Friday, May 16, 2014

True Tales of Gumption: Katie del Castillo

Today, I am so excited to share my first first-person interview for Gumption's True Tales feature! I've highlighted a lot of people with serious gumption in True Tales, but they have all been via second sources. For today's feature, I interviewed Katie Del Castillo of, Life with a Dash of Whimsy.

I discovered Katie's blog when her apartment was featured on The Everygirl (a favourite of mine!). As I started following her blog, which is a fantastic source for home decor tips and ideas, I discovered Katie's fascinating and inspiring story. After attending The United States Military Academy at West Point for college (where she met and fell in love with her late husband, Dimitri), she lived in Hawaii, and was then deployed to Afghanistan with her husband. Dimitri, sadly, was killed in the line of duty.

Today, Katie shares about what it was like attending West Point, how she has dealt with losing her spouse, some of her best home decor tips, and so much more!

You attended The United States Military Academy at West Point for college (very impressive!). What was that like? How do you feel you grew as a person from your years there?

West Point was definitely not the typical college experience.  On top of a very difficult academic program, we had mandatory participation in athletics (I played rugby), multiple PE classes ranging from survival swimming (in full combat gear), gymnastics, and two combatives (self defense) classes.  Additionally, we also had military duties each semester and summer.  I even had the opportunity to go to Airborne School the summer before my junior year, and earned my Airborne wings after 5 successful solo jumps from an airplane.  I definitely was changed as a person after my experience at West Point.  I learned that I am much more capable than I ever thought I was, and I will always be proud of being a West Point graduate.

After spending years in the military and being surrounded by greys, blues, and greens, you’ve started a colourful lifestyle and interior design blog, Life with a Dash of Whimsy. It’s beautiful! How did you decide to start this? Will this continue to be a hobby or are you heading in the direction of a new career?

Thank you!  Despite wearing a camouflage uniform every day, I have always maintained my identity as a woman.  I’ve always been passionate about interior design and fashion, so I finally decided that starting a blog would be a fun way to explore those passions.  It’s nice to be able to inject a little color and creativity, when I’m typically surrounded by a “macho” and strictly by the book organization.  I will definitely continue to blog as I transition out of the Army, and hope to use it as a way to explore new possibilities career-wise.

You’ve shared your story about your late husband and how he passed on your blog. How do you find a balance between sharing your life through your blog, yet maintaining your privacy?

I try to keep my blog as an uplifting and fun place for myself as well as my readers, but when something heavy is on my heart I don’t hesitate to share it.  I’ve realized that it’s rather difficult to find a balance between sharing sad/happy things, yet also maintaining my privacy, but I’m hoping that the way I’m doing it is turning out ok.

Visiting West Point for the first time since your late husband’s passing sounds like it required so much gumption. How did you do it? What was that experience like?

This was actually my second time back to West Point, but the first visit was last fall and I was with about 12 other family members, and the only place we visited on post was the cemetery.  This recent visit was even more emotional because I was by myself, and I was able to run and visit all the places that I remember from our time there.  The first morning I was there I went on a 7 mile run in the freezing rain, and I listened to a playlist that I created shortly after Dimitri died of songs from our relationship, starting in the summer of 2006 and going through my recovery after losing him in the summer of 2011.  I definitely cried as certain songs played because they just brought back so many memories.  I ran 8 miles the next morning, and I think I hit almost every road at West Point.  Running has been a big part of my healing, so I knew that running at West Point would help me find some closure.  At the end of the trip I left with a sense of peace that I have not felt in quite a while.

Losing a loved one is probably one of the hardest things that we can ever go through. How did you cope and what advice can you give to women going through similar heartache? What have you found to be most helpful and inspiring in the process of continuing to build your life?

It was absolutely essential for me to set my sights on a long term goal that I would have to work towards.  A reason to get out of bed in the morning.  For me, that was running a marathon.  I devotedly trained for the December 2011 Honolulu Marathon for 16 weeks, and was overcome by emotion as I finished the race.  I have now finished 4 marathons, and I’m hooked!

What is it like starting another relationship after being a widow? As someone who is currently married, the idea of “getting back into it” sounds so scary.

It was difficult to be able to open up my heart again, as Dimitri and I didn’t simply break-up or get divorced.  There was no closure between us.  No decision that we would go our own separate ways, so for the first few months of my new relationship I was very guarded, as I sort of felt like I was betraying Dimitri.  Luckily Tom is very patient and understanding, and is able to handle the fact that I will always love Dimitri and be a part of his family.  Tom and Dimitri are very different so I never compare the two, which is absolutely essential.  I do feel that they have similar souls though, which is why once I got to know Tom I knew he was the one.

You currently work at the Pentagon (so cool!). What is it like working in a field that is dominated by men? What do you find you need gumption for in your job? What advice would you give to women who also work in male dominated fields?

Working at the Pentagon is definitely a very different experience compared to being in a typical Army unit.  I currently work in the office that is dedicated to expanding positions and opportunities to women.  Growing up, I always had many wonderful girl friends, but also loved hanging out with the guys.  Once I got to West Point, I was often the only woman in my academic classes (ratio of women to men is about 1:4 at West Point), but I quickly got used to it.  Being in shape physically has definitely helped me prove myself as a talented Soldier (that just so happens to be a woman), as often in the military the first way you are assessed when you get to a new unit is by how you perform physically.  I have always been able to hang with the guys on runs, ruck marches, and at firing ranges, which has helped me gain credibility.

What is something that you would like people to know about being in the military? (Maybe a stereotype that isn’t true?)

I would say that many people (including myself BEFORE I attended West Point) assume that most women in the military are butch or not feminine at all.  Over the years though, I have seen and met so many women that there are beautiful, stylish, talented and capable who are serving their country proudly.  Many are also mothers, and have managed to figure out how to maintain their femininity while also serving their country.  I just think it’s amazing and love seeing the women that have managed to figure out how to do it all.

With all your travels and military and life experience, I’m sure you’ve seen so many things. What are you afraid of? How do you try to overcome your fears?

Hmmmm let’s see.  I HATE bugs.  In Hawaii there were lots of cockroaches, and my first apartment was in an area that used to be sugar cane fields, so they were everywhere.  Those things just really gross me out.  I lived there alone, so I had to learn to kill them by myself (a Swiffer is a really great tool if you have a bug on the ceiling!).  I hated dealing with them, but it was empowering to know that I could take care of myself!  Sometimes it’s the little things, right? 

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?

I would love to be happily married with 3 children, living in Charleston, Tampa or Honolulu (I’ve got to be near a large body of water!).  I will be thoroughly involved in remodeling an old home to make it the perfect space for us to live.  I’d love to open up an interior décor boutique, but I may wait until the children are a bit older, as I want to be able to devote time to raising them, shuffling them to sports and volunteer at their schools.  Maybe I’ll run a home decorating or home staging business.  Lots of different possibilities are swirling around my head right now, so we’ll see!  Oh, and I’ll definitely still be blogging!

Your apartment was featured on The Everygirl. It’s stunning! How would you describe the style of your home? What are your favorite home décor stores?

Thank you!  It’s definitely eclectic.  I love so many different styles, so I sort of just combined what I loved and hoped for the best.  Luckily it turned out well and doesn’t look too busy.  I’ll be moving in the fall once I’m out of the Army, so I’m looking forwarded to starting over and decorating a new place.  My favorite home décor stores are Anthropologie for little knickknacks and bowls, CB2 for fun modern stuff, and antique/thrift stores, as you’ll never know what sort of treasure you will find!  I also love pretty much everything from Lulu & Georgia.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? What advice would you give right now to women looking for some gumption?

When I was in college and shortly after, most of my friends were starting to get engaged and married.  I was in such a hurry to get engaged too, but Dimitri just wasn’t ready yet.  I’d push and push, and we’d end up arguing about it.  Eventually my mom sad “You can’t push a puddle,” meaning that no matter how I pushed and prodded, Dimitri would not be ready until he was good and ready.  Once I finally listened to her advice I mellowed out, enjoyed our relationship where it was at the time, quit pushing and soon enough Dimitri proposed!  As for advice I’d give, I’d say to follow your heart and go after something if you truly want it.  Don’t be afraid to be a little different because eventually it’ll turn out to be something that you truly embrace and love about yourself.  

Thank you, Katie! Your service, your story, and your ability to continue growing and building your life is so inspiring! Thanks for having the gumption to share your story.  

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