by Tech. Sgt. Ray Bowden
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
On Dec. 4, 2005, joint terminal attack controller Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro fell prey to a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan that left third degree burns on 80 percent of his body, charred his lungs, evaporated his nose cartilage and left him with nubs for fingers.
Since then, Sergeant Del Toro has endured 104 surgeries. His doctors originally gave him a 15 to 20 percent chance of recovering, he said.
On Oct. 16, 2006, more than 1,000 miles from the site of Sergeant Del Toro’s ambush, Staff Sgt. Rory Sturm, 721st Security Forces Squadron, was serving near Safwan, Iraq, when the HMMWV he was traveling in ran over an improvised explosive device triggering the detonation of four linked IEDs.
“The blast hit the HMMWV six inches behind my head destroying my interceptor plate of my Kevlar vest,” he said. “I took it off my back in three chunks. I hit my head on the dash [board] of the HMMWV. All four tires were flattened and the HMMWV was torn apart.”
Following the attack, Sergeant Strum aided a wounded gunner while ignoring injuries of his own and after being relieved by Army medics, took up the gunner position to defend the team against further attack.
“I had to man the 50 cal., which I had never seen before in my life,” he said.
Sergeant Del Toro and Sergeant Strum visited Peterson Air Force Base July 17 to participate in a Warrior Ethos Panel, hosted by the 21st Space Wing.
“Warrior culture is a long time coming,” said Sergeant Sturm. “I believe in it 100 percent.”
While Sergeant Sturm admitted that he had previous misgivings about “All Airmen being warriors,” he quickly realized while on his Iraq deployment that everyone in the Air Force has something to bring to the fight.
“I would see a computer technician serving as a gunner, providing security. There were maintenance troops and maintainers providing security — it really opened my eyes,” he said. “But they’re some of the finest troops I’ve ever been with. Other services don’t discriminate and neither do we — the Air Force is one big family.”
Sergeant Del Toro agreed, but made the point that training is crucial to the success of any mission and in some case, essential to saving a life on the battlefield.
“Noncommissioned officers have to train their people. If your people get better than you, than you’re doing an okay job,” he said.
Sergeant Sturm is currently assigned to the 721st Security Forces Squadron at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. Sergeant Del Toro visits an Air Force installation at least once a month to give his presentation “The Day I Went Boom! A Tale of Combat, Suffering and Survival in the Middle East.” He also visits hospital burn wards as a patient advocate.
“I tell people I visit who are having a bad day to call me,” he said. “I’ll come out and tell you to ‘suck it up, you little wimp!”
Sergeant Del Toro told the audience he hopes to continue in the Air Force as a JTAC trainer.
“No one was ever as severely burned as I am and stayed in the Air Force, but it’s who I am,” he said. “I never wanted to be that guy sitting in a chair looking out the window blaming life for everything, saying ‘why did this happen to me?’”
Col. Jay Raymond, 21st Space Wing commander, said the bravery of these two Airmen in the face of adversity sheds light in the concept of Warrior Ethos.
“They are true warriors, shining examples of what Airmen do each and every day in service to our great country,” Colonel Raymond said to the audience of about 500 Airmen and Peterson civilians. “Their spirit embodies the Airman’s Creed, particularly ‘I will defend my country with my life.’ I hope we can all use Sergeant Del Toro’s and Sergeant Sturm’s experiences as a source of inspiration and courage if we ever find ourselves facing the type of danger and adversary they’ve faced.”
Sergeant Del Toro was awarded the Bronze Star for engaging enemy forces under heavy fire for five consecutive days in Iraq and personally received his Purple Heart from the Air Force Chief of Staff. He was also recognized for his valor in Air Force Portraits of Courage Volume I.
Sergeant Sturm was the first member of the 21st Space Wing to earn the Air Force Combat Action Medal. He was also awarded the Purple Heart and the Army Combat Action Badge, and also recognized for his courage under fire in Air Force Portraits of Courage Volume III.