Dimitri del Castillo had a zest for life, a commitment to excellence, a passion for service, and a genius for leading others. That charismatic combination helped the Houston native graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point and become an Army Ranger. Those traits were also critical in ensuring that all the men in his platoon survived during a 2011 firefight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Sadly, that battle, which lasted about eight days, took Dimitri’s life as well as seven soldiers in other units and a military dog named Agdar.
Dimitri’s bravery and sense of duty spurred his elementary school teacher, Linda McCormick, to establish the Veterinary Valor Fund in Memory of Dimitri del Castillo at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVMBS) in his memory. The endowed fund, created through the Texas A&M Foundation, kickstarts a program to help the college’s nationally recognized Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH) provide top veterinary care to military dogs with unexpected veterinary medical bills, medically retired veterans’ service dogs, and VMTH patients whose owners are active military service personnel.
“It is so important that we recognize the sacrifices active military members and veterans have made,” said Sheila Carter ’91, VMTH associate director. “We envision this fund as a tangible way to show servicemen and women how much Texas A&M appreciates and values their service.”
Known for its compassionate professionalism and cutting-edge care, the teaching hospital includes facilities for small and large animals and offers a wide range of specialized services. Prior to the Veterinary Valor Program’s creation in August 2019, approximately 120 veterans tapped other non-endowed hospital funds to defray medical costs for their animals.
“The creation of this endowed fund by Mrs. McCormick will help ensure that current military personnel and veterans have access to life-saving care for their animals,” added Carter.
A Long-Term Connection
Dimitri’s father, Carlos del Castillo, described his son as “an average American kid with an infectious laugh, which was one of his endearing qualities. He marched to the beat of his own drum and always wanted to have the maximum experience in life.”
The family always tried to find special ways to celebrate life’s milestones. For example, Carlos and his wife, Catherine, planned a surprise for their children at the end of each school year. One year, Dimitri and his siblings left the school bus and were greeted by a black Labrador puppy named Shadow, who became the family’s first dog.
As a young boy, Dimitri was assigned to McCormick’s third-grade class at Nottingham Country Elementary School in Katy ISD. “He was a dream student,” she remembered. “He was smart, quiet, courteous, and had a warm smile all the time.”
McCormick lost touch with Dimitri after he left her class, but the two reconnected when she sent him a card marking his high school graduation. Dimitri responded with a thank you card, and they stayed in touch while he was at West Point and Fort Benning.
Commitment To Service
Dimitri began displaying an interest in the military as a young boy, thanks to relatives who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. He eventually set his sights on West Point, although he also considered attending Texas A&M. The young man’s commitment to a life of service deepened when he heard then-President George W. Bush address the West Point cadets about the importance of leadership during a time of war.
Dimitri was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant with the U.S. Army upon graduation from West Point. After earning his Airborne Wings and completing the Basic Officer Leadership Course and the Mortars Officers Leadership Course, he qualified as a U.S. Army Ranger and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. He was stationed in Hawaii before being deployed to Afghanistan.
His leadership skills were tested during his deployment in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, but the officer developed a deep bond with his unit. “He led people spiritually, physically, and professionally,” Carlos said. “He talked to people about his walk of faith and love of God and got them to go to church with him. Physically, he helped people pass their physical fitness tests. He also worked on their professionalism—how to be a better leader and how to get to know their men.”
Recognizing A Soldier’s Bravery
During his last battle, which was an assault on the Taliban, Dimitri maintained his forward position and called in airstrikes as his unit was attacked. He was killed holding the radio mic in his hand. “He knew what he was walking into, but he never showed fear,” Carlos said. “He always maintained his focus and was concerned for his men.”
After the battle, surviving members of the unit held a memorial service for Dimitri and his comrades. Dimitri’s boots, those of the soldiers in other units in his battalion who were killed, and Agdar’s collar were displayed during this service, which honored their valor. For his bravery, Dimitri earned the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Army Commendation Medal.
When Dimitri was killed in action, McCormick looked for ways to honor her former student. She thought about a previous gift that she and her husband, Mack McCormick ’74, made to the CVMBS in memory of an Aggie who was a long-time friend. She also thought about Dimitri’s boyhood pet, Shadow, as well as Agdar.
As she considered her options, McCormick remembered the care her own dogs received at the VMTH. “I noticed how costly it was to get animals taken care of, so I started inquiring about the possibility of creating a fund,” she said. “I worked with development officer Monika Blackwell, who was so diligent in helping me create this fund.”
Ultimately, McCormick was drawn to the idea of celebrating Dimitri’s valor. “I wanted to do this knowing that Dimitri died in Afghanistan, which was so brave,” she said. “I have a deep respect for him. He had a great deal of commitment and knew the risks, but he fought for our country and freedom.”
The del Castillo family remains very touched by the retired teacher’s gift. “It was a wonderful surprise, and Mrs. McCormick has an amazingly generous heart to make this happen,” Carlos said. “Those who knew Dimitri miss him immeasurably. He taught everyone he met to believe in yourself and know that you’re capable of much more.”
The Veterinary Valor Fund in Memory of Dimitri del Castillo accepts donations online from other donors. For more information, please contact Larry Walker, Senior Director of Development for the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 979.845.9043. Give online at give.am/VetValorDimitriInc.
Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of CVMBS Today.
Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVMBS Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; email@example.com; 979-862-4216