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Blind Ambition

By: James Johnson

             Ivan Castro has been without sight since September of 2006, when he was serving as First Lieutenant with the 82nd Airborne Division, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and he and his unit were struck by mortar shells.

            The attack, which killed two other men in his unit, nearly cost Castro more than his sight. Thanks to the fast actions of Army doctors and multiple reconstructive surgeries later, one would never be able to guess how close that veteran was to dying that day.

            Before sustaining his injuries, Castro had already earned the respect of his peers with a lengthy and impressive military career that started with his enlistment in 1988. During his service, he had deployed for Desert Storm, as part of the 187th infantry, went to Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, earned his Green Beret, served as a Drill Sergeant in Georgia and served in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Even after sustaining his injuries, Castro chose to stay on active duty with the military, doing administrative work as well as offering counseling for other injured service members. This year, Castro says, he intends to retire.
            “This is all I had known for so many years, and all that I wanted to do was to serve,” Castro said. “It was at a point where our leaders were open minded. They saw the potential of keeping someone around with my experience and my attitude. This was in a time at the height of the surge in the military, and I was able to demonstrate that I wasn’t going to allow this to get me down. I continued to push forward. My leaders saw potential in having me around as a sort of inspiration to others. Basically saying, ‘If this blind guy can do it, you can too.’”

            In 2014, Castro founded the Special Operators Challenge, which hosts a series of events ranging from a mile-long kids’ obstacle course named the Little Muddy to the Esprit de Corps Challenge, which is made up of various distances, a 2-, 5- or 10-mile trek with events in shotgun shooting, archery, tomahawk throwing, fire starting, canoeing, rappelling, climbing, observational games, team trekking while carrying logs, blind-folded trekking with a partner, and “other surprises along the way to keep it fun.”

            While the Special Operators Challenge is an event of physical endurance, it’s also a nod to the spirit of working together, the humility of those who have served and the undeniable spirit of America.

            “On September 11, 2001,” the website says, “our nation was forever changed. In response, we came together as a nation, united and stronger than before—knocked down but not defeated. That spirit of working together is the backbone of the Esprit de Corps Challenge and as we work together, we remember those who have fought for our freedom. We do not mourn the loss of our brothers and sisters. We carry them with us, remember their sacrifice, live in their honor and pray for their families. As such, each Challenge team is placed in troops to recognize groups of the fallen and carry the names and biographies with them through the race.”    

            Since its creation, the events have garnered countless participants, growing larger with each run, however, as Castro has been recovering from a recent hip surgery, there aren’t currently any public events planned. This year Castro and his business partner and longtime friend, Darlene Matos launched the Special Operators Foundation, a charitable organization, designed to parse out donations to several other causes close to Castro’s heart.
            “Our mission is focused on education, community and employment for men and women within Special Operations and their families,” Castro said. “I am a believer that education plays a vital role in gaining employment and sustaining a home. As service members we are still a part of the community where we work, and it is important to give back to that community.”

            At every race for the Special Operator’s Challenge there is a food, diaper and clothing collection. The diapers are donated to families in need, and the food goes to Second Harvest, families in need and to churches where donations are open to everyone.

            For the Special Operator’s Foundation, Castro and Matos have donated funds to the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation; the National Law Enforcement Office Memorial Fund based in D.C.; Special Forces Association; Special Forces Charitable Trust; Team Red, White & Blue; Operation Enduring Warrior and Jubilee House, among others.

            “That is something that is very deep to me...giving back,” Castro said.

            Castro wasn’t kidding when he said that he wasn’t going to let the injuries keep him down. Since sustaining his injuries, Castro has participated in at least 50 marathons, including the New York, Boston, London and Marine Corps Marathons and even raced in two ultra-marathons. Not content with just running, in 2012, Castro challenged himself further by cycling across the United States, and after that he took part in a trek to the South Pole with the United Kingdom’s Prince Harry of Wales, as well as a group of other injured veterans.


            A writer’s perspective

            I must admit that during particularly busy weeks like the one I had just experienced, I can sometimes go into an important interview less than prepared, or as it was frequently referred to by an old editor of mine during the start of my journalism career, “going in blind.” Never has that idiom been so true than when I had to interview veteran, war-hero and living legend, Ivan Castro, at 6:30 a.m. at his Special Operators Foundation non-profit office.

            In my nearly ten years of being a journalist, I have never been asked to meet with a subject at such an early time, nor have I ever gone into an interview knowing so little about what might happen.    Matos set up the interview through a series of cryptic text messages, in which she instructed me to “wear something comfortable,” as we would be going to a second undisclosed location after our initial meeting.

            Once at Castro’s office, I was greeted by Matos, who offered me a coffee. I heard Castro call out to me from the other room. When I entered, Castro was seated at his desk. For a man with his reputation, Castro was simultaneously friendlier and more jovial than I had anticipated, while also being mysterious and somewhat intimidating. His sheepish grin and deadpan sense of humor, coupled with his tendency to take long pauses between statements, kept me guessing as to what was in store for the morning’s activities.

            “Do you have a fear of heights?” he asked me. “Like say, jumping out of planes, would that be a problem for you?” He continued, “ Can you swim?”

            This altruistic side of Castro and Matos was something I had tried to remind myself of when the two teased me with questions about whether or not I had family or friends who might notice if I went missing for a few days. Even with the knowledge that these two spent much of their free time trying to help others within our community, I couldn’t suppress my nervous laughter in response to their questions. Unlike Castro, I have spent much of my life avoiding dangerous situations. I got the sense the two of them knew this, which was why they had chosen to do something that might help me relate more to Castro’s life experience.

            Once I finished my coffee, Matos pulled out a blindfold.

          “This is one of the things we have done for team building in the past. You have to learn to trust other people.”

            She secured the blindfold around my head and guided me toward the stairs.

            “Don’t worry about falling down the stairs,” Castro joked, “because we’re on the second floor and you can’t fall down past the first.”

            By the time we got outside to the car, I was trying to think of some excuse. That’s when Castro reminded me of something.

            “At the end of all this, you can take the blindfold off,” he said. “I can’t.”
            Castro wasn’t looking for pity; he was making a point. This was a temporary inconvenience for me, and the least I could do was try to imagine life from his perspective.

            During the drive, both Castro and Matos asked me about whether I had any guesses as to where we were driving. I learned that while blindfolded, I have a comically bad sense of direction.

            After a short drive in which I tried to distract myself from my discomfort with a series of awkward questions about whether being blind enhanced any other senses (yes, I seriously asked this. I am not proud), we arrived at what I determined, by the smell of body-odor and grunt sounds, to be a gym.

            At the check-in counter, I asked the woman if a man wearing a blindfold was a normal sighting at this particular gym. She said that it was not.
            Once signed in, we went to the men’s locker room, one of the only places on Earth I tend to consider a blindfold a blessing. As Matos couldn’t follow us into the men’s locker room, Castro had to be my guide, in a literal case of “the blind leading the blind.”

            Castro asked if I needed to use the bathroom, and I impulsively answered “yes,” with the assumption that the need to use the bathroom would mean I could be expected to, momentarily, remove my blindfold. I was wrong. What followed ranks among my top five scariest bathroom experiences. Castro talked me through how to use a walking stick to find the toilet, then to find the handicap stall, and finally, to correctly aim for the toilet. At least I assume I hit the toilet. As it was only Castro and I in the locker room, I could have easily been watering a plant.

            Once we were out of the locker room, Matos guided Castro and I to the treadmills. Castro, the guy who successfully trekked to the South Pole, obviously took no issue running on a treadmill without sight. Meanwhile, I walked at a snail’s pace. Even though he was technically still recovering from hip surgery, Matos pointed out to me that Castro was preparing for an upcoming marathon, the All-American Mike to Mike Half-Marathon. At this point, I felt I should try harder, so I upgraded my leisurely stroll to a brisk jog.
            After we tried out a few more machines, Castro challenged me to a handstand. At this, I scoffed. Running without sight was one thing, but a handstand, I couldn’t even do one without a blindfold.

            Both Matos and Castro took me to a corner wall to demonstrate how easy it was. Matos, who has more experience doing handstands, did one by herself, while Castro, who had only recently began practicing the exercise, accepted Matos assistance, without any hesitation or hint of ego. Blindfolded, I decided to take them up on their offer, and with the assistance of both, I managed to do my first handstand, which was as invigorating an experience as the two had promised.

            When we were able to sit later, and with the blindfold finally off, I asked Castro about how he has become so self-assured. He reminded me of the handstand from earlier, pointing out that accepting help and trusting in others was one of the biggest things he had to learn before he could accomplish everything he has set out to do.

          “Even while I was sighted, I was very blessed to have really great people around me, and now, even more so,” Castro said. “We all have times of struggle, we all have our times when we need a little helping hand. Very few things in life are done solely by ourselves. Whether it was running marathons, going to the South Pole, even coming to the gym today, I have been very blessed to have people to help me. A lot of people put a lot of their own personal goals aside to help me, and that doesn’t go unnoticed.”

            To learn more about the Special Operators Challenge and the Special Operators Foundation, go to www.specialoperatorschallenge.com and www.specialoperatorsfoundation.org, respectively. In November, Castro will publish his first book about his life.