By Vince Little, The BayonetMay 18, 2011
FORT BENNING, Ga., May 18, 2011 -- Sgt. 1st Class Ray Castillo is again flourishing as a senior noncommissioned officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., but that almost didn't seem possible two years ago.
That's when his 10th combat deployment with the 75th Ranger Regiment resulted in a life-changing event on the dusty battlefield of northern Iraq. Today, he's a double amputee - above the knees - but set to graduate next week from Fort Benning's seven-week Maneuver Senior Leaders Course.
"Just because I lost my limbs doesn't mean I can't give my experience and my knowledge to other guys, (but) I understood eventually I was going to be behind a desk," said Castillo, now an operations sergeant with 2nd Battalion. "There's nothing I could've done about that. I still wanted to be in the military, I still wanted to contribute."
The incident occurred Feb. 9, 2009, near Mosul. Castillo was a platoon sergeant with the regiment's 2nd Battalion with the unit in pursuit of a high-value target. The Soldiers had dismounted and were approaching the objective on foot when they got ambushed.
A command-detonated improvised explosive device hit Castillo.
"It was real quick," he recalled. "(The enemy) hid it really well in the ground. I got to that location, and it just went off. I blacked out for a short period of time, but I remember the explosion going off and flying through the air."
Covered in blood, Castillo went into shock. A platoon medic treated him at the scene and he got evacuated within a half-hour. On the ride to the hospital, he slipped in and out of consciousness.
"I was in so much pain," he said. "I told my medic, 'Hey, you need to give me something. I don't care if you punch me in the face or whatever, but I'm in so much pain.'"
Castillo had multiple lacerations, including to his liver, spleen, intestines and right kidney. A lung was punctured in three different areas.
After the blast, when he was dragged to a stretcher, Castillo remembered looking down and seeing his right leg severed at the ankle. He figured he might lose part of one leg, but woke up from an induced coma about a month later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to find both gone. The infections had spread too quickly, doctors told him.
"I wasn't expecting to see 70 percent of my legs gone," he said. "Because of the infection, they had to keep cutting off more and more and more, because of all that bad stuff they have in the dirt over in Iraq."
He's undergone dozens of procedures, and not just to the legs. Doctors also removed shrapnel from his abdomen area.
"I lost count (of the surgeries). I had so many, I was sick of surgery," he said. "I still have a lot of shrapnel in me. Every once in a while, I'll get a scratch here or there 'cause it's trying to come out. It's all over the place."
There's a little ball of metal floating around a finger in his left hand. Castillo said X-rays at the dentist reveal more pieces in his head.
Castillo spent almost two months at Walter Reed and actually re-enlisted there in March 2009 from a hospital bed, surrounded by most of his family. He'd planned to do that in Iraq before getting wounded.
"I would say it's more frustrating than difficult," he said of his lengthy recovery. "There's a lot of frustration that goes with having some type of new life. Everyone has a goal in life, and then when something happens, it can change."
"You can still stay on certain career paths and other paths you want to do in your life," he explained. "It can be difficult doing those things, but it's more frustrating. There are simple things that you have to try to overcome and adapt to."
After being transferred to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for rehab, Castillo said he encountered other Soldiers in worse predicaments.
"Looking at them being able to do certain things, it gives you strength," he said. "I remember seeing a woman in San Antonio - she had both arms gone. She was an (explosive ordnance disposal) Soldier missing both arms up high. The wounds were so high up her shoulders that she couldn't have a prosthetic arm."
"Seeing someone like that reminds you, 'Hey, you shouldn't be complaining about certain things.' You don't want to have someone always helping you out, because they're not always gonna be there," he said. "In Texas, they taught (me) how to do stuff on (my) own. I had to figure a lot of things out and learn how to overcome those little obstacles and hurdles."
Castillo was fitted with prosthetics in May 2009. That November, his formal therapy ended and he left Fort Sam Houston the following January. He returned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord but had to clear a medical evaluation board just to stay in the Army - his paperwork was approved four months later.
"My focus was just to get back to my unit," he said. "I worked really hard every day as much as I could because that was my main focus - recovery and getting better so I could get back to my unit and continue working."
Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Hardy was the 75th Ranger Regiment's command sergeant major when Castillo got wounded in Iraq.
"His personal courage and commitment is truly an inspiration to us all," Hardy said. "He epitomizes the warrior ethos - I will never quit, I will never accept defeat. He symbolizes the strength of the American Soldier and I feel privileged to know him."
Castillo said he's driven to stay in and wants to reach the 20-year mark in his Army career. He'd like to become an instructor after his time with the Ranger Regiment ends.
The sergeant first class did a tandem jump at the Ranger Rendezvous in August 2009, only months after the ambush, and plans to return again this year. Calling the regiment a "brotherhood," Castillo said he knows some of the other Rangers better than his own family, and vice versa, after all they've experienced together in war.
The learning process also hasn't ended in his own recovery. Just walking downstairs, along a sidewalk or grass, and downhill can be challenging.
"Even when it snowed in Washington state, just going through the snow and it being slippery, I don't feel where I step until I put my weight on it," he said. "I drive, too, and that's a learning curve. My endurance and balance are getting much better. Being able to do random chores around the house or just doing stuff at work is getting better. It's gotten easier, with time."