When Katie Pulliam del Castillo saw her battalion commander and chaplain on her doorstep, she knew her worst fears had come true.
As a personnel officer for 325th Brigade Support Battalion in Nagahar Province, Afghanistan, the young 2nd Lt. heard more than most people about the battle that raged last Saturday with Taliban insurgents in the mountains of Kunar Province near Pakistan.
The 2005 Salem High School graduate knew her husband, 2nd Lt. Dimitri del Castillo, the Rifle Platoon Leader for the 1st Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, was leading his men in Kunar Province as part of Operation Hammer Down II.
She knew there were quite a few wounded. She knew there was a casualty.
And then, she knew that Dimitri had been killed in action.
Dimitri's platoon was pinned down after coming under small arms fire from multiple directions, said Katie's father Nate Pulliam, a Conyers resident, former real estate broker and West Point alum.
"Dimitri was attempting to get support on the radio. He was hit by one of the bullets flying around," he said. But Dimitri continued to radio for support.
"He died with the radio microphone in his hand."
Dimitri's body was flown back to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Monday. Katie flew out on Sunday and her parents, Nate and Patricia Pulliam, left England and arrived back in Conyers on Monday.
A memorial service held at Conyers First United Methodist on Thursday was packed with friends, family and extended military family and classmates.
“Thank you, Dimitri, for your service, for your sacrifice, and your incredible love,” said Pulliam. “You’re my hero and my inspiration.”
‘Marriage made in Heaven’
Katie and Dimitri met during their second year at West Point. They both played rugby - she on the women's team and he on the men's – and their friends gave them a hard time about being the “cutest rugby couple at West Point,” recalled Katie at the memorial service. “We were the only rugby couple.”
For her, it was love after the first date. But Katie had to work on Dimitri a bit.
“He was a stubborn 19-year-old who was too busy playing with guns,” she said. But she eventually got her way, and the two dated for three years before graduating in 2009.
"If there were ever two people who made the perfect couple, Katie and Dimitri were that couple," wrote her father in a Facebook post to friends and family.
“He made me a better person,” said Katie. “His laugh was infectious and smile contagious. His love for me was overwhelming and pure. I have no regrets.”
“If I knew it would turn out like this, I would do it all over again.”
Dimitri was originally assigned to another unit, but wanted more than anything else to be a soldier in combat and pulled some strings to be deployed.
They were eventually both assigned to the same division at Schoefield barracks in Hawaii and were able to have a sort-of honeymoon period before their deployments in April.
They were engaged in September 2010 and married in a civil ceremony in December. But they planned to have a big church wedding in July 2012 in Tampa, where Dimitri's family lives, and a honeymoon in Mexico. After returning from Afghanistan, they wanted to start having children.
Being in Afghanistan just a 30-minute helicopter ride away from each other was both easier and harder for the young couple.
"She lived in anguish every day," said Katie's father. "In one sense it was easier for them to talk. But it was harder knowing the specific things he was doing."
Dimitri had recently turned 24 on June 9. Katie had been able to fly to his base and bring him a cake for a four-hour birthday visit - the last time she would ever see him.
“It’s a beautiful memory I will always have,” she said.
Be Thou at Peace
Pulliam described Dimitri as a consummate professional who graduated from Ranger school and applied to become a Greet Beret.
He listed Dimitri’s values and loves as “his Lord, his family, his Katie, his country, his men, and his mission. The most important person in his life, that was not Katie, that was God.”
“He knew his life was in God's hands."
The 24-year-old who grew up in Katy, Tex., had spent holidays with the Pulliam family for the last four years, going to the beach, attending services at Conyers First United Methodist. Katie's younger brother, Nathan, and Dimitri became as close as blood brothers.
Katie’s father recalled the first time Dimitri went to the beach with the family, Katie instructed Nate Pulliam not to talk about the Army because Dimitri was still trying to figure out his own thoughts on the subject.
“He’s attending West Point and I’m not allowed to talk about the Army. What kind of guy is she dating?” said Pulliam. “As it turned out, I should not have been concerned about any of that. By the end of the week, I had fallen in love with Dimitri.”
The Pulliam and del Castillo families also warmed to each other quickly when they met a year later. “Our notions of family were exactly the same as his and his family. I say that despite us being white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and him being Latino Catholic family,” said Pulliam.
“Dimitri and his comrades knew they were in a struggle against evil. They were willing to pay the price,” said Pulliam.
"It has crushed us," Pulliam continued. "We’re professional military, we know this can happen. But we loved Dimitri more than I can describe. We will continue to do so. (His family) will always be our family."
Dimitri was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Combat Infantry Badge, Expert Infantry Badge, Parachutist Badge, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Overseas Ribbon, Army Good Conduct Medal and the NATO Medal.
A funeral will be held in Tampa and a burial at West Point at a time to be announced. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Fisher House, www.fisherhouse.org, a non-profit that provides lodging for military members and their families at VA medical centers.
In concluding his remarks at the memorial service, Pulliam said, “As we say at my alma mater, West Point: When our work is done, our course on earth is run, may it be said ‘Well done. Be thou at peace.’ My son Dimitri, be thou at peace.”