The might of the phoenix airman
“A Patriot’s Promise: Protecting My Brothers, Fighting for My Life, and Keeping My Word” by Senior Master Sgt. Israel “DT” Del Toro Jr., U.S. Air Force (ret.) and T. L. Heyer
By J. FORD HUFFMAN
“A Patriot’s Promise” is no sob story, although there are moments that will bring a tear to your eye – when you are not grinning at the moments that remind you why laughter is the best medicine.
Nor is the memoir a jingoistic call for infallible patriotism or a treatise on the U.S. experience in Afghanistan, although retired Senior Master Sgt. Israel “DT” Del Toro Jr., U.S. Air Force, admits that “no matter how I feel about the United States’ exit, I would do every single bit of this over again.”
Instead, this is a touching, unpretentious story from an airman who is urged by his father to keep a promise no matter what, a story about a guy who “had a bad day.”
The day was Dec. 4, 2005, in Zabul province. DT and his lieutenant are in a Humvee that explodes while the then-staff sergeant’s team is on patrol.
DT is on fire. “I’m going to die,” he thinks.
He nearly does in the months ahead. Three times. He learns about his near-deaths only when he awakens from a four-month coma. A doctor presents the facts:
“Eighty percent of your body has third-degree burns,” he has fewer fingers, and he cannot move. One of his cumulative 150 surgeries extricates a thumb-size stone “made of blood, mucus, smoke and charcoal dust.” His body is a combination of scars and tissue-thin skin, and a touch feels like a razor blade. His muscles have melted. He has lost 75 of his 200 pounds. Also, now he is sterile. (Given DT’s wit, you’re surprised he does not refer to a blastectomy.)
In his hospital burn unit, mirrors are covered because healthcare workers “want to ease you into your transition to what you look like now.” What happens when he finally sees his 30-year-old self?
He sees “a monster with a mummy’s body.”
His own image scares him, and he imagines that his 3-year-old will be terrified also. “I couldn’t bear to let me son see what I had become.” DT does not want to make life harder for Israel III or for Carmen, his wife, whom he met in his family’s hometown in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“Please, just let me die,” he pleads with his therapist.
Then he remembers his vow to his father and his obligations. “The spark of my son would not fade . . . I would give him everything I had.”
Never quit life, he decides. (DT would include an expletive.)
“Promise” is about his survival – from growing up amid family traumas in Joliet, Ill. (the deaths of his father and then his mother, and later, the deaths of his grandparents) and from roadblocks (his leaving a university scholarship in order to care for his siblings).
But the horrific injuries (coincidentally, the day that “sucks” in Afghanistan is his wife’s birthday) frame the narrative. The story is also a message of unrelenting hope and about unexpected glory.
DT enlisted in the Air Force at age 21 “for the best benefits and the prettiest girls” – and becomes “the first 100 percent disabled airman ever to reenlist.” He becomes an advocate for patient care. He learns to compete in adaptive athletics at events such as the Warrior Games and the Invictus Games.
There he meets Prince Harry, “the prince of England” (a description Harry’s brother and uncles, each a prince, might dispute). Harry’s and Michelle Obama’s speeches at the Invictus opening in Orlando are allotted a few pages each in “Promise” – and Harry’s encouraging DT to be explicit in his sharing his mantra with the crowd is a highlight of the book:
“Never f------ quit,” DT tells the audience.
“The place went crazy!”
DT also receives the ESPY’s Pat Tillman Award for Service, and former President George W. Bush includes his image in “Portraits of Courage.”
“I never thought I’d speak on the world stage,” DT says, “and that the contacts in my phone would include Jon Stewart, George W. Bush, and Prince Harry.”
People like to call him a hero, “but I’m just a dude who had a bad day at work.”
Helping him describe his days and nights is co-writer T. L. “Tricia” Heyer, to whom DT initially offered, in his inimitable style, an explanation of his co-author needs:
“I held up my hands to show her my scars.
“I said, ‘I need someone to write my story. I don’t have fingers anymore’.”
“A Patriot’s Promise: Protecting My Brothers, Fighting for My Life, and Keeping My Word” by Senior Master Sgt. Israel “DT” Del Toro Jr., U.S. Air Force (ret.) and T. L. Heyer, St. Martin’s Press, 288 pages, $27
Huffman’s book reviews received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He is secretary of the board of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Marine Corps University Press, 2012).