CMSAF visits SMC wounded warrior

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force, James A. Cody paid a personal visit to Maj. Katherine “Kat” Portillo, a wounded warrior from the Space and Missile Systems Center during the CMSAF's tour of Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif., March 9-10, 2016. Following his full day visit with Airmen at the center, Cody took time to travel to the VA Medical Center in Long Beach with members of SMC’s Space Superiority Directorate. (U.S. Air Force photo/Van De Ha)

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force, James A. Cody paid a personal visit to Maj. Katherine “Kat” Portillo, a wounded warrior from the Space and Missile Systems Center during the CMSAF's tour of Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif., March 9-10, 2016. Following his full day visit with Airmen at the center, Cody took time to travel to the VA Medical Center in Long Beach with members of SMC’s Space Superiority Directorate. (U.S. Air Force photo/Van De Ha)

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force, James A. Cody paid a personal visit to Maj. Katherine “Kat” Portillo, a wounded warrior from the Space and Missile Systems Center during the CMSAF's tour of Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif., March 9-10, 2016. Following his full day visit with Airmen at the center, Cody took time to travel to the VA Medical Center in Long Beach with members of SMC’s Space Superiority Directorate. (U.S. Air Force photo/Van De Ha)

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force, James A. Cody paid a personal visit to Maj. Katherine “Kat” Portillo, a wounded warrior from the Space and Missile Systems Center during the CMSAF's tour of Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif., March 9-10, 2016. Following his full day visit with Airmen at the center, Cody took time to travel to the VA Medical Center in Long Beach with members of SMC’s Space Superiority Directorate. (U.S. Air Force photo/Van De Ha)

LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE - EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force, James A. Cody paid a personal visit to a wounded warrior from the Space and Missile Systems Center during his two-day stay here March 9-10. Following his full day visit with Airmen at the center, Cody took time to travel to the VA Medical Center in Long Beach with members of SMC's Space Superiority Directorate.

"When we heard Maj. Portillo's story, we purposefully wanted to make time in the schedule to visit with her and let her know she was on our minds. The short visit was an absolute honor and pleasure," said Cody. "Her story, and most importantly, her resilience, strength and attitude, are an inspiration to all Airmen."

Born in Belize in 1978, Maj. Katherine "Kat" Portillo enlisted into the Air Force in 1996 as a material manager assigned to Maxwell AFB, Alabama. In 2005, then-Senior Airman Portillo earned her commission through Air Force ROTC from Auburn University and became a space operator assigned to 3rd Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. In 2009, she was assigned as an instructor and later flight commander to the 533rd Training Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

In 2012, she was assigned as the operations engineering leader at SMC's Space Superiority Directorate, where she guided an unprecedented partnership between the operators and acquirers in space operations. She was also responsible for the tremendous Battle Management Command and Control capability growth at the Joint Space Operations Center for the Joint Functional Component Command for Space. She deployed to Kyrgyzstan in 2013 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

An avid fitness competitor, Portillo completed multiple endurance events in her spare time, including a 100-mile bicycle race and various triathlons, achieving the title of Professional in the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness. 

During one of Portillo's fitness events in 2012, she met Pavel Ythjall, a photographer and small business owner, originally from Sweden. The two married in December 2014 in Belize.

On the night of Dec. 5, 2015 on their way to a family Christmas party, the two were in a car accident resulting in serious injuries.

Portillo sustained severe injuries to her spinal cord, resulting in her current status as an incomplete quadriplegic. Her husband sustained injuries to his neck and skull, resulting in wearing a "halo" for two months. Portillo spent almost a month in intensive care. Through her determined and fighting spirit, she regained the ability to breathe and eat on her own.

In mid-January, she was transferred to the VA Long Beach Health Care System where she continues her recovery process, but the road ahead will be incredibly difficult. The medical staff has praised her for the remarkable progress made given the severity of her injury; she continuously challenges her therapists to keep the pressure on and throw everything they can at her. She has been fitted with a powered chair, evaluated for required modifications to her home, and procured a special vehicle.

"Meeting Chief Cody was cool and it was unbelievable because I thought that leaders at his level would not have time to visit someone like me," said Portillo. "He took the time out of his busy schedule to come by and show me that the Air Force family is so strong and there for me, and that means a lot. It gives me strength to continue along this journey."

"Kat is an inspiration to everyone in the Space Superiority Directorate and at SMC. She has made incredible progress since her accident, and her drive to improve is an example to us all," said Col. Philip Garrant, director and senior material leader of SMC's Space Superiority Systems Directorate. "Every time I visit her, she's talking to me about being resilient, even in the face of her own challenges. We're all very proud of Kat, and she gives us strength simply from watching her amazing determination on her road to recovery."

Tentatively, Portillo will be discharged from VALBHCS in April to begin her next journey toward recovery. Friends and family are looking across the nation to find Portillo a premier rehab facility to provide her the best chances for a full recovery.

"Her life has been changed dramatically, and yet she will continue to lead our Airmen through her actions and example," said Cody. "We will always keep her in our thoughts and continue to support her and her family however we can."