NANGARHAR PROVENCE, Afghanistan — On June 24, Army 1st Lt. Dimitri Del Castillo was 24 years old, a newlywed, and just starting his career as an infantry officer.
On June 25th, the 2009 West Point graduate was killed when his unit came under small arms fire in the Watahpur District of Kunar Province, Afghanistan.
Del Castillo was on patrol during a massive counter insurgency operation in the mountains of Kunar Province when his unit was attacked, sparking the intense firefight.
The news of the firefight reached his bride, Army 1st Lt. Kathleen Pulliam, just minutes after Del Castillo’s death. Pulliam was a few miles away at a forward operating base in Jalalabad. The couple had been assigned to different operating bases about 30 minutes apart by helicopter.
Del Castillo, a rifle platoon leader, was on the radio trying to coordinate help for his unit when he was mortally wounded, said retired Lt. Col. Nate Pulliam of Conyers, Ga., his father-in-law.
“He continued talking on the radio to get support,” the elder Pulliam said. “He died soon after getting hit, while remaining on the radio attempting to get fire support for the attack coming from multiple directions.”
Nate Pulliam said he was told 28 other soldiers were wounded in the attack. Also killed was Marine Sgt. Marlon E. Myrie of Jacksonville, N.C., according to military reports.
A budding romance
Kathleen Pulliam, or Katie as her friends know her, met Del Castillo during summer training after their freshman year at West Point. The U.S. Military 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,” said Army 1st Lt. Theresa Todd of Norman, one of Pulliam’s friends. Todd also is deployed to an outpost in Kandahar Province.
“Of course there were so many male cadets who wanted to date Katie,” Todd said. “I’m sure Dimitri enjoyed winning the competition.”
Things didn’t change for the two and their feelings only grew stronger despite the grueling academic curriculum, mandatory events and rugby practices at West Point.
Del Castillo spent the couple’s junior year of school studying abroad in Spain, but the distance only fortified the ever-growing bond the two shared. Pulliam would start every day in New York with a call from Spain.
At the end of their time at West Point, just before graduation, Todd sat with Pulliam at a restaurant in nearby Central Valley, N.Y., where they talked about their futures.
“Katie wanted to be with Dimitri,” Todd said. “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 to be assigned to Fort Bragg, N.C., with the hopes of a deployment to Afghanistan.
“He was very much at peace doing what he was doing,” said his father, Carlos Del Castillo of Tampa, Fla. “He knew he was in God’s hands and not worried. He wasn’t worried.”
The elder Del Castillo said his son knew the risk, but wanted to serve his country. Dimitri was inspired by his uncle who also was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.
His son wanted to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, Carlos Del Castillo said.
“He earned his Airborne patch at the Academy and then, after he graduated, went on to officer training school through the Army and then on to Ranger school and became a Ranger.”
While Del Castillo went to Fort Bragg, Pulliam was to be assigned to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.
A few months later, the couple were able to have Del Castillo reassigned to Hawaii where they started making plans for a future together.
“I remember Katie and Dimitri took a weekend trip to Maui where Dimitri proposed during their breakfast on the beach,” Army 1st Lt. Denise Quigley said.
Quigley of Junction City, Kan., is a classmate and friend of the couple, also serving in Afghanistan with Pulliam. She said the two started planning a formal church wedding in Tampa to take place after their tours in Afghanistan, but were legally married at City Hall before leaving for their duty bases.
Not only proud of her husband and the service to her country, Pulliam was extremely honored to be part of the dual military population (both husband and wife actively serving in the military), as she said recently.
“I work late nights with the threat of indirect fire looming in the back of my mind. 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 might have had with Del Castillo.
She has only the memories of the life they shared together before the war to help her through the painful days.
Because of the global war on terror, dealing with the loss of friends and classmates has been an unfortunately growing occurrence, as all graduates of West Point are required to serve a five-year term in the Army upon graduation.
“I remember at school when they’d announce the deaths of the graduates killed in combat,” Todd said. “There was a time in 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,” Todd said. “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 was on her way back to the United States, where she will make arrangements for his memorial.
They are two of the thousands of brave Americans forever changed because they chose to serve a greater cause.
“The last time I saw my husband was from a helicopter after a memorial ceremony for a fallen soldier in his battalion.
“As the helicopter lifted off, he waved and waved until he became so small that I couldn’t see him anymore — yet he kept waving.
“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 long visit. The vision of him waving will stick with me as long as I live.”
Maj. David W. Eastburn is an Army public affairs officer associated with the 3rd BCT, 25th Infantry Division (Light) deployed in Afghanistan. Howard Altman, a reporter for The Tampa Tribune, and Tammie Fields, a reporter with WTSP 10 News in Tampa, contributed to this report.