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NEWS | Feb. 7, 2013

'Mi Rey:' A deployed Valentine story

By Staff Sgt. Katie Gar Ward 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Editor's Note: This story is part of a series.

It was a cold January evening in a little town called Muzquiz, in Coahuila, Mexico. Despite the chill in the air, she and a friend decided to go to the local dance hall. It was the kind of close-knit town where everyone knew each other, and dancing was a way to let loose on a Friday night.

Her long, brightly-colored skirt floated around her as she danced to the syncopated rhythm of cumbia drums, the steady beating of claves filling the air. She was about to leave after several hours, until she noticed an intriguing man standing close to the dance floor. When they locked eyes, the whole world seemed to stand still.

Beatriz Castillo's eyes lit up as she began recounting the story of how she and her husband first met that night in 1994, her Hispanic accent breathing its own rhythmic melody into the words she spoke.

"He was wearing a long cowboy coat, which was different and made him stand out," said Mrs. Castillo, a software engineer at the Langley NASA Research Center in Hampton, Va. "He was, and is, the most handsome cowboy I've ever seen. It was love at first sight, no doubt about it."

It was then that they had their first dance, marking the beginning of a whirlwind romance that continued with an engagement proposal just one week after they met. More than 18 years and two children later, their marriage has stood the test of time, overcoming separations and missed holidays resulting from his military career.

Her husband, Chief Master Sgt. Guillermo "Willie" Castillo, Air Combat Command Inspector General superintendent of the maintenance division, is currently deployed to Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan. Mrs. Castillo said the separation is just an opportunity to celebrate the holidays differently.

"It's not that we don't celebrate, we just change our traditions," said Mrs. Castillo. "This year, were going to celebrate Valentine's with other families of deployed members at the Hearts Apart dinner. I like to socialize and interact with other grown-ups, and the girls can see other kids who are going through the same situation."

The Castillos celebrated their first Valentine's Day together by visiting his family in Texas shortly after they became engaged. In their early years of marriage, they would celebrate the holiday together as a couple with dinner and dancing. Their Valentine's tradition evolved into a family dinner outing once they had their two daughters, Angelina (Angie), 14, and Mercedes (Sadie), 7.

"He's a cowboy," said Mrs. Castillo. "We love steaks, so when it's a holiday, we go to a steakhouse and he always wears that cowboy hat - that's how we know it's a special night."

Even though holidays aren't the same without her husband there, the family overcomes the distance through e-mails, video phone-calls and social media. While the electronic communication has helped, Mrs. Castillo said there are additional personal avenues her family takes.

"E-mail, Tango or Facebook will never replace the joy of receiving a written note from a loved one," she said. "My husband can read my e-mails over and over again, but seeing the handwriting of your loved one is a special and close moment. It's a joy when my husband checks his mail and he gets letters from home and items in a care package - it's a way to show our love for him."

This Valentine's Day, the family has put together a care package for him, ranging from basic items like deodorant and hand sanitizer to some of his favorite things like beef jerky and homemade pecan pies.

"I like to send him care packages with something he needs, but he always says he doesn't need anything and says 'Surprise me,'" said Mrs. Castillo. "The girls are learning a new song with piano lessons, so for Valentine's Day I'm going to videotape it and send it to him, that way if he's busy he'll know something's there waiting for him."

For other people with deployed family members, Mrs. Castillo said sending packages and letters is paramount, regardless if it's a holiday or not.

"They need to know that we are here thinking about them, waiting for them, praying for them and talking about them so they know we await their safe return," she said. "It is a way to nurture the relationship across the miles and make them feel that they are still part of our daily lives and routines, even if they are far away."

Even though she makes every effort to include her husband in her day-to-day routine through e-mails and letters, Mrs. Castillo said it still doesn't replace the in-person companionship.

"Sometimes work days can be long and then I get home and I tell him what happened today, and he just listens," said Mrs. Castillo. "At the end of the day I'm alright, but it's because there's someone there to listen."

Mrs. Castillo isn't the only member of the family who has trouble adapting at times. While she is able to still talk to her father while he is away, for Angie, sharing certain aspects of her life is more difficult during his deployment.

"If I get good grades on my test, I come home and show him because I like to make him proud," said Angie. "My number one goal in life is to make my parents proud, but especially my dad, because he's done so much for me. When I have soccer or basketball games, at halftime I always go to him for advice. I miss him watching me play so he can improve my skills and give me feedback."

Angie also said participating in extra-curricular activities is one way children her age can cope with having a deployed parent.

"Keep busy in sports and volunteering in schools and libraries," said Angie. "Write to your parent who is deployed and keep in touch. Your mom or dad being deployed shouldn't bring you down - it should make you better because you can make goals and strive to do better so they can be proud of you."

Although the family stays involved and busy, Mrs. Castillo admits there are still times when the time apart is challenge, but she is able to overcome those moments.

"We're a Catholic family and we believe in the power of prayer," she said. "I tell him I'm not alone - I get my strength from up above."

For Mrs. Castillo, the overall scope of her husband's deployment is what keeps her family strong. Having moved to America after they were married and initially unable to speak English, her husband's career holds a special place in her heart.

"Everything they do over there is worth it to live the life we have here," she said. "It's what I tell my husband - this country is a great country, let's make it even better. Appreciate what you have, and take each opportunity that comes along."

Although the family has adapted to a lifestyle of being apart, it is evident they have a developed a support system to ensure their bond stays strong.

"I call him 'Mi Rey' which is 'My King' in English," she said. "He is 'My King,' the love of my life - my everything. I tell him even though you're there and I'm here, we are not separated. There are some couples who are together every day, but they are far away from each other - that's the difference."

From that chilly Friday night in a dance hall in Mexico to a world apart today, the story of the Castillo family seems something out of a fairytale. Although the physical distance between them may be far, it is clear by the love the family has for another other that in their hearts, they are always together.