Over 100 hours on the operating table. Over 12 months confined to a hospital bed. Over 50 surgeries. Major Ivan Castro and Karl Hinett can recite some grim figures when recounting their catastrophic injuries. But these two courageous men choose to focus on another number – combined they have completed over 200 marathons since beginning their inspirational recoveries.  Between them, they’ve also taken on extreme challenges, including climbing Mount Everest and running through the Amazon jungle.

AIG employees had the opportunity to hear their remarkable stories at an event hosted by the New York Chapter of the AIG Veterans Leadership Network and The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry.

“I am thankful to be standing here today,” Ivan began, before describing the events leading to the injuries he suffered while serving in Iraq. “September 2, 2006, was quite literally the darkest day of my life. Mortar shells took my men, took my eyes, took my life as I knew it.” As he tried to recover in the hospital, Ivan overheard a conversation between doctors about an upcoming Marine Corps marathon. In that moment, he made up his mind that he would run in that marathon, though at that point he “could barely get out of bed, let alone walk.”

After a year of intense training and support, Ivan lined up at the start of the race among 15,000 able-bodied runners, and four hours and 16 minutes later, crossed the finish line. “Running became who I was, a goal to achieve, a way to explain that blindness wasn’t the end of the world.”

Karl was also severely wounded in Iraq. It was his first deployment as a Private in the British Army, “thinking I was invincible” and “doing what I was trained to do” – being in charge of a 26-ton tank weapons system. He was trying to extract two undercover soldiers when in “a split second,” he was “completely drenched in what I thought was water” but turned out to be petrol.

After suffering burns to over 37 percent of his body, Karl was put in an induced coma, and later endured numerous surgeries and painful skin grafts. Throughout a “very slow and drawn out” healing process, he felt that “if I could move forward, literally move forward,” then his recovery would move forward as well. He decided to run in 100 marathons – “a nice round number” – and despite questioning what he was getting himself into, told himself, “Karl, one step forward, and you’ll be fine.”

Both veterans speak with great emotion about the people who have supported them – family, friends, the military, and hospital staff. They, in turn, have devoted themselves to helping others. Among their many projects, Ivan led wounded veterans on a trek to the South Pole. Karl set up a wounded veterans running club with a grant from The Royal Foundation’s Endeavour Fund (AIG is the fund’s lead corporate partner) and was involved in launching an AIG Running Club in London this year.

“These men are extraordinary,” commented attendee Jennifer Stonitsch, Associate General Counsel, U.S. Regulatory Commercial, as she described the impact on the AIG audience. “Hearing Major Ivan Castro and Karl Hinett speak was one of the more meaningful events I’ve participated in.”

In 2017, Karl and Ivan will run side by side, tackling the Boston Marathon and the London Marathon the week of April 17 – “yes,” Karl pointed out, “two marathons in one week” – to help The Royal Foundation’s Heads Together campaign, and programs that support the mental well-being of veterans in the U.S. and UK. The campaign aims to change the conversation on mental health, and end the shame and stigma that surround it. 

Concluded Ivan, “We want to show the world that as veterans with physical and mental injuries, we are not defined by our injuries. We are defined by the steps we take forward.”