Running helps war widow heal

5:50 PM, May 31, 2012   |    comments
1st Lieutenants Dimitri and Katie del Castillo. (Courtesy Katie del Castillo)
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By 1st Lt. 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. Then the world came crashing down.

PHOTOS | Remembering 1st Lt. Dimitri del Castillo

Dimitri and I were West Point classmates. We met during summer training after our Plebe (freshman) year in 2006. As soon as I met him. I was immediately smitten, and I knew we would someday get married. He needed a little convincing, though. He was a stubborn 19-year-old who was too busy playing with guns and running around creating mischief to pay much attention to me. Eventually I won, as I knew I would, and we kissed in the woods near our barracks at 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 both grew up playing soccer, and we both switched to rugby in college. I grew up running one-mile fun runs, 5Ks and Atlanta's AJC Peachtree Road Race 10K every year. Dimitri was an amazing athlete, but had focused his attention on team sports rather than running.

West Point is a beautiful place; I seized every opportunity to run, typically between classes or in the evenings. At first, Dimitri would never run with me because he said he was already too skinny and that running would just make him even skinnier. I wore him down over the next three years of our courtship, and he finally realized that 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, Ga., and I was at home in the Atlanta area on leave. He came up and we ran the Peachtree. Dimitri ended up forgetting 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 runs together along the Hudson River and through the West Point housing areas, sometimes in sweltering summer heat and at other times in the freezing snow of winter. We argued on many runs, reconciled on plenty, and fell deeper in love on all of them.

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. He wanted nothing greater than to be an infantry platoon leader in combat. Over the next year, we went through the required branch qualifying schools. I had schooling at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina and he was in Ft. Benning. 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, so we met there every weekend. We ran the five-mile loop at Stone Mountain most weekends, and our love continued to grow.

I moved to my next duty station in Hawaii in December of 2009 and said goodbye to Dimitri as he started Ranger School. Once he graduated from Ranger School in May of 2010 he joined me in Hawaii, and we were both assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division out of Schofield Barracks.

Over Labor Day weekend of 2010 Dimitri and I traveled to Maui to enjoy the beautiful beaches for the four-day weekend. We had been dating for nearly four years by this point, and I was getting a bit impatient; I was beyond ready to get engaged and quickly get married. I was expecting a proposal during this weekend getaway, but figured it would happen 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 a leisurely 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 me more than anything and he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me, and then he asked me to marry him. I was the happiest girl in the world! I got engaged to the man of my dreams not perfectly dressed at a romantic dinner as I had expected, but in sweaty running clothes, yet it was absolutely perfect and totally us.

We continued to run as a couple over the next seven months in our tropical paradise. Mostly we would run around where we lived or in Waikiki and up Diamond Head, but frequently we would see each other in the morning during mandatory Physical Training at Schofield Barracks and run together. He would make me run harder and faster than 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, 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 had gotten hurt and we were only engaged, I would have had to stay in Afghanistan and would not have been permitted to take emergency leave. We decided to get married in a civil ceremony on December 29, 2010 over Christmas break as a preventative 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, near the border with Pakistan. As a human resources officer, I was constantly on my computer and had continuous knowledge of upcoming operations across the battlefield. I always knew when Dimitri was on a mission, and typically I would have a 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 war zone 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 outlet became running. During my 16-hour workdays, I would sneak away and go to the gym. It was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside and the threat of indirect fire looming in the back of my mind made running indoors (in a tent) the more appealing choice. I had always loathed the treadmill and couldn't stand running even two miles on it, but under the circumstances I decided to make myself fall in love with the dreaded treadmill, and fall in love I did. I'd run 4 to 8 miles daily on a treadmill that I had claimed as mine in the gym. I'd listen to my favorite songs and Dimitri's favorites and try to forget where I was. When I was running I could pretend I was somewhere peaceful and that Dimitri wasn't getting shot at or being targeted by insurgents in vehicle borne IEDs. It was the only time I was at peace. After each run I was ready to tackle the next 24 hours with a better and more optimistic attitude.

On June 25, 2011 our brigade conducted its first brigade-wide mission where the infantry Soldiers were air assaulted 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 weeks leading up to it. Dimitri would always reassure me when we would speak on the phone and tell me that everything would be fine and that he would see me as soon as the mission was complete. The Fourth of July was coming up, and I had organized a shadow Peachtree Road Race 10K at Jalalabad Airfield. The Atlanta Track Club sponsored the run, and I had boxes of T-shirts and banners sitting in my office waiting for the event. Dimitri was going to fly over to Jalalabad on July 3rd for duty, but stay and run the race with me on the 4th. I was living for that day; I would get to see my husband for the first 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 25th 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 many new Soldiers would be joining us soon. As soon as I turned the corner into his office, I saw the brigade commander and the heartbroken faces of many of my superiors, and I knew what had happened immediately. Dimitri had been shot and killed in a firefight that afternoon. He died with the radio in his hand calling for support for his Soldiers. I was immediately 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.

Dimitri was buried at West Point on July 8, 2011. Dimitri's Dad and I went for an early morning run the morning of the funeral. I showed him all of our favorite spots and told funny stories, and we reminisced about the happy times we had spent with Dimitri. The run was an important one, and it cleared our minds and prepared us for the hard day ahead of us. I buried my husband in the pouring rain that afternoon, next to one of our best friends, 1st Lt. Daren Hidalgo, who had been killed in Afghanistan in February. It made me sick that they were both gone from this physical world, but it was comforting knowing that these two good friends were keeping each other company in Heaven.

When I got back home, I continued running. Rather than returning me to Afghanistan, the Army sent me back to Hawaii. My parents decided that my brother would move back to Hawaii with me to keep me company so that I wouldn't be alone. We decided to run the Honolulu Marathon together on December 11, 2011 in honor of Dimitri. The training would be a good distraction and a positive place for me to focus my energy. Neither of us had run a marathon before. I'd never had much desire to, but suddenly I felt like there was nothing better for me to do. We got t-shirts made in honor of Dimitri and immediately started on a training program. Dimitri's friends called him "Del," so we ran as Team Del. My brother and I competed in a marathon readiness series consisting of a 25K race, a 30K race and a half marathon, culminating in the actual marathon.

The 25K started at the Kailua Beach Park on the Windward side of Oahu. Nathan and I did not plan to run together because he is faster than I am, so we said goodbye to each other 10 minutes before the race started. I was standing there stretching when I felt a hand on my back. I turned around and it was Kady Rodriguez-Hoffmaster, the wife of one of my West Point classmates who was currently deployed in the same company as Dimitri in Afghanistan. Her husband was there when Dimitri died, and he was injured on the same mission. Kady and I had exchanged a few Facebook messages previously, but we were just acquaintances rather than friends, so we hadn't made any plans to see each other once I returned to Hawaii. Neither of us was expecting to see each other and it was all a bit emotional. We were halfway in the middle of a conversation when the race started, so we started running together. A quick hello turned into us running the entire race together.

While we ran the 25K, Kady and I talked about Dimitri and the deployment, and we connected immediately because of our similar experiences and our shared love for running. Kady did not grow up as a runner, but when her husband deployed, she started running so that she could deal with her emotions and the stress. Strangely enough both of our first names are Kathleen, we are both extremely stubborn and competitive and we were wearing the same running shirt and GPS watch. We were destined to be instant friends. We ended up getting 4th and 5th in our age group, and immediately we knew that we had just become running buddies.

In the following weeks Kady and I trained for the 30K. We completed all of our long marathon training runs together and even got 2nd and 3rd in our 25-29 age group in the 30K. We talked about things as deep as the war in Afghanistan and as trivial as cooking and clothes, and I am so thankful that I have a new friend. Most of my friends are currently still in Afghanistan, and I had been really nervous about coming back to Hawaii without a support system in place to help me deal with the everyday emotions of tragically losing a spouse. Ironically, the way I found a friend was by doing the only thing that is keeping me going-running.

On our long runs, my friend and I think about Dimitri whenever we start feeling sorry for ourselves. We say his name as we pick up the pace at the end of our races. I think about all the happy times I had with him, and they make me smile and laugh. I also cry on many of my runs when a memory pops into my head or a song comes on that reminds me of Dimitri. Either way, I feel better when I'm done. I've managed to stay off of antidepressants, and I know it is because of running.

The morning of the Honolulu Marathon was full of excitement and emotion. I ran with Kady for the first half of the race, and somehow met up with my brother at mile 15 and ran the last 11.2 miles with him. We finished together with a time of 3 hours and 54 minutes. As I crossed the finish line, a wave of emotion came over me. I cried as my medal was placed over my head for several different reasons: I had finally finished the marathon that I trained so hard for; I had accomplished my goal of running a sub-four-hour marathon; I was sad that Dimitri wasn't there to congratulate me with a hug and a kiss; mostly, though, I cried because I felt Dimitri's presence and his love as I finished something I never would have started had I never lost him in the first place.

I am a runner. I grew up running, I fell in love while running, and learned to cope with a deployment while running. I have been emboldened to deal with the sorrow of losing my husband because I run. Running is not just a form of physical exercise for me, it is a necessary part of my life and has every possible emotion tied to it. When I run, I feel healthy, alive, happy and at peace with God. I feel Dimitri as the wind blows through my hair, and I imagine him matching me stride for stride.

The days I don't run are my darker days, and I can't seem to deal with the stress and sadness like I can on days that I do run. I know Dimitri is proud of me. He's proud that I have picked myself up and continued living life, he's proud that I have transformed myself into a serious runner while in the depths of despair, and he's proud that his pure, unwavering love prepared me to go through this beast called grief with grace, elegance and hope.

(By 1st Lt. Katie del Castillo, Special to 11Alive News)

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