Katie Vail will be the first to tell you — she has a full, happy life.
She’s a mother of three, happily married and a successful blogger and Instagram influencer, sharing fashion, home decor, wellness tips and more.
But while Vail feels fortunate and content, it isn’t necessarily the life she thought she’d have.
That’s because Vail is also a Gold Star spouse.
Many people haven’t gotten married or started a career by 23. Meanwhile, Vail was already a war widow and serving as an Army officer.
She comes from a long line of Army officers.
“The military was always a part of my life — and I knew what it was to serve and what the military lifestyle was,” Vail said.
Still, it wasn’t part of her plan.
“Honestly, it never crossed my mind to join the military,” she shared. “I told my dad there was a 1% chance I’d go to West Point.”
But she agreed to a visit, and before long, that long shot started to look more like a sure thing.
“Just walking around the campus, I had a feeling I’d never had before. It was a realization that this was where I belonged.”
Vail, who grew up in Georgia, had always pictured herself attending the University of Georgia and joining a sorority.
“Suddenly, my future looked very different,” she said. “I thought, if I get in, I’m going to be wearing Army boots and a uniform. I won’t be able to decorate my barracks room. It was a lot to take in.”
Still, Vail’s decision to become a cadet was the right one.
“I’ve never regretted it.”
It was at West Point that she met fellow cadet Dimitri del Castillo.
“He was funny, nice to everybody, just a joy to be around. I was smitten from the beginning,” Vail said.
They commissioned in 2009. Vail in the Adjutant General Corps (human resources) and del Castillo as an infantry officer, later becoming an Army Ranger.
Both were slated to deploy to Afghanistan in 2011.
“I was scared, but I was incredibly anxious for Dimitri. He was going to be an infantry platoon leader. We’d already lost friends and had friends injured, but you suck it up and do what you’re asked to do,” Vail said.
They married in a courthouse ceremony in December 2010 with a more traditional wedding scheduled for July 2012, shortly after they were supposed to return from Afghanistan.
But that second ceremony wasn’t meant to be. Del Castillo was killed by enemy sniper fire on June 25, 2011, leading a platoon in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.
Vail learned of her husband’s death sooner than the typical military spouse would have.
“I found out the same day,” she revealed. “You can protect your spouse when they are not also deployed, getting the same information. That wasn’t possible with me. I’d been anxious all day. I remember walking into my commander’s office. He and the chaplain were there. I saw their faces, and I knew immediately.”
Del Castillo was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star posthumously. They remain in Vail’s jewelry box more than 10 years later.
Also, more than a decade later, Vail is remarried and has three children.
“When I was pregnant with Jack [her oldest], I had so much grief in my heart because it was not the baby I had in my mind for all of college time.”
“Circumstances change. They are the perfect children for me,” Vail said. “But with every milestone, grief never leaves you. And it comes up when you don’t necessarily expect it.”
For that reason, Vail is especially thankful for her current husband, Tom, a former Army EOD officer.
“I really needed someone strong that wouldn’t be threatened by the loss that I experienced. He knows that Dimitri will always be in my heart,” Vail said. “He’s not threatened, and I’m so thankful for that.”
Vail added it’s important not to compare the two men.
“I found Tom, who is totally different than Dimitri, but I felt his soul was exactly what I needed,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for better.”
While her children are still young, Vail admits she hasn’t found the words to explain her loss.
“I’ve tried,” she said. “Jack has visited Dimitri’s grave. And I’ll continue to try as they get older. I want them to know about him, about our story –– he deserves that.”
Vail left active-duty service in 2014 and has since shifted her focus to family and her lifestyle blog, Stripes and Whimsy, which she started in 2013.
“I was two years removed from Dimitri’s death,” Vail said. “I was working at the Pentagon and wanted a creative outlet. I’d always been interested in decorating, and clothing and writing was therapy for me.”
She’s built a community of more than 15,000 on Instagram, sharing decorating projects, fashion ideas, her love of running and more.
“I will say after losing Dimitri, after losing a spouse, I grew in a way,” she said. “I grew in my confidence. Knowing I could get through something so devastating, it gave me the courage to pursue started some things I’d always wanted to try.”
Follow Vail on Instagram @stripesandwhimsy