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How a military family honors the memory of wife's fallen first husband

"Never let his memory fade away": One war widow’s life came full circle in love and loss
Courtesy of Katie Vail
/ Source: TODAY

As Tom and Katie Vail celebrate their seventh year of marriage and raise three kids together, they always take care to remember someone from Katie's past: her first husband, Dimitri del Castillo, a U.S. Army officer killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011 and a Purple Heart recipient.

As a fellow Army officer, Tom understands the need to keep Dimitri's memory alive.

“I’ve experienced the loss of friends and fellow soldiers many times,” Tom Vail told TODAY Parents. “Katie’s need to honor and remember her late husband is not only understandable, but necessary and cathartic for both of us.”

Katie Vail with Dimitri del Castillo's memorial sign at the Fallen Comrades Half Marathon in West Point, New York. She and her husband Tom paused in the race to remember Dimitri.Courtesy of Katie Vail

Katie and Tom Vail visit Dimitri's grave at West Point whenever they can, and they speak of him with their young children at home.

Katie still cherishes her memories from 2010, when she was on top of the world. She was an Army officer stationed at Schofield Barracks on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, where she was enjoying island life with her fiancé, Dimitri.

Katie and Dimitri del Castillo celebrate their graduation from the United State Military Academy at West Point, New York.Courtesy of Katie Vail

She and Dimitri fell in love as cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. When the Army handed them orders to Afghanistan in late 2010, they married in a quiet courthouse ceremony in Tampa, Florida, while on leave.

They planned to have a larger wedding celebration with friends and family after they returned home from deployment, but that second ceremony would never come.

Katie and Dimitri del Castillo got married in a courthouse ceremony in December 2010.Courtesy of Katie Vail

Two months into their deployment, Katie woke up feeling anxious. In her role as a human resources officer, she knew Dimitri’s company was leading their brigade's first mission in the Kunar Province. To keep her mind occupied, she tried to focus on an upcoming race she had organized.

“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,” she recalled.

Katie and Dimitri del Castillo celebrate Dimitri's 24th birthday together in Afghanistan.Courtesy of Katie Vail

That evening, she reported to her commanding officer for what she believed was a standard meeting, but as she rounded the corner her world came to a halt.

“I saw the brigade commander, the chaplain and the heartbroken faces of many of my superiors, and I knew,” she said. “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.”

Dimitri del Castillo on his last mission.Courtesy of Katie Vail

Katie said the weeks that followed were foggy as she navigated Dimitri’s funeral and her new life as a 24-year-old war widow.

“I chose the sleek gray casket over the wooden one because I figured he’d think it was cooler,” she said. “I had nothing else to base my decision on.”

Upon her return to Hawaii, Katie transferred to a new base and met Tom Vail, a fellow U.S. Army officer. They bonded over a shared interest in distance running, and the explosive ordnance disposal officer had a knack for making Katie laugh.

“I realized I had a crush on him, which is something that scared me, because I didn’t expect to feel anything for a very long time after losing Dimitri,” she recalled.

The pair kept in touch when they both moved on to new assignments, and they fell in love via email. Tom and Katie married in a small ceremony in 2014.

“He has held me countless times when waves of grief have come over me, he’s supported me when I’ve visited Dimitri’s grave at West Point, and most importantly he has loved me through it all and has never been resentful,” Katie said. “He’s everything I ever could have dreamed of and I’m so thankful for this second chance at love and life.”

Together, the Vails are parents to son, Jack, 5, and daughters, Caroline, 3, and Tate, 1.

In 2017, the family received a bittersweet final assignment: Oahu, Hawaii.

Katie and Tom Vail with their kids in HawaiiStephanie Hussey

“Hawaii has seen me through every high and low imaginable,” Katie said prior to leaving the island in 2020. “I lost a husband in combat while I called this place home, and now two of my three children will have been born here.”

Now an Army Reservist, Katie said she still lives with an untouchable sadness, but she thinks Dimitri would be happy to see the life she has built.

Katie Vail spends time at her first husband's grave with her son, Jack Vail.Courtesy of Katie Vail

“I’m not sure how I’ll tell my children about the brave man I loved before I met their daddy, but I know for certain that Dimitri and my past will never be hidden or buried from my life’s story,” Vail shared.

“He cared so deeply about his soldiers, friends and family, and in return we have all made sure to never let his memory fade away.”

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