In the global war on terror, the United States has enjoyed a close alliance with the United Kingdom. Through the struggles of warfare, these two nations, and the men and women employed in their service, have time and time again demonstrated a willingness to train, to fight, and to sacrifice for the sake of their own home countries, their allies, and indeed, the greater good.
Unfortunately for many of those who have made these sacrifices on behalf of a safer world, coming home can be a bittersweet experience. Coping with the physical limitations wrought by injury often proves to be the lesser of the challenges, as service members in both nations struggle to re-engage with a life they left behind despite the mental and emotional strife their experiences, and their injuries, can subject them to.
Ivan Castro was a sniper platoon leader in Iraq in 2006. The lieutenant was already a decorated combat veteran, having recently made the transition from enlisted to commissioned, and was accompanied by two younger soldiers when an enemy mortar round landed within five feet of his position. Both soldiers that were with him lost their lives, and Castro suffered a number of injuries, including the complete loss of his eyesight.
Having spent the majority of his career in Special Forces, Castro was not willing to allow his lifetime of service and the expertise he’d gained go to waste, regardless of how insurmountable the challenges ahead may have seemed. He immediately set out to become healthy enough to run in the Marine Corps marathon – accomplishing his goal and then some, fighting to remain on active duty as a Green Beret in support of his fellow SOF soldiers in the fight despite his blindness, and going on to complete more than sixty more marathons in the years since.
Castro, like so many other American veterans, is well aware of the sacrifices being made by our brothers and sisters in arms from across the pond.
“During my 28 years of service I was honored to serve with some incredible soldiers, motivational and inspirational men and women from around the world, many from the United Kingdom. There is a special relationship between the US and UK troops on and off the battlefield, we have trained together, we have fought together, we have bled together and we have healed together.” Castro said.
With an emphasis on healing, Castro has joined forces with a British wounded veteran named Karl Hinett. Hinett was also injured in Iraq, suffering severe burns to his hands, legs, arms, and face. The two soldiers have seen a combined total of more than a hundred hours on operating tables and at least a year confined to hospital beds; but it wasn’t their service, their heroism, or even their injuries that brought them together. It was their shared love for running as a means to heal the emotional scarring their ordeals left them with.
“Running played such a huge part in my recovery because I came from such an active and intense job role, to being virtually bed bound with no independence.” Hinett told SOFREP. “Running was a way of reclaiming that independence, because regardless of how far or how fast I ran, I felt empowered.”
The two men are planning to use their passion for running along with their harrowing tales of injury and recovery to help empower others who may be facing similar challenges: taking on the stigma of mental health issues and the “invisible wounds of war.” Their goal is to run back to back marathons in Boston and London in a matter of days to raise awareness for their cause.
“Two marathons in a week will hurt, but we are doing this for all veterans and serving brothers who carry the weight of mental health issues every day, because we believe that we all feel pressure on our mental health at some point in our lives and, when we understand this, the better we can support ourselves and each other.” Castro explained.
Castro and Hinett haven’t been alone in their effort to make the world a better place for other wounded veterans. They’ve joined forces with the Heads Together campaign, a part of the UK’s Royal Foundation, and have received direct support from Prince Harry, a veteran himself, as well as his brother and sister-in-law, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
“Prince Harry and The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have been instrumental in uniting people behind this campaign to end the stigma around mental health, including those in the military. In my view, it’s been particularly important having Prince Harry involved because he has experienced service first-hand, having fought alongside us in the trenches.” Castro, who visited the South Pole with Prince Harry in 2013, told SOFREP.
While stateside, their fundraising efforts will go to the Home Base program, a joint effort established by the Boston Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital aimed at helping veterans and their families heal the invisible wounds of war.
While in the UK, funds raised by their dual-marathon effort will go to Contact, a military mental health coalition that falls under the Heads Together program.
Despite their own struggles, both men have placed the difficulties faced by others at the forefront of their efforts to reduce the stigma suffered by returning veterans.
“One of the key takeaways for me discussed during the “Veteran’s Mental Health –The Wider Perspective” panel with Prince Harry is that the public believes 90 percent of veterans will experience some form of mental illness linked to their service. That’s pretty off base, in fact, research from King’s College suggests it’s only about 10 percent. I believe it’s really important that we address this stereotype that all veterans are ticking time bombs.” Castro explained.
“Opening up is so often viewed as a sign of weakness. We want to show both our countries and the world that the strongest thing you can do is speak up and ask for help. Everyone has off days and struggles with anxiety or depression,” Hinett added.
“But when it’s more than a few days here and there it’s really important that people, especially military men and women, feel empowered to open up and talk about their issues to prevent small problems from spiraling and becoming more serious.”
Thus far, these veterans have raised over $130,000 for their cause, and they hope to see that number continue to rise as they approach the first leg of their challenge: the Boston Marathon on April 17th. From there, they’ll hop on a flight to England and participate in the Virgin Money London Marathon only six days later.
Castro, the author of “Fighting Blind – A Green Beret’s Story of Extraordinary Courage,” sees this incredible effort as perfectly in keeping with the Special Forces ethos he’s lived his entire adult life by.
“After my sustaining my injuries in 2006, returning to the Special Forces community was as important to me as was returning home. The SF community is brotherhood. To have lost that would have been to have lost my family. In the Special Forces Creed we proclaim that we know the hazards of our profession, we vow to never surrender and to never leave a fallen comrade behind.” Castro explained.
“My brothers and I are living this and all parts of the creed. I am grateful.”
Make sure to follow Castro and Hinett’s progress in their fundraising efforts at their website, and if you can, chip in to show your support.
Men like Karl Hinett and Ivan Castro represent not only the best and bravest to come out of our nations’ militaries, but the indominable will and strength in the face of adversity that coalesces us as a people. Their struggle is our struggle, and like Hinett and Castro, we must be resolute in our willingness to approach the challenges ahead together.
Although these men will be running a daunting 52.4 miles next week, the bigger trek toward reducing the stigma of mental illness in the veteran community still lies ahead – and like any large military operation, they can’t do it alone.
It’s up to us to make that run with them.
Image courtesy of Reuters