Israel Del Toro: Once you go burned, that’s all you yearn
BY :: LAURA BERGELLS
PHOTOGRAPHY :: TERRY JOHNSTON
If you conduct a Google search for “Israel Del Toro” — you’ll be presented with over 55,000 results. But Air Force Tech Sergeant Israel Del Toro didn’t know that. And he hasn’t read or seen many of the stories that have been written or televised about him.
“I’m not an egomaniac. I guess that’s the word. The only way I found out was, you know, my sister Googled my name. Stuff pops up,” he said.
Media outlets across the country have covered Del Toro’s continuing story of heroism and inspiration. In 2005, Del Toro survived a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. The IED burned over 80% of his body. Doctors gave him a 50% chance of survival. Today, Del Toro is the first 100% combat-disabled Air Force technician to re-enlist for active duty.
“I’m an instructor,” he said. “The guys that come out of basic and want to do my job, they gotta go through an indoctrination, like a prep course, kind of weed out the weak before we send them out. I’m out there running, rucking, and PTing with these guys.”
“Rucking,” Del Toro explained. “You put on a backpack with about 50 pounds on it. And you’re off walking and running. Kind of hard for the XBox generation.”
But running, rucking, and PTing is not enough physical activity for Del Toro. He also competes in the Paralympics team.
“I hold the US record in javelin for my classification,” he said. “I’ve been undefeated for the last year and a half. So just because you’re burned, you can still do a lot of stuff.”
So when the non-profit Fashion Has Heart organization called Del Toro to ask him to design a t-shirt and boots to benefit wounded soldiers, the rough and rugged Del Toro registered a small amount of surprise.
“Design? Me?” he asked — before saying, “Heck, yeah!”
“Well, I never figured myself as a very creative kind of guy,” explained Del Toro. “You know, especially designing clothes. So I said, ‘yeah, why not?’ You only live once. You can say I’ll knock it off my bucket list.”
He added: “It can’t be any worse than some of the fashion I’ve seen out there on the runways. And they get paid millions of dollars. I’m just doing this for fun.”
Del Toro freely acknowledged that he has no burning passion for fashion.
“You’re talking to a guy who goes clothes shopping once every two years,” he said.
Yet, Del Toro shows a flair for design. Artist Kat Von D tattooed Del Toro’s own dramatic artistic creation on his severely burned arm.
“My own design ‘The Phoenix’, the guy representing me, raising up from flames,” Del Toro said. ““One thing, maybe I’ll incorporate my tattoo as part of the T-shirt…”
Another idea Del Toro considered for his T-shirt is a favorite, humorous slogan: “Once you go burned, that’s all you yearn.”
Del Toro admitted that his ribald sense of humor about being burned shocks and surprises many. He uses humor not only when he visits wounded soldiers at hospitals, but also to continually fight what he calls “the tyranny of political correctness.”
“It’s like I tell guys when I visit ‘em, he said. ““You gotta have a sense of humor about what happens to you. If you don’t, you’ll go on hating life and being miserable.’ I can joke around. I’ve always been a joker.”
“I like to mess people up. I will go to the burn center and you know, I like to say, “Does anyone smell something burning?”
“The guys will laugh. Of course it’s always parents or loved ones who say, ‘I can’t believe he just said that.’ Everyone else is laughing.”
“It’s always funny, when I tell people, at first they say, ‘Should I laugh? Should I laugh?’ Then they see me laugh, and they laugh.”
“‘It’s like, ‘Dude, that’s so funny!’”
“So why didn’t you laugh when I first said it?”
“‘Oh, I didn’t know if I could! I should have!’”
Yet Del Toro revealed a highly empathetic side.
“Of course, you’ll see the guys who first get into therapy, they first just got injured. Of course, they’re like, a little timid,” he said. “That’s when we’ll go in and talk to ‘em. ‘Hey, man. Here,we’re gonna joke around. You’re gonna hear jokes. Guys are gonna mess around. You gotta enjoy it. If you’re gonna be here for a while, you might as well have fun.’”
Now that Del Toro is back working active duty, he doesn’t get to go to the burn unit as much.
“When I have an appointment at the hospital, I’ll go in and visit the guys and see how they’re doing,” he said. “Especially I’ll try to go in to see the guys that recently got hurt and just tell ‘em, ‘Hey man, I was there. I know how much it sucks. Just keep pushin’, man. Don’t give those SOBs satisfaction.’”
Del Toro also said he likes to visit children’s burn centers.
“You know, ‘cause it’s always fun. They ask a lot of questions about your injuries. Of course, I like to mess with them. ‘Yeah, I got hungry and I ate my fingers. Or I was trying to grill and I threw the lighter fluid on myself instead of the charcoal. I messed up. I was a little drunk.’ So, you know, they get a laugh.”
The question that children ask him most often are about staring. How do you handle people staring at you?
“Don’t let them bug you,” advises Del Toro. “The funny thing is that adults do more of the staring than children would. Children will ask you what happened. They’ll come down and ask you, ‘hey, you know, what happened?’ Compared to an adult who will just stand there and stare you down as you walk by.”
“Obviously, the world is not used to seeing severely burned people surviving now. Back in the day, people weren’t surviving. Now, they are. There’s more people surviving severe burns. So they’re not used to seeing that, as compared to a guy in a wheelchair.”
The Fashion Has Heart program expects Del Toro to share his multi-faceted hero’s story through what is often perceived as a highly superficial lens of fashion design. Del Toro’s shirt and shoe designs will be available for purchase later this year.
“Oh, man. I’m already hearing it from my brothers and sisters,” said Del Toro. “Shoes? What are you gonna design, girlie-man? Pink heeled boots?”
“C’mon,” said Del Toro. “It’s funny.”