News: Love, life and the price of independence
Story by Maj. David Eastburn
NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – As Americans prepare to celebrate the country’s independence, July 4, they often take time to think about the men and women who protect and defend that independence — the men and women who lay down their lives and their loved ones who sacrifice along with them.
Perhaps no one understands that sacrifice better than the friends and family of U.S. Army 1st Lt. Dimitri Del Castillo.
A 2009 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Del Castillo died June 25 when his unit, the Hawaii-based 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, part of 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Task Force Bronco, conducted a massive counter-insurgency operation in the Watahpur District of Kunar province, Afghanistan.
He was just 24 years old, a newlywed and just starting his career as an infantryman.
The news reached his bride just minutes after his death. She was just a few miles away at a forward operating base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Kathleen Pulliam, or Katie as her friends know her, met Del Castillo during summer training after their Plebe (freshman) year at West Point. The academy wasn’t the most conventional place to start their story, but there was nothing conventional about them.
“Katie liked Dimitri instantly, but I remember her playing hard to get,” one of Pulliam’s friends, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Theresa Todd, executive officer of Company E, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, Task Force Chosin, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, TF Spartans, of Norman, Okla., said from an outpost in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. “Of course there were so many male cadets that wanted to date Katie, I’m sure Dimitri enjoyed winning the competition.”
Things didn’t change for the two, and their feelings only grew stronger despite the gruelling academic curriculum, mandatory events and rugby practices at West Point.
Del Castillo spent the couple’s Cow (junior) year of school studying abroad in Spain, but the distance only fortified the ever-growing bond the two shared, Pulliam said. She started every day in New York with a call from Spain.
Just before graduation, Todd sat with Pulliam at a restaurant in nearby Central Valley, N.Y., where they talked about their future.
“Katie wanted to be with Dimitri,” said Todd. “She wanted to fulfill her five-year commitment to the Army and take care of Dimitri and their kids that she dreamed of having.”
Upon graduation, Del Castillo attended the Army’s Ranger School and was assigned to Fort Bragg, N.C., with the hopes of a deployment to Afghanistan while Pulliam was assigned to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.
A few months later, Del Castillo was reassigned to Hawaii where the couple started making plans for their future together.
“I remember Katie and Dimitri took a weekend trip to Maui where Dimitri proposed during their breakfast on the beach,” recalled U.S. Army 1st Lt. Denise Quigley, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, TF Bayonet, 3rd BCT, 25th Inf. Div., TF Bronco, of Junction City, Kan. A classmate and friend of the couple, also serving in Afghanistan with Pulliam, Quigley explained the two started planning their wedding for after their tours in Afghanistan but were legally married prior to leaving.
Not only proud of her husband and the service to her country, Pulliam recently wrote how she was extremely honored to be part of the dual-military population (both husband and wife actively serving in the military).
“I work late nights with the threat of indirect fire looming in the back of my mind,” she wrote. “I dream of the day when my husband and I can settle down and I can start having children, but for now that dream is on hold. The Army is about sacrifice, and I know that I am beyond blessed to be able to deploy with my husband.”
Pulliam will never know the future she may have had with Del Castillo. She only has the memories of the life they shared together before the deployment to help her through these painful days.
Because of the Global War on Terror, dealing with the loss of friends and classmates has been an unfortunately growing occurrence for West Point graduates; all are required to serve a five-year term in the Army.
“I remember at school when they’d announce the deaths of the graduates killed in combat,” said Todd. “There was a time our Yuk (sophomore) year where we were observing moments of silence what seemed like every other day. Now, they’re doing moments of silence for our class, for our friends, for the people that we love. West Point taught us everything about our future in the Army except for the most important thing we need to know - we will never be the same.”
Within hours of being notified of Del Castillo’s passing, Pulliam departed for the United States where she will spend the next several days preparing for the arrival of his body and making arrangements for his memorial.
“The last time I saw my husband was from a helicopter after a memorial ceremony for a fallen soldier in his battalion,” Pulliam explained. “As the helicopter lifted off, he waved and waved until he became so small that I couldn’t see him anymore. Suddenly, my view changed to mud huts, mountains and a giant meandering river. I was gone so quickly, left only with the memories of a four-hour visit. The vision of him waving will stick with me as long as I live.”