Courage under fire: Carson City soldier receives Purple Heart, Bronze Star
The U.S. Army considers Carson City’s Derek Castro a hero, recently awarding the Nevada National Guardsman the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals.
The citation accompanying the medals says: “Staff Sgt. Castro’s leadership, personal courage and dedication significantly contributed to the success of his team and the development of the Afghanistan National Police. He continuously exposed himself to danger to protect his fellow soldiers.”
Castro’s explanation is more simple.
“The soldier mentality is, ‘I can do it,'” he said. “We don’t really think about it, we just act. It’s muscle memory for us. When everything else fails, we don’t.”
Gov. Jim Gibbons will officially present Castro with the medals during a ceremony at the National Guard on Monday.
Castro, who graduated from Douglas High School in 1997, followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and joined the Army at 17 looking for “action and excitement.” After three years of active duty, he left the Army and joined the National Guard.
“I come from a military family so it was really easy for me to adjust to it,” he said.
At 30, his enthusiasm hasn’t waned, despite an injury in Afghanistan earlier this year when his truck was destroyed by an improvised explosive device. He suffers from back, neck and shoulder injuries as well as traumatic brain damage that affects his memory and balance.
“We knew what we were getting into when we went over there,” he said. “I don’t regret a day over there. It’s the price we pay for doing business.”
Along with his bravery during that attack on Feb. 12 – “(He) exited his vehicle, exposing himself to potential danger, in order to engage the attackers himself and prevent a follow-up attack on his crew and disabled vehicle” – the commendation letter lists two other incidents of valor during his nine-month deployment.
The first was on Jan. 24 when a suicide bomber detonated an explosion in a local bazaar, injuring dozens of civilians.
“Staff Sgt. Castro led a security detail while the wounded were triaged … (and) assisted special forces in providing lifesaving medical aid,” the letter said.
On April 24, his team was attacked by rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun fire.
After the initial attack, the enemy struck with a second round.
“Once the team had established fire superiority, Staff Sgt. Castro led a dismounted team in pursuit of the enemy. (He) led the team from the front, demonstrating great personal courage and dedication to his mission and his men.”
Castro’s mission in Afghanistan was a unique one. He was part of the first Nevada National Guard Embedded Training Team.
They were assigned to an Afghan army infantry unit as mentors and combat advisers. Unlike most U.S. forces assigned to the country, the unit lived on Afghan army bases.
He said they were in remote areas of the country, with only one another to rely on.
“Being so far out, it’s incredible. You know there’s no one coming to help you. It’s you and the guys next to you. It’s big boy rules,” he said. “When you realize there’s only 35 people and that’s it, and you’re getting reports of Taliban swarming all over the mountainside, the concept of losing does not exist.”
Being embedded with the Afghan army, he said, gave him an appreciation of the people and their culture. And he never doubted their loyalty.
“When these guys go down, you run out and help,” he said. “When we go down, they do the same.”
He does not confuse the citizens with the terrorists.
“I was attacked by however many, but there were whole villages that supported us,” he said. “After I was attacked, there’s no grudge against the people because you’re so intimately involved with them. You get to see the big picture.”
Although the rest of his unit returned to Nevada in August, he stayed behind in Fort Riley, Kan., for medical aid. He came back to Carson City last month.
He’s working full-time for the National Guard’s team that travels throughout the West training soldiers who are readying for deployment.
He cannot deploy again until he’s recovered. Doctors aren’t sure when that will be. But, Castro said, he will be healed when necessary.
“If they put together a team to go next summer, I’d be ready,” he said. “I’d find a way to be ready.”