Unsung Hero: Nelson Castillo

by Natalie Wall [ Mine Action Information Center ]

For more than a decade, Nelson Castillo has been an integral part of the mine-action community in Ecuador. The founder of two disabled veterans organizations, la Asociación de Excombatientes Discapacitados Alto Cenepa and Fundación Futuro, he has been dedicated to alleviating the conditions faced by mine victims and other disabled military personnel, coordinating mine awareness campaigns and, in general, working to eradicate the devastating impact of anti-personnel mines.

Caption:  Nelson Castillo.
Nelson Castillo.
All photos courtesy of Nelson Castillo

It is almost impossible not to be in awe of a person like Nelson Castillo. His ability to surmount adversity, his strong character and his unbreakable desire to help others are some of the traits that make Castillo a hero in the field of mine action. After more than 15 years of military service, Castillo lost both legs in a landmine accident while defending his country during the 1995 Alto Cenepa border conflict between Peru and Ecuador.

“[I became] very interested in working to save lives,” says Castillo. One of his first jobs in the mine-action community was dedicated to assisting and retraining mine victims by creating data-processing training centers; however, this was not the first thought that crossed Castillo’s mind when the unfortunate incident changed his life forever on 28 February 1995.

“After the mine explosion, and upon seeing myself without my legs and with an intense and unbearable pain, the first thought that crossed my mind was that I was of no use at all,” Castillo says. “I wanted to die, to kill myself with my own weapon, but I could not do this because the explosion threw my weapon out of reach.” Thankfully, he went on to recover and then put his efforts into helping others.

Throughout his 12 years in the mine-action community, Castillo’s hard work and dedication have not gone unnoticed. His character is admired by many. “[He has] an unbreakable will to do well and help others,” says Guillermo Leal, Regional Coordinator for the Organization of American States Program for Comprehensive Action Against Anti-Personnel Mines.

“In 1998, I created la Asociación de Excombatientes Discapacitados Alto Cenepa,” Castillo says. The group is made up of people with disabilities incurred during military service. Castillo was the President of the Asociación de Excombatientes for four years. Then in 2000, Castillo created the Fundación Futuro and served two years as its President. “In these organizations, I worked to obtain a better quality of life for the survivors of anti-personnel mines,” said Castillo.

During this time, Castillo also developed the Héroes del Cenepa data-processing training course, which instructs disabled military personnel in computer programming. With the help of Microsoft, IBM and the Ecuadorian Army, this course has given disabled military veterans an opportunity to stay employed. It’s an excellent program, taught at the Army’s university, La Escuela Superior Politécnica del Ejército, he says.

Castillo speaks to soldiers about his experiences.Castillo speaks to soldiers about his experiences.

Many soldiers have a hard time adjusting to the new tasks given to them through the training and some find it hard to realize that they are still an asset to society, even if they have been severely injured. “It [is] difficult to convince the soldiers affected by mines to change their rifle to a computer,” Castillo says, adding, “Nevertheless, we … convince them that they lost part of their body, not their mind.”

The training center has surpassed initial expectations. According to Castillo, as of 28 November 2008, approximately 100,000 people have been trained in the data-processing course. This training has allowed soldiers to expand the scope of their studies and has produced many civil and commercial engineers as well as licensed technicians in orthotics and prosthesis.

“Knowing his strong character for helping others and his untamable spirit of rising above all, [Castillo] was offered the opportunity of participating in the Program for Comprehensive Action against Anti-personnel Mines in Ecuador,” Leal says.

Presently, in this capacity, Castillo is in charge of the coordination of transportation, lodging, nutrition, medical attention, rehabilitation—both physical and psychological—and social integration for mine victims. He is also in charge of designing communication strategies and developing awareness campaigns about anti-personnel mines. “I coordinate the campaigns of prevention with all the populations affected by the mines: local authorities, mass media, community leaders, schools and the general population,” says Castillo. “Also, I coordinate the assistance to the victims of anti-personnel mines.”

With his indestructible will, not even going into extremely dangerous and unknown land could stop Castillo from carrying the message of mine-risk prevention. Castillo says his proudest accomplishments are “the work carried out in the communities of the east in the jungle, and the work with the mine victims.” Overcoming the challenges of traveling to the jungle as a double-amputee makes an impression on the MRE participants.

Castillo plans to continue working in mike-risk education and hopes not to only save lives, but also to end all injury from these munitions. He recommends that all people interested in mine action get involved in the work. “To serve others is very gratifying,” he says.

For the past 12 years Castillo’s work and devotion to others has helped reduce the level of risk by raising awareness. He has provided personal and professional support to many permanently disabled soldiers, and his achievements are shown through the organizations he has worked with, the people he has touched and the innumerable lives he has saved. Castillo is an asset to many in the mine-action community.

“In spite of all difficulties, Castillo has been able to succeed and make himself an example to others,” Orozco adds. “[I hope to see his] life full of achievement, but above all, happiness.”

Castillo says he is very grateful to the Organization of American States for giving him his newest opportunity, that of working in the AICMA to rid the world of landmines, and to the Ecuador Army and others who have believed in his abilities. These opportunities have allowed him a productive and fulfilling life. He hopes to continue to positively influence landmine victims.

“The quality of life of the anti-personnel mines victims’ needs improvement. [I want] the work that is carried out to be done with great humanity and with a lot of love to the victims that have suffered from the consequences of the explosions from anti-personnel mines,” he says. “The survivors of mines are very special people.”

And he would know; he is one. JMA icon

Biography

Wall HeadshotNatalie Wall joined The Journal of ERW and Mine Action as an Editorial Assistant in November 2007. She is a junior at James Madison University. Natalie is a media arts and design major and Photo Director for the JMU yearbook, The Bluestone.

Endnotes

  1. Information for this article was received via e-mail correspondence with Nelson Castillo. 3 April 2008.
  2. Additional information for this article was received via e-mail correspondence with Guillermo Leal. 18 February 2008.
  3. Further information for this article was received via e-mail correspondence with Carlos Orozco. 8 February 2008.

Contact Information

Natalie Wall
Editorial Assistant
The Journal of ERW and Mine Action
Mine Action Information Center
Center for International Stabilization and Recovery
James Madison University
E-mail: maic@jmu.edu

Nelson Castillo
Funcionario de Campañas de Educación y Asistencia a Víctimas de Minas Antipersonal AICMA-EC / OEA Tomas Bermur N39-337 y Francisco Urrutia Edificio Erika, PB
Quito / Ecuador
Tel: +593 2 245 7655
Fax: +593 2 292 2276
E-mail: ncastillo@aicma-ec.org or ncastillo1@hotmail.com

Guillermo Ernesto Leal
Coordinator Regional para Sur America
AICMA Colombia
Carrera 10 #27-51 Interior 150
Oficina 1801
Bogota / Colombia
Tel: +011 57 1 283 5225
Fax: +011 57 1 282 6162
E-mail:  gleal@aicma-ec.org
Web site: http://www.aicma-ec.org

Carlos Orozco
National Coordinator, Mine Action Program (PADCA)
Organization of American States
Reparto El Carmen De la Iglesia 1C 1/2 abajo
Frente a la Embajada de Francia
Managua / Nicaragua
Tel: +505 260 0584
Fax: +505 266 0584
E-mail: corozco@oas.org
Web site: http://www.oeadesminado.org.ni