From battlefields to Boston: How running brought two VETs together
"Initially it wasn't the pain -- it was more shock and horror," says former British soldier Karl Hinett as he recalls the moment when, as an Army private in Iraq in 2005, he became a human fireball.
He was a teenager whose waking nightmare was beamed around the world via an image that featured in multiple broadcast news bulletins and newspapers.
"After I got out of the Warrior armoured vehicle and was placed into the back of an ambulance, that's when the pain worryingly intensified. Everyone's burned their thumb or finger on the oven and it was a like that but so much worse, and all over my body."
Hinett suffered 37 percent burns in the riot in Basra; a petrol bomb was thrown from the crowd as his unit tried to calm things while Special Forces sought to free two undercover soldiers from a jail.
His survival chances were "touch and go" as he went into an induced coma for 10 days, but the 30-year-old is now comfortable opening up about that because of the mental help and care he received.
It has also spurred him to take on the Boston Marathon and London Marathon within a week, as a guide for another remarkable, blind, veteran.
Hinett and Ivan Castro, a first Lieutenant in the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division who doctors said would be dead within a week of a mortar attack near Baghdad in 2006, have taken on the challenge to raise money for Heads Together.
The charity, spearheaded by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, aims to end the stigma around mental health and is working with U.S. and UK organisations which help Army veterans.
As part of a bid to raise awareness, Castro and Hinett will make the first pitch at Fenway Park on Sunday, when the Red Sox take on the Tampa Bay Rays.
"The Boston Red Sox are as All American as apple pie and the 82nd Airborne Division. I am thrilled and honoured to stand on the mound alongside Karl," said Castro, 49, via email, as he looked forward to the baseball, Monday's race and the London Marathon on April 23.
"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. 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's backstory is hard to comprehend. After coming under fire from insurgents, the shrapnel damage done to the Special Forces officer left him recognisable only by his dog tag. He needed 12 emergency surgeries and more than 40 operations in total.
When he awoke from a coma he was blind and had temporarily lost his ability to move; running multiple marathons must have seemed a pipedream. Considering he had reconstructive ACL surgery in 2001, has had sciatic nerve pain from the mortar attack and suffered from an arthritic hip since, too, the Boston-London challenge (including the journey in between) shouldn't be underestimated.
Yet in the 10 years since the North Carolina resident ran his first 26.2 mile race after the mortar attack, in the Marine Corps Marathon, he has run at least 50 marathons, raced tandem bicycles, competed in triathlon and skied to the South Pole.
Unusually, Castro has remained an active soldier, too, even being promoted to the rank of Major, and mentored other wounded vets, taking on speaking engagements. He has admitted to enduring his own "dark moments" and both he and Hinett are keen that people don't look down on those who ask for help -- or consider all mental health issues the same.
"Personally, I came very close to having serious troubles mentally and I realised I needed to ask for help," said Hinett, for whom Boston will be the 150th official marathon or ultra-marathon, and London a 10th anniversary rerun of his first. "I couldn't deal with it on my own -- you can't be given help if you stay silent.
"Over time, the more I understood, the more I could see around me how it was affecting people, people that I love. The motivation to tackle this worldwide issue was easy."
Both soldiers have found running therapeutic in many ways, mental and physical, as they have recovered and formed new lives away from the battlefield.
They have both had to go through tough rehab programmes, too; Hinett, from Dudley, in England's West Midlands, has found running "empowering", and even qualified as a physical trainer after enduring 16 operations in five years, some of which lasted up to 12 hours.
We have a lot of common ground but the goal, which we share so passionately, makes it even easier.
- Former British soldier Karl Hinett
Given their running backgrounds, they should be able to complete both marathons, but because of the distance between their homes, have only trained together twice.
"I met Ivan last November and the mutual bond has made training so much easier," Hinett said. "We have kept in touch by email, stayed aware of each other's training schedules and constantly motivated each other.
"We feel very comfortable we'll be able to run two marathons together. There is a bond you have with anyone who has served, and that makes it so much easier.
"The key to success is communication and the conversation has been flowing pretty easily; it's not as difficult a task as it might appear. We have a lot of common ground but the goal, which we share so passionately, makes it even easier."