A Green Beret’s Story of Extraordinary Courage
Ivan Castro and Jim DeFelice
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2016, 304 pages
Book Review published on: September 8, 2017
This is the inspiring true story of Maj. Ivan Castro, who was blinded and maimed from an explosion in Iraq, and his triumphant recovery—with help from the Boston Marathon. Castro deployed and fought in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but his most difficult battle began in a small room at Walter Reed Medical Center where he awoke after a mortar strike to find his world a dark place. He tells his remarkable story of depression and resilience in Fighting Blind: A Green Beret’s Story of Extraordinary Courage. Coauthored with best-selling writer Jim DeFelice (American Sniper), this book shows us the sublime value of the simple things in overcoming trauma and depression: exercise, social support, and goals.
During his hospital recovery, this Ranger-qualified Green Beret would replay the attack in his mind—each time wishing it ended in death. One day after his wife finished pushing the listless Castro around the hospital ward she snapped, “What’s wrong with you? There are many soldiers without limbs here wishing they had your injuries.” Overcome with shame, Castro, a thirty-five-year-old first lieutenant, promised, “I’m going to turn it around, Evelyn.” And the way he did invites us to reexamine our paradigms for supporting wounded warriors.
Exercise. When Castro discovered he was on antidepressant medication, he quit them cold saying, “I’m blind, not clinically depressed.” Instead of medication, he began to run. Enlisting friends who he would tether himself to with a shoestring, He started training for the Marine Corps Marathon. Castro writes, “What kept me alive was my workouts ... Running was my salvation.” He seemed to know intuitively what research scientists had recently discovered. In 1999, a randomized control trial showed that adults who exercised for forty-five minutes, three times a week improved as much as those prescribed Zoloft.1 A 2011 study looked at 127 patients who experienced no improvement with antidepressants and found that exercise relieved the symptoms in 30 percent of them—a result as good as or better than drugs.2 The relationship between physical and mental fitness is, perhaps, greater than we realize.
Social Support. The social support of regular relationships also played a significant role in Castro’s recovery and well-being. Rather than accepting an assignment to the Warrior Transition Unit, he fought to stay assigned to his command. He served as an executive officer for a Special Forces Headquarters Company, excelling as a Special Forces recruiter, and was eventually selected for the rank of major. Staying in these units kept him exposed to the most powerful prescription against mental illness available—friendships. Most significantly, Castro’s wife quit her job to be by his side and was a constant source of encouragement without which, he writes, “I’d be dead.”
Goals. This story also illustrates the correlation between the pursuit of goals and personal resilience. When Castro was at his lowest, he set an ambitious goal: “I could barely get out of bed, let alone walk, but in one year I was going to run a marathon. Blind.” This objective gave him purpose. It gave him a reason to get out of bed. Castro now had something to work toward that was in his control. His story shows that participating in a challenging but doable activity is as important to well-being as its attainment. As Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “An aim in life is the only fortune worth finding.”
The power of this story, however, was diminished a bit by an overuse of military jargon and, in places, impolite language. It was not uncommon for the authors to use verbiage such as “going full blast,” “gun-ho,” and “stuff hit the fan.” While Army idioms can be overlooked, some readers might be put-off by language such as, “take a leak,” “my sperm count was good,” and sensual descriptions of his former wife.
On the whole, Fighting Blind is worth the attention of anyone struggling with depression and those professionals who help soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines overcome adversity. Commanders will find Castro’s story a fascinating case study that challenges traditional models of wounded warrior care and offers, in its place, a rudimentary framework for providing real help. Fighting Blind is an excellent addition to the growing body of resiliency literature that says we need not be victims of our circumstances.
Book Review written by: Chaplain (Major) Joshua J. Gilliam, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
- James A. Blumenthal et al., “Effects of Exercise Training on Older Patients with Major Depression,” Archives of Internal Medicine 159, no. 19 (October 1999): 2349-56, accessed 5 September 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10547175.
- Madhukar H. Trivedi et al., “Exercise as an Augmentation Treatment for Nonremitted Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized, Parallel Dose Comparison,” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 72, no. 5 (May 2011): 677-84, accessed 5 September 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21658349.