Running Through Life

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Running Through Life: A Story of Love, War, Death and Resilience By: 1LT Katie del Castillo My story is a tragic one. I’m a 25 year-old U.S. Army officer, marathon runner and war widow. I lost the love of my life, Dimitri, while we were both deployed to Eastern Afghanistan in June of 2011. We were on top of the world when we left for Afghanistan—we were recent graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, newlyweds and had just spent 10 months living in Hawaii before we deployed
  Running Through Life: A Story of Love, War, Death and ResilienceBy: 1LT Katie del Castillo   My story is a tragic one. I’ m a 25 year-old U.S. Army officer, marathon runner and war widow. I lost the love of my life, Dimitri, while we were both deployed to Eastern Afghanistan in June of 2011. We were on top of the worldwhen we left for Afghanistan  —  we were recent graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, newly-weds and had just spent 10 months living in Hawaii before we deployed. Then the world came crashing down.Dimitri and I were West Point classmates. We met during summer training after our Plebe (freshman) year in2006. As soon as I met him I was immediately smitten, and I knew we would someday get married. He needed a littleconvincing, though. He was a stubborn 19 year-old who was too busy playing with guns and running around creatingmischief to pay much attention to me. Eventually I won, as I knew I would, and we kissed in the woods near our barracksat a training area at West Point. So began our unconventional love story.Dimitri was a natural athlete. Built like a Greek God, he had a beautiful face and a gregarious personality, and was good at everything. I was still recovering from my “freshman fifteen ,” but for some reason he liked me. We bothgrew up playing soccer, and we both switched to rugby in college. I grew up running one-mile fun runs, 5Ks and Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race 10K every year. Dimitri was an amazing athlete, but had focused his attention on teamsports rather than running.West Point is a beautiful place; I seized every opportunity to run, typically between classes or in the evenings. Atfirst, Dimitri would never run with me because he said he was already too skinny and that running would just make himeven skinnier. I wore him down over the next three years of our courtship, and he finally realized tha t running wasn’t just an after-practice punishment for not trying hard enough.The summer of 2008  —  our last West Point summer  —  he was at Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Iwas at home in the Atlanta area on leave. He came up and we ran Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race. Dimitri ended upforgetting his running shoes at Ft. Benning and had to run in my grandfather ’s fifteen year old Rockport walking shoes.This made for a hilarious experience: every time Dimitri would dramatically zip in and out to pass people he would loudly chant “I rock my Rockports!” and I would have to chase behind him to catch up. By the end of the race his feet were killing him, but we had so much fun laughing and running that he didn’t care. In New York, we enjoyed many runstogether along the Hudson River and through the West Point housing areas, sometimes in sweltering summer heat and atother times in the freezing snow of winter. We argued on many runs, reconciled on plenty, and fell deeper in love on allof them. After the Peachtree Road Race in 2008. Dimitri had ditched the old walking shoes by this point. (From theleft, my brother, Nathan, Dimitri, and me.)  We graduated from West Point in May of 2009 and were both commissioned as second lieutenants in the Army.Being brave, Dimitri chose Infantry; I chose the much safer human resources branch of Adjutant General Corps. Hewanted nothing greater than to be an infantry platoon leader in combat. Over the next year we went through the requiredbranch qualifying schools and Dimitri. I had schooling at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina and he was in Ft. Benning, Georgia.Dimitri, always an overachiever, went above and beyond and graduated from the U.S. Army Ranger School.My parents lived halfway between Ft. Benning and Ft. Jackson, in Conyers, Georgia, so we met there everyweekend. We ran the five-mile loop at Stone Mountain most weekends, and our love continued to grow. I moved to mynext duty station in Hawaii in December of 2009 and said goodbye to Dimitri as he started Ranger School. Once hegraduated from Ranger School in May of 2010 he joined me in Hawaii, and we were both assigned to the 3 rd BrigadeCombat Team, 25 th Infantry Division out of Schofield Barracks. Graduation Day at West Point in May 2009.  Over Labor Day weekend of 2010 Dimitri and I traveled to Maui to enjoy the beautiful beaches for the four-dayweekend. We had been dating for nearly four years by this point, and I was getting a bit impatient; I was beyond ready toget engaged and quickly get married. I was expecting a proposal during this weekend getaway, but figured it wouldhappen during a romantic dinner one night.The first full morning we were there, Dimitri and I went for a jog on the walkway along the ocean. It was aleisurely jog, and we stopped to take pictures of the beautiful scenery and pretty hotels before running back to our hotel.As we ended the run back at our hotel I saw a table set on the lawn with two chairs, a beautiful breakfast, flowers,champagne, and a waiter standing by to serve some lucky couple. Having no idea that it was for us, I jokingly said, “ Ooooh, a romantic breakfast! I want a romantic breakfast! ” Dimitri took my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “ You deserve a romantic breakfast.” He led me over to the table next to the ocean, got down on one knee, told me he loved memore than anything, and that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. Then he asked me to marry him. I was thehappiest girl in the world! I got engaged to the man of my dreams not perfectly dressed at a romantic dinner as I hadexpected, but in sweaty running clothes, yet it was absolutely perfect and totally us.    Our engagement breakfast after a run in Maui.  We continued to run as a couple over the next seven months in our tropical paradise. Mostly we would runaround where we lived or in Waikiki and up Diamond Head, but frequently we would see each other in the morningduring mandatory Physical Training at Schofield Barracks and run together. He would make me run harder and fasterthan I thought I could, and I loved him for it.Our dream was to have a big church wedding,  but knew we wouldn’t be able to plan it before we deployed. We set our wedding date for July 7 th , 2012 after our deployment to Afghanistan was over. The Army’s view on marriage is very black and white. You are either a married Soldier, or you are a single Soldier, there is no in-between. If Dimitri hadgotten hurt and we were only engaged, I would have had to stay in Afghanistan and would not have been permitted to takeemergency leave. We decided to get married in a civil ceremony on December 29, 2010 over Christmas break as apreventative measure in case anything happened to either of us. Thank goodness we did.In April of 2011 we both deployed to Eastern Afghanistan. I was stationed at Forward Operation Base (FOB)Fenty at Jalalabad Airfield, and Dimitri was located farther north in the mountains of Kunar Province at FOB Joyce, nearthe border with Pakistan. As a human resources officer I was constantly on my computer and had continuous knowledgeof upcoming operations across the battlefield. I always knew when Dimitri was on a mission, and typically I would havea good idea of where he was. I sat though daily briefings about the insurgent attacks from the previous 24 hours, and always prayed it wasn’t Dimitri’s unit that had been attacked. There was no hiding from the fact that we were in a warzone and my husband was in harm’ s way.Dimitri was an Infantry platoon leader, and I was terrified of the missions that he was going on. My only outletbecame running. During my 16-hour workdays I would sneak away and go to the gym. It was over 100 degreesFahrenheit outside and the threat of indirect fire looming in the back of my mind made running indoors (in a tent) themore appealing choice . I had always loathed the treadmill, and couldn’t stand running even two miles on it, but under thecircumstances I decided to make myself fall in love with the dreaded treadmill, and fall in love I did. I’ d run 4 to 8 milesdaily on a treadmill that I had claimed as mine in the gym. I’d listen to my favorite songs and   Dimitri’s favorite s and tryto forget where I was. When I was running I could pretend I was somewhere peaceful and that Dimitri wasn’t gettin g shotat or being targeted by insurgents in vehicle borne IEDs. It was the only time I was at peace. After each run I was readyto tackle the next twenty-four hours with a better and more optimistic attitude.    At FOB Joyce in Afghanistan in May 2011. One of only two times I saw him while we were deployed. On June 25, 2011 our brigade conducted its first brigade-wide mission where the infantry Soldiers were airassaulted high into the mountains to seek and destroy the insurgents in their stronghold. Dimitri’s company was the main effort , and Dimitri’s platoon was the main effort of the company . I had been nervous about this mission for the weeksleading up to it. Dimitri would always reassure me when we would speak on the phone and tell me that everything wouldbe fine and that he would see me as soon as the mission was complete. The Fourth of July was coming up, and I hadorganized a shadow Peachtree Road Race 10K at Jalalabad Airfield. The Atlanta Track Club sponsored the run, and I hadboxes of t-shirts and banners sitting in my office waiting for the event. Dimitri was going to fly over to Jalalabad on July3 rd for duty, but stay and run the race with me on the 4 th . I was living for that day; I would get to see my husband for thefirst time in a month and we would get to run a race together. I focused my mind on looking forward to the race so that I wouldn’t worry about this mission.On June 25 th my worst nightmare came true. That evening I was called into my battalion commander’s office for  what I thought was just a regular discussion about the number of Soldiers we had deployed from our unit and how manynew Soldiers would be joining us soon. As soon as I turned the corner into his office I saw the brigade commander andthe heartbroken faces of many of my superiors and I knew what had happened immediately. Dimitri had been shot andkilled in a firefight that afternoon. He died with the radio in his hand calling for support for his Soldiers. I wasimmediately flown out of Afghanistan back home to Georgia. I spent two weeks in a fog and I really don’t remember  much because I was in such shock.
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