When Katherine Portillo enlisted in the United States Air Force, she was doing more than serving her country. She was also following in the footsteps of her past family members who have also committed to the same cause. While growing up in Belize, there wasn’t much focus on education or self-improvement. So while she didn’t see her father much, he was the example who she learned from when she did see him.

“My dad was in World War II as a pilot instructor, very briefly,” Portillo said. “He always talked about serving and patriotism. He was always the one who instilled in me that I should join and follow in his footsteps just because of the honor of serving, and all of the benefits as well.”

Katherine Portillo enlisted in 1996, and she began her career as a supply journeyman. Her efforts were making profound differences early on, which was recognized by her receiving the 1997 Airman of the Year award for the 42nd Supply Squadron. She received numerous honors throughout her career, but the first proud moment that came to her memory was easy to recall.

“The point that I realized that I felt proud was when I put on the uniform, and I was there to be of service,” she recalled. In 2005 she received a commission through the Reserve Officer Training Corps and was reassigned as a Space and Missiles Systems officer. She was assigned to the 3d Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, where she executed duties as a satellite systems operator, satellite vehicle operator, squadron executive officer and chief of the Defense Satellite Control System orbital analysis section.

By 2009, Portillo was named a captain. At this point in her career, the work she was doing became much more meaningful.

“Going in, it was more about what service can do for me. Once I became a captain, I realized that it wasn’t about what the service can do for me, but what I can do for my country.”

With that mindset, Portillo carried on with several other missions, including at one point being assigned to Kyrgyzstan for support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Something else that Portillo excelled at was fitness, which was very different than when she was growing up in Belize.

“I grew up on a small island [in Belize] where there were no major sporting activities for us in high school at the time,” she says. “I ran on the small airstrip to lose weight since I was told my butt was bigger than the other girls.”

That changed when she began her military career. Katherine Portillo maintained “excellent” scores when she took part in Air Force fitness tests. She also ran numerous 5k, 10k, half-marathons, triathlons, and also two full marathons. She would also start training for physique competitions because she didn’t like the way runners looked. She was encouraged to compete by IFBB Pro 212 competitor Luis Santa.

“Luis got me into it. We were all stationed at Schriever Air Force Base ” she said. “He and his wife were the ones to guide me through the process and gave me the itch.”

Her husband, Pavel Ythjall, was a photographer in the fitness industry as well. With that combination of support, Portillo would enter the NPC Bikini division in 2011 by winning the California State Championships. By 2012, she had already won her pro card thanks to her victory in that year’s Junior Nationals. Her first and only contest as a pro was in that year’s Los Angeles Grand Prix, where she finished in 9th place. She encourages fitness enthusiasts who are thinking about competing someday to go all in.

“Definitely try it, and prove to yourself. If you want to compete, or if you want to set any goal, you can do it,” she said. “Don’t doubt yourself and give up right before, either. We actually doubt ourselves right before we hit the mark. I went through that as well. Trust your coach and trust the process of the diet and workout you followed. Stick with the plan and the coach so you can hit that stage. Even if you don’t win, just achieving the goal builds confidence.”

Katherine Portillo in her army uniform driving in a jeep
Courtesy of Katherine Partillo

Life-Altering Accident

While Katherine Portillo was thriving in both of her careers and passions, an unfortunate incident altered the courses of both as well as her life. Portillo and her husband were in a vehicular accident that resulted in her being completely paralyzed from the neck down. Pavel also sustained serious injuries. Even in the midst of such an intense moment, Portillo relied on her military training to help her move forward.

“Staying confident and calm was important. Even when it happened, I had to take charge of the scene,” Portillo recalled. “That something they teach you in the military. You have to take charge of the scene.”

Katherine Portillo did just that by assessing the surroundings, calling 911, and being as knowledgeable as possible regarding her surroundings in such a traumatic moment. She found herself doing it again when she woke up in the hospital.

“Organization has been huge in helping my mindset. As soon as I woke up from my coma, I had to orient myself,” she explained. “Time, space, the nurses, for example, I had to make sure I had a handle on schedules, taking medication, just getting my mind organized at first helped.”

Portillo’s story was traumatic for both herself and Pavel, but Pavel found a way to turn a negative into a positive. He wrote a book about their journey that has already made a profound impact on others since its launch in November of 2021. “True Love & Suffering” is Pavel’s firsthand account of their lives and chronicles their journey since their life-altering accident.

“It was his way to vent about everything we had been through. It was his way of sharing the challenge of the trauma that affected his family and his personal life,” Portillo said. “Hopefully it will help others that are going through their own processes.”

In spite of trying to find ways to resume her career, Portillo was discharged with honors after an 18-year career in the Air Force. While she is no longer on active duty, the skills and mindset that she picked up from her service have stayed with her.

“I have to take charge of my caregivers’ schedule, getting groceries, whatever. I still have that mentality of ‘take charge,’” she said. She also had advice for people that are dreaming of big goals in service, fitness, or any other endeavor they may feel passionate about.

“Life is short, so take action and accomplish everything you can.”

To learn more about “True Love & Suffering,” go to truelovethebook.com.



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