of a Woman,’” a reference to the Marvel comic book character and to actor Al Pacino’s movie role as a blind, medically retired Army officer.
His life would be changed forever. He has said that while lying in bed, recovering at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, he felt overwhelmed with grief and fear. He had responsibilities and a life to live.
“I went through a lot,” he said. “They’re still pulling out pieces of fragments from my knee. I’m not a Six Million Dollar Man; I’m like the 970 Million Dollar Man.”
Yet, Castro gathered the courage to move forward.
While others thought it improbable, he returned to active duty after 17 months of recovery and rehabilitation. Castro retired from the Army after 28 years of service in 2016, a decade after he was blinded.
“I’m very grateful for my leaders and the men I served with,” he said. “The soldiers were great guys and still are. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.
“The Army is what I love the most. I love the camaraderie. I love the teamwork. I love to be part of history,” he said. “I love to defend freedom and democracy and liberty and justice. … If I had my eyes, I’d still be in.”
A native of New Jersey, Castro was raised in Puerto Rico by Puerto Rican parents before joining the military in 1988. Growing up, he recalled, he was “a chubby little kid.”
That’s in sharp contrast to the lean, wellchiseled athlete who has completed a variety of derring-do accomplishments that most people with perfect vision would never attempt.
He approaches these goals as challenges – a blind man determined to find purpose in tackling what first appears to be insurmountable odds.
In 2013, Prince Harry – the member of the British royal family – joined him on the trip to the South Pole. Four years later, Prince Harry supported Castro and fellow injured Iraq veteran Karl Hinett as they trained for back-to back marathons in Boston and London.
The prince’s main focus was to destigmatize mental health, especially in the military, with his royal foundation Heads Together.
Castro also has gone on to co-author a book about his experiences “Fighting Blind: A Green0 Beret’s Story of Extraordinary Courage,” and to serve as an inspiration to others with his motivational speaking.
“Just do it,” Castro told the students at Methodist University’s 2019 winter commencement. “That’s the Nike slogan, for those of you who may be too young. But there
is a word missing. Just do it now. Time is one thing we have no control of. We cannot stop, pause or rewind our time. Life is short, so do not waste your time. Think of how you want to be remembered and what you want to give to the world and work toward achieving it.”
“I am grateful I accomplished many things,” Castro said, “but let’s not forget – I’ve done all these things, but it has been an army of people who have helped me. I’ve gained a lot of experience. Accomplished a lot of things and made a lot of mistakes. More than anything, I want to share my mistakes with others.
“I do enjoy inspiring, motivating people.” Matos was reminded of the significance of Castro’s determination and resilience during that Mexico-Canada trek. “People are looking for super-heroes,” she said. “And Ivan is a live super-hero.”
Kim Hasty contributed to this story