Three Years Later

Hi everyone.  Today is one of those days where my post is going to be a bit more personal than normal.  Three years ago today, on June 25, 2011, my husband and love of my life, Dimitri, was killed in combat in Afghanistan.  I can’t stop that day from playing over and over again in my head, so I figured if I finally put it to words I may be able to free the memories from my head.  So if you bear with me, here is a what June 24-26, 2011 was like for me.
June 24th:  I knew the mission was going to be bad.  It was a brigade-level mission, with all battlions involved somehow.  My battalion leadership had a battle update brief in the late morning/early afternoon of the 24th, and Operation Hammer Down was the main topic of discussion.  I knew that Dimitri’s unit was going to be the main effort, and hearing all the details about what was supposed to happen made me sick to my stomach, and I had to leave the meeting because I started crying.  A major in my unit came into my office afterwards and told me that I needed to make myself more calloused, because this was war and I can’t act like that, and that I need to disassociate my personal life from the mission.  Easy for him to say because his spouse was not about to be dropped off in a hornet’s nest of insurgents in the mountains of Afghanistan.
A little while later I finally got to talk to Dimitri.  He was extremely busy with the last minute planning and coordination for the mission.  We got to talk for just a few minutes before another major came into my office, who absolutely had to have is ORB (officer record brief) updated right then and there.  I remember being so angry that he thought his duty assignments on a piece of paper was more important than me saying goodbye to Dimitri.  I got off the phone and helped him, and prayed that I would be able to talk to Dimitri again to say a proper “see you later” (we hated saying “goodbye”).  He called me a little while later and we got to talk for a few more minutes, but then a Soldier came and got him because the Afghan forces that were supposed to go on the mission with his platoon showed up at a different entrance of the FOB and everything got confused.  He had to hang up quickly to take care of the link up, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to speak to him again.  Luckily he called back that night right before they left on the mission.  I remember wanting to stay on the phone with him forever.  I knew that if we hung up and if he left that something bad would happen.  He reassured me that everything would be fine.
June 25th:  I woke up with a pit in my stomach.  My classmate, friend, and Afghanistan roommate Niki was starting her trip back to the US for her block leave, so I was alone in my room.  I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, or if I even ate breakfast, because I likely wasn’t hungry because I was so anxious.  My friend Theresa and I (she was also in Afghanistan at the time) emailed back a forth a little bit.  She went through some really terrible things while she was there, and she understood why I was so anxious.  I turned in my SIPR (secret) computer that day because I needed work done on that one and well as my NIPR (normal) computer, but figured I would turn the SIPR one in so that in case there were casualty reports I wouldn’t see them.  I kept going downstairs to the S-3 TOC (tactical operations center) where I could track what was going on.  It all seemed surreal.  I kept going down there to try to find out what was going on, but eventually to told me I couldn’t come downstairs anymore because I was going to make myself crazy.  As the day progressed I found out that Dimitri’s company had sustained casualties.  I knew that some had been injured and one had been killed.  The likelyhood of it being Dimitri was so small though, that I tried to comfort myself using probability and statistics.  I wrote my dad an email saying that I knew something bad was going on.  I couldn’t sit still.  I couldn’t focus on anything.  As the evening progressed I went over to the brigade headquarters (there was an actual bathroom in the building, and it was much closer than the bathroom trailers we were supposed to use).  As I entered the building I saw the brigade S-1 (personnel officer) talking to my battalion commander.  They looked at me with this pity in their eyes that I will never forget.  Normally they would joke around with me whenever I saw them, but they didn’t this time.  I thought that was odd, but continued on towards the bathroom and then went back to my office.  I had no interest in eating dinner, but a captain I worked with made me leave the office and go to the dining facility with her.  I had no appetite at all, but I hadn’t really eaten all day so I toasted a bagel and was half-heartedly nibbling on it when my battalion command sergeant major showed up.  He told me that the battalion commander found something wrong with out personnel accountability numbers (one of my many jobs as a personnel officer for a battalion), and that he needed to talk to me immediately.  I went with him and as soon as I rounded the corner into the battalion commander’s office I knew what had happened.  He was standing with the brigade command and the chaplain.  The brigade commander told me what happened, and my brain could not process what he was saying to me.  I remember sliding down the wall to the floor in disbelief.  I always thought that Dimitri was strong enough to fight through anything, but he wasn’t.  He really was just a man, despite my thinking that he was invincible.  The next few hours were a blur.  I called my mom, who was in England, and told her what had happened.  She had been visiting my dad at Oxford, but had gone a trip to the coast by herself.  They immediately started coordination to come back to the States.  I remember going back to my room to try to pack some things up.  My friend Tracy helped take care of me, and all my Soldiers did what they could to help me.  It’s all a blur.  I remember looking at myself in the bathroom after crying for hours, and I hardly recognized myself.

June 26th:  After staying up almost all night I was finally able to get out on a C-130 plane to Bagram.  My friend Tracy flew with me, and once we got there we met up with Niki.  My unit leadership had gotten the word to her of what happened.  She became my escort for the rest of the trip, and got me to the next stop, which was Kuwait.  She took care of coordinating everything, while I was a bit of a zombie trying to think clearly and try to figure out what was going on.  We finally left Kuwait and made it to Germany, where I was able to sleep for a few hours on a bed in some room at the airport.  We were put in first class on the way back to the States, and somehow the flight attendants knew what happened.  One even wrote me a kind note and handed it to me, saying that she was praying for me.  I cried off and on, and slept off and on.  We landed in Atlanta and I was finally reunited with my brother, who was there with my aunt and cousin to pick me up.  If any of you have ever visited Atlanta by plane, I’m sure you remember the long escalator that you have to ride, that has the giant picture overhead of the children playing in the water at Centennial Olympic Park.  I’ve gone up that escalator so many times, but now the only one I think about when I fly home is what it was like to arrive home from Afghanistan.  The USO was there, and there were little girls handing out boxes of Girl Scout cookies to Soldiers arriving home.  I was still in my uniform and there were all these people trying to celebrate with me because of my arrival home safely.  They had no clue that the reason I was crying was because I was home 9 months too early because my husband had just been killed the day prior.  I wanted to push them out of the way and scream “No!  I don’t want your Girl Scout cookies!  I am not happy to be home!  I wish I was still in Afghanistan because that would mean that Dimitri was still alive!”

We stopped at Chick-fil-a on the way to my grandparents’ house.  I was finally hungry and wanted some Southern food.  My parents arrived back from England a few hours later.  And the memorial service and funeral planning began shortly after.  I remember being asked what sort of casket I wanted for Dimitri.  The wooden one or a flashy sleek gray one?  How the hell does one make the decision for the “right” casket for their husband?  I chose the sleek one because I figured Dimitri would think it was cooler.  We had never discussed death before, so I had no clue of what he wanted or where he wanted to be buried.

Nothing will ever prepare you for losing a loved one.  I can’t believe that it’s been three years since it happened.  I don’t know how I’ve survived three whole years without him physically here.  I’m so thankful to the family, friends and strangers who have helped me along the way.  Your love, prayers, gifts, dedicated workouts and everything else has truly helped me get to where I am today.  Three years removed, I’m starting to feel like my entire life with him was just a dream.  I can still remember his kiss, remember his hands, remember his scars, but the memories are getting hazy.  It scares me that I don’t cry every day anymore.  This year I’m going to try and allow myself to be happy and celebrate the 5 amazing years I was blessed to spend with this amazing, funny, loving, driven, courageous, selfless man.  He’s given me the courage to run marathons, decide to leave a well paying job in order to pursue something I truly love, and choose happiness when I can.  I miss you so much Dimitri, and I pray you’re smiling down on me from heaven, happy that I have continued to live my life to the fullest. Life is too short not to.  I’ll see you again soon, my love.


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Katie Vail
Katie Vail

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  1. June 25, 2014 / 3:30 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. As a military spouse, this is my worst nightmare. When I was in Germany and my husband was in Iraq, an IED hit his convey. It was the vehuicle in front of his, and we lost a few Soldiers (and friends) that night. One of my good friends lost her husband, and still can't really talk about finding out (that was five years ago). It's heart wrenching, and I am so sorry for your loss. I hope your days are filled with fond and loving memories.

  2. Anonymous
    June 25, 2014 / 3:47 pm

    Ma'am, you brought tears to my eyes……stay strong. Pryaing for you always.


  3. June 25, 2014 / 4:04 pm

    Katie- I will be thinking of you today. I hope you are able to remember the good times and the times you laughed together, through the pain of today.

  4. June 25, 2014 / 4:04 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing. This is incredibly touching and such a personal look at war. I was initially captivated by your blog because of your heroism and femininty all rolled into one; now your candor and vulnerability inspires me even more. Thank you so much for sharing. Grief never follows the same course and you are brave for battling on.

  5. June 25, 2014 / 4:40 pm

    Tracy said it perfectly; I agree wholeheartedly. Thank you so much for sharing this with your readers.

  6. Anonymous
    June 25, 2014 / 4:40 pm

    It must have been very difficult to share your story but I think it helps everyone remember and recognize the huge sacrifices you and so many other military and military families have endured. So thank you for taking the time to write this out. I can only imagine how hard today must be for you.

  7. June 25, 2014 / 4:40 pm

    Will keep you in my throughts and prayers today <3 thank you for sharing something so personal and powerful.

  8. June 25, 2014 / 4:40 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story Katie. Not crying every day can seem uncomfortably different, but you carry his heart in your heart every day and that is what will allow Dimitri to always remain a part of your life. I find a lot of sentiments can be awkward, so I will just say that I pray for you that the memories will still be vivid and often, but that they bring many more smiles than tears.

  9. Anonymous
    June 25, 2014 / 4:40 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story, he is definitely smiling down at you.

  10. June 25, 2014 / 5:39 pm

    Words cannot express my sadness for you, Dimitri's family, and your family. Please know that I pray for you regularly. As always, much love from Livingston and Covington.
    Valerie Goerner

  11. Anonymous
    June 25, 2014 / 5:55 pm

    Katie, I am in the cacti bn and the soldiers here talk of your husband often. I didn't know him but the guys here loved him. Thanks for sharing your story

  12. June 25, 2014 / 6:23 pm

    Katie, I shouldn't have read this at work as I am not crying. YOU are so strong. I'm so sorry that you had to find out just how strong you are though. I'm sorry for your loss and I will continue to pray for you and Dimitri's family as you learn to live a new kind of life without him physically with you.

  13. June 25, 2014 / 6:24 pm

    KP: You're such an incredible woman. Often I think of you and I am reminded of the fact that, despite such tragic moments in our lives; with the right love and support from those who surround us, life does in fact move on. A true example of resiliency.

    Though memories get fuzzy, they are something our hearts never truly forget. Much like the memory and sacrifice that Dimitri, yourself, and your family gave to our country with his untimely passing three years ago today.

  14. Anonymous
    June 25, 2014 / 6:24 pm

    Katie you are so very brave. Thank you for your service and I am so sorry for your loss. You are an inspiration to us all and as a civilian employee in a military organization I have the utmost respect and awe for our members of the military. I'll be thinking of you today.

    "A human life is a story told by God"- Hans Christian Anderson

  15. June 25, 2014 / 6:24 pm

    Words cannot express my sadness for you, Dimitri's family, and your family. Please know that I pray for you regularly. As always I am sending love and prayers from Livingston and Covington.
    Valerie Goerner

  16. June 25, 2014 / 7:25 pm

    I can't imgaine how many tears fell while you wrote this. Thank you for telling your story and for serving our country. I'm praying for your and your family's peace.

  17. June 25, 2014 / 8:52 pm

    Thinking of you and praying for you and your families. I hurt for you when I think about all you've been through, but I'm also super happy for all the happiness you've found along the way as well. I hope the bad memories ease up and that the good ones make you smile. ♡

  18. Anonymous
    June 25, 2014 / 8:52 pm


    All of my thoughts and prayers are with you on this day. Your strength is so inspirational to myself and all your readers.

  19. Jazmine S.
    June 25, 2014 / 11:44 pm

    While sadly I never really got to know Dimitri, from getting to know you better before we all graduated nobody had any doubt of your love for each other.

    I never told you this (was neither the time or place) but when I found out about what happened to Dimitri I was a complete mess.
    I spontaneously would break down in tears at work and I felt so very foolish.

    I had bravely bravely powered through the loss of two grandparents and my childhood best friend that year, without anyone even knowing…. but having recently served as CAO, SCMO and Funeral detail OIC for our deployed sister unit (4th Brigade, 10th mountain) I couldn't imagine having to deliver such heartbreaking news to someone I knew to be so sweet, loveable and full of joy.

    It made me sick to think of what I had to watch the other families goig through, and knowing you had to endure it all while deployed yourself, without family and friends to help you power through.

    I am sorry to hear that you had some leadership that was so insensative but happy to hear you still had some friends around to help you through it.

    Although he is physically gone, you, the Pulliam family and the Del Castillos should know that he is and will continue to be a hero for thousands of soldiers and families across the world who hear your story.

    Don't feel guilty about the slowing tears….Dimitri would want you to know that there are still happier days ahead.

    Stay strong sweet girl…

  20. June 25, 2014 / 11:44 pm

    I hardly breathed while reading this. I wish this wasn't a true story as this is all my worst nightmare. Thank you for sharing your raw story. PS – I've kept a blog for years and have "whimsical" in my title – similar to your "whimsy". I love that coincidence. 🙂

  21. June 25, 2014 / 11:44 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing. I hope putting all of that into words helps you. 🙂

  22. June 25, 2014 / 11:44 pm

    Katie, we weren't friends at USMA, but last December, knowing your story, I visited Dimitri and Darren and touched their headstones in the cemetery. They are buried near some of my own dear friends, one of them being Sal Corma '08. Every time I am back at USMA, I will visit Dimitri for you.

  23. June 26, 2014 / 2:46 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story! I'm so touched by your story. Hope you live a happy life forever!

  24. June 26, 2014 / 2:46 pm

    Thanks for sharing. God bless you. You are strong.

  25. June 26, 2014 / 2:46 pm

    Sending you a hug and prayers!

  26. Anonymous
    June 27, 2014 / 2:04 am

    Oh, Katie. That was beautifully told, with such courage and love. There is no way to do this. To go on. But you are. Day by day. Step by step. You are.
    Love you, Beth K.

  27. June 27, 2014 / 4:47 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story…you are truly an inspiration (in all aspects)! Sending positive thoughts and prayers your way!

  28. June 27, 2014 / 9:58 pm

    Katie, thank you for sharing your experience. I came across your blog via the Everygirl article and have loved reading your posts ever since. It feels odd admiring a woman I don't personal know but I do! I'm so impressed with how you manage to successfully balance a successful career, design interests, athletics and relationships, all while healing an aching heart. You inspire and motivate me with every post. Thank you.

  29. June 29, 2014 / 6:20 pm

    OMG!!! I don't really know you Katie (only through your blog) but I have tears rolling down my face as I type this comment. Your post not only humbled me. but made me turn to the left where my own Husband is having a Sunday afternoon snooze, and being unable to imagine what you have been through. You are such an inspiration to me and I am SURE your wonderful husband is by your side spiritually every day; giving you the strength to continue moving forward. Thank you for sharing such a personal story xx

  30. June 29, 2014 / 6:20 pm

    Katie, thank you for being so open and sharing. You are in my prayers. You are such a strong, inspiring girl. Hugs!

  31. Anonymous
    June 30, 2014 / 10:44 am

    Katie, thank you for sharing your story, I can only imagine how hard sharing such personal details was. I came across the news of what happened to your husband three years ago through a mutual friends Facebook who had posted something about it. I felt like such a voyeur watching the horrific news unfold and felt incredibly deep sympathy for you. I appreciate your ability to bring a face to this war and the incredible challenges and heartache that military families face every day.

    While no one can really expect someone to completely "move on" from an event like this and the loss of such an incredible love one, it is absolutely wonderful to see you being so positive and having such an incredible blog. Thank you for sharing, again, this is so important for everyone to hear.

  32. July 1, 2014 / 1:12 pm

    Such a beautiful tribute to Dimitri! Thank you for sharing your heart with us. My almost 16 year old granddaughter was fatally injured in a freak auto accident June 21, 2013. Not the same loss but huge! I can't remember the rest of the summer and several months after. She was so young but she lived her short life full on and touched soooo many. I'm sure Dimitri did the same from your writing. My heart goes out to you! Just know that yes, you will see him again and he is looking out for you constantly.

    Grief is different for everyone…one has to decide when things feel better. Never the same…just each day becomes a tiny bit easier.


  33. July 2, 2014 / 10:13 am

    Katie, I cried as I read your blog since I know from firsthand experience the emotions you felt. Dimitri is a part of you and will always be in your heart. Daren and Dimitri were selfless individuals who lived life to the fullest. They inspire us to be better human beings and we honor them by doing so. They are buried next to each other at West Point and are together in heaven watching over us. Thank you for sharing those unforgettable days. I have to remind myself to Thank God that we were fortunate to have had them in our lives. Across the miles, I send you a big bear hug like the ones that Daren used to give you.

  34. July 2, 2014 / 4:50 pm

    Thank you for sharing this with friends and strangers.

  35. July 7, 2014 / 2:40 pm

    Thank you so much for your kind words Tracy! I appreciate you taking the time to read.

  36. July 7, 2014 / 2:42 pm

    Thank you everyone for your amazingly kind and loving words. I know I try to keep this as my "happy place," but sometimes things just get heavy on my heart and I just need to share. I appreciate each and every one of you!

  37. July 9, 2014 / 1:44 pm

    I'm so glad you shared this. I think we have some friends in common (the service world is small, especially in DC!) but let me introduce myself. I'm a Navy Pilot wife, from NYC before the becoming a military spouse. We've been together while my husband has served the past eight years and are currently in Japan. I can't even fathom what you have experienced. You are brave, strong and beautiful. I just saw your most recent post about your engagement. Congratulations! I know your first husband would be so happy you are continuing to live life beautifully and to the fullest. My grandfather was widowed very young as well and remarried three years later. He always said that the best way to honor such a significant person in your life is to carry forward their joy and character in your own. Life is truly precious and know that even friends of friends are thinking of you.

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