After growing up in a military family and then becoming an Army Officer herself, Katie Vail knows a thing or two about moving. In fact, the mom-of-two — soon to be three! — has lived in Virginia, Maryland, and Kansas in just the past few years and recently moved her family to Hawaii. Yes, Hawaii!
Because they relocate quite often, Katie — who is now a lifestyle blogger at Stripes & Whimsy! — has become an expert in making a rental house a home and the Vail family’s current 1,300-square-foot abode in Oahu is no exception. With some incredible furniture DIYs, a lot of family photos, and an adorable play area for her two little kids, Katie has turned their space into a comfortable and cheery home with the perfect beach-inspired decor.
Keep scrolling to check out Katie’s best moving tips and mom hacks, learn how her decor style has changed over the years, and find out her favorite parts of raising kids in Hawaii!
Name: Katie Vail
Location: Oahu, Hawaii
Sq. Ft.: 1,300
Years Lived In: Just over 2!
Rent or Own: Rent
Children: Jackson, 4, Caroline, 2, and baby #3 is due in December!
Before we get into your home’s gorgeous decor, tell us a little bit about yourself!
I was born and raised near Atlanta, Georgia. For college, I attended the United States Military Academy at West Point where I graduated in 2009 (I come from a long line of Army officers). West Point grads receive a Bachelor of Science degree upon graduation and are also commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the Army (which means we’re the Army’s junior leaders). A fantastic free education and job security are two of the many perks of attending one of the Service Academies, although in return you owe at least eight years of service in the military, five of which must be spent on Active Duty.
My area of concentration was human resources, so I was trained to process military awards, personnel actions, pay, and assignments for the soldiers in my unit. I served over five years on Active Duty, and during that time, I attended military schools in Oklahoma and South Carolina, was stationed in Hawaii, deployed to Afghanistan, and served on the Army Staff at the Pentagon working to open all career opportunities up to women in the Army.
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You went to West Point, which is a very prestigious U.S. Military Academy. Tell us about your time at this historic school!
It was a humbling experience, that’s for sure! Everyone that attends the school was at the top of their class in high school. Then, you get there, and it’s like drinking from a fire hose as you learn how the Army works (ranks, saluting, marching, shooting a rifle, ruck marching with 45 pounds on your back, wearing a uniform, memorizing random facts, physical training, making your bed and folding your clothes the right way, etc. Oh and then all the academic work required at an engineering school too). You quickly realize you don’t know nearly as much as you thought you did. I was in survival mode most of the time, and I felt like I was always treading water.
When I was a West Point Cadet, women only made up around 16 percent of each class (it’s now around 24 percent). It’s an interesting experience going from high school, where the ratio is approximately 50:50, to being at a Military Academy where you’re often the only female in your class. I even had a combatives class (one of the required classes… lots of PE requirements which is different from most colleges!) where I was the only woman… so every single day, my sparring/wrestling partners were all men. I never let any of it phase me though, and those guys I went to school with became brothers to me. It can be easy to be judged as a woman in that kind of environment, so I just made sure to always be in as good of shape as possible so that I could hold my own in the physical things, like running, ruck marching, swimming, etc.
Were there any particular skills you learned during your time at West Point that have translated nicely to motherhood?
I spent four years juggling heavy academic, military, and physical loads… three very different things! I learned about time management and balancing priorities when you know there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything. That’s a lot like motherhood when you think about it! As moms, there are so many things on our plates, and you sometimes have to decide what you can let slide.
I also learned the importance of teamwork, because without support from my peers in college (tutoring, tips on how to do faster sit-ups, someone to listen when you’re overwhelmed), I never would have succeeded. As a mom, I know I wouldn’t be nearly as happy without my tribe, and I’m thankful that my time in the military taught me to make friends quickly, because that’s definitely an asset when you move around a lot (my husband is still Active Duty, so I’m now an Army spouse as well as an Army Reservist).
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In addition to being an Army Reserve Officer, you also have a blog called Stripes and Whimsy! Tell us about starting your blog.
I stated my blog back in 2013 when I was working at the Pentagon. I had spent the previous eight years wearing a military uniform and lived in Army barracks much of that time, and I needed a way to get out some of my creative energy. Despite wearing camouflage for work and being limited with what items I was allowed to have in my room, I never lost my passion for clothes or decorating, so I decided I’d start writing about it!
Starting a blog really intimidated me because it was such a departure from my day job, but sharing my affordable style finds, furniture DIYs, and (now) motherhood content has become such a passion of mine. I’ve connected with so many women, and I’m so thankful for the community that has been created through my blog.
You’ve moved around a lot due to your career and one of your previous homes in Washington D.C. was featured on The Everygirl in 2014! Tell us about where you’ve lived since then.
I’ve been all over the place since then! I left the Active Duty Army about eight months after my home tour on The Everygirl, and I also got married, so we moved from Arlington, Virginia to Columbia, Maryland to be closer to my husband’s work. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment for about 14 months and then moved to a two-bedroom apartment shortly before our son, Jack, was born.
We lived there for seven months and then moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where my husband attended the Army’s 11-month school for Majors. We lived in the most amazing 115-year-old historic home on post. (In the military, you can choose to live off post or on post, and we’ve always lived off post but decided to live on Fort Leavenworth since we’d only be there for 11 months. We really hit the housing assignment jackpot!) I still dream about that house. It had so much character, like a butler’s pantry, ornate tin ceilings, two fireplaces, a spacious porch, three stories plus an attic… things we definitely never had living in tiny apartments in the DC area! It had its quirks (drafty windows, no bathrooms on the main floor, and about 100 layers of paint on everything), but it’s an experience I’ll never forget.
After that 11-month stint in the midwest, my husband received an assignment in Hawaii (which is where we met when we were both working here from 2009-2012), so we moved to our current home and have loved growing our family and raising our babies by the ocean.
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Was it difficult to move around frequently and also plan for a family?
It’s just part of military life so you learn to adapt. As an Army brat myself (my dad is also a West Point grad and a retired Army Officer), an Army Officer, and now as an Army spouse, it’s the life that I know and I’m thankful for the experiences (and friends!) it has provided. By the time my son turned 2, he had already lived in Maryland, Kansas, and Hawaii. It’s definitely not the lifestyle everyone would choose, but we’ve enjoyed it. My husband has already served 20 years on Active Duty, so he’ll be retiring from the military next year and, I’m not going to lie, I’m looking forward to settling down and truly making a house our home. We don’t know where we’ll land (it’s all dependent on where he gets a job), but the thought of buying a house, being able to renovate if we want to, and having our own yard makes me very excited.
When it came to having children, we just kind of had to decide that it was time whether we had an impending move or not (we moved to Hawaii when I was 32 weeks pregnant with my daughter and will leave here five months after our third child is born). Whether you’re in the military or not, it’s nearly impossible for the timing to be perfect. You just adapt accordingly, and even if the logistics are tricky, a new baby is always a blessing!
Tell us all about what it’s like to live in Oahu!
It’s definitely a different world! Obviously, it’s still the United States, but things are a bit more laid back here, and when you’re type-A, it can take some adjusting. We love that we can go to the beach year-round, and it’s nice not having to worry about buying the kids winter clothes because we just wear summer clothes all the time. We love going to the beach, and there is never a shortage of things to do outside. Our kids are going to be shocked once they experience a real winter! My daughter calls all pants “pajamas” because those are the only pants she ever wears.
Are there any difficult aspects of living in Hawaii?
Living far from family can be tough. Both of our families live on the East Coast, so we don’t see them nearly as often as we’d like. It wasn’t a big deal when I lived here without kids, but seeing how much my kids miss their grandparents can be tough. I also miss silly things like Trader Joe’s and fall clothing, but it would definitely be blasphemous to complain about living here!
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What are the best parts of living in Hawaii with kids?
We try to go to the beach once a week and end up at the pool a few times a week too. My kids are fish! It’s tough not to want to be outside all the time. There are also lots of kid-friendly hikes on the island, so we do that from time to time too. Most trips in the car are relatively short since the island isn’t all that large, but you do have to plan around Honolulu rush hour because it can be brutal!
What was it like finding a home in Hawaii?
Living in Hawaii is unlike living anywhere else, and it’s incredibly expensive. We knew we would only be here for three years, so we opted to rent. Each town/area has a very different feel, and you have to decide what is important to you: the size of your home, proximity to the ocean, or commuting time. We decided that location was the most important, so we live in a pretty small three-bedroom condo that was definitely built to be more of a vacation rental than a full-time family home (tiny washer and dryer and minimal storage space). But we can see the ocean from our living room and have restaurants and several beaches within walking distance, so the cramped quarters are worth it for all of the other things we’ve gained by living here. My husband’s commute is rough some days, but he says he feels like he’s on vacation when he gets home… and what could be better than that?!
Since we had both lived here before we knew exactly where we wanted to live, so the day after we arrived in Honolulu we met with a realtor who showed us two condos in this community. After seeing the view from the second unit, we knew that was the place for us! We signed the lease a couple of days later and never looked back.
What were some of the things you were looking for in a home?
We wanted to be close to the ocean and knew we needed three bedrooms since we had a toddler son and I was seven months pregnant with our daughter when we moved here. A neighborhood pool was important too, as was a lanai (that’s what we call patios and balconies here) with room for a bistro table and chairs. The inside of our home is pretty standard as far as 20-year-old rentals go… and we’ve had to learn to work around the vertical blinds and brown carpet that even goes into one of the bathrooms.
Unfortunately, a guest bedroom or office wasn’t in our budget, so we’ve learned to make do with the space we have. My little desk is tucked into a corner in the living room and my parents sleep on a blow-up mattress in the living room when they visit. Not ideal but hey, it’s Hawaii, and we’re just happy to all be together!
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How was living in Hawaii influenced your decor style?
My style has definitely evolved as I’ve gotten older and moved from place to place. The first time I lived in Hawaii as a 23 to 26-year-old, I was obsessed with beachy decor, but then once I moved back to the mainland, I realized I’d gone way overboard and learned that seashells and “this way to the beach” signs aren’t a natural fit in every location.
My taste shifted a bit, and in my 2014 Everygirl home tour, I was very inspired by bright colors (I like to think of that as my Kate Spade phase). I was 27 years old and single, so who could blame me!? I’ve simplified things as we’ve moved (and since getting married and becoming a mom), and now I prefer more neutral colors (lots of blue and white) and natural textures with a few pops of color here and there. I’ve learned through trial and error that less is more and that it’s best when everything in your home isn’t screaming for your attention. I’ll never be a minimalist, but I appreciate simplicity and classic pieces a whole lot more now.
Were there any quirky with your current home? If so, how did you design around them?
The vertical blinds over our giant glass sliding door were such an eyesore, and Jack kept pulling them down one by one. They looked awful. Then, I learned about NONO brackets. They attach to the frame of the vertical blinds, and you can hang a curtain rod from it. We just pushed the vertical blinds all the way to the left and now use the curtains that are hung from a rod attached to the top of the blinds. You’d never even know, and it was such an easy fix!
We also have very ugly carpet, so I just put rugs down to help anchor each space and also cover up the eyesore. It’s not ideal (gosh, I miss hardwood floors!), but it works for now. There were also three ceiling fans in a line in our main living area (all within about a 20-foot space), so I replaced the middle one with a woven chandelier to give our dining area a little more ambiance.
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How do you incorporate kids’ stuff when square footage isn’t in abundance?
Pretty yet functional storage is so important, especially if you live in a small space. The kids’ main play area is our living room — complete with a special aerial beach photo by my friend and a fellow Hawaii blogger, Kait Hanson — so in order to prevent my home from looking like a daycare, everything is stored in baskets or bins. But storage containers alone are not the answer. You need a system in place to make sure everything has a home. Labels are the key to making it work and keeping it organized! I also rotate toys frequently. As soon as the kids stop playing with something, I’ll pack it away and pull something else out. I also try to not have too many toys out at one time because if there are too many options I’ve found that they flit about from toy to toy and never play deeply with anything.
You frequently share ingenious DIYs for furniture and design on your blog. Do you have a favorite DIY so far in your Oahu home?
Thank you! I haven’t had a whole lot of luck thrifting here in Hawaii (most of my pieces were found in the D.C. area or in Kansas), but I love our vintage rattan headboard that I found on Craigslist this spring and then painted French blue. It’s amazing what a vision, some elbow grease, and a coat of paint can accomplish. It’s made for a king-sized bed (we have a queen), but one day once we’re settled somewhere, we’ll upgrade. Some of my favorite older DIY furniture projects that are still in our home include this faux bamboo dresser, this campaign dresser and hutch, these Chinese Chippendale dining chairs, this faux bamboo vanity, and this blue campaign dresser that I use as a desk. And then even though I didn’t technically do the upholstery on my midcentury sofa and wingback chairs myself, I can’t not include them. They were in my Everygirl home tour, and they’re still staples in our home! New fabric and a professional upholstery job can totally transform pieces that have good bones!
My blue and white plate wall is my favorite design DIY in this home. Many of the plates are family heirlooms (grandparents’ wedding china, plates my great-great-aunt painted with gold, inherited West Point plates from 1930), and I’ve collected the other plates from thrift stores and antique malls over the years. I think it’s a unique way to fill the space and use pieces that tell a story.
How do you make a home feel like yours when you have limited time between moves?
No matter how long you’re in a place, it’s so important to for it to feel like home. Family photos are really important to me, so they always have a place in our home. I like to hang mine as a gallery wall in affordable gold, white, and natural wood frames for a cohesive look. My kids always point out their family members in the photos, even if it’s been months since they’ve seen them. I also like to use family heirlooms with memories attached to them, as well as unique pieces that my husband and I have acquired over time in different places we’ve lived or visited. I bartered for the rug that’s under our dining table when I was deployed to Afghanistan, and the blue and white vase on the table was purchased on one of my husband’s temporary duty work trips to Korea.
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How do you think your approach to purchasing furnishings has developed throughout your time in the Army and during your many moves?
I think military families (or people who move frequently for work) either fall into two camps when it comes to their thoughts on furniture: some people only purchase cheap furniture that doesn’t have sentimental value because they figure it’ll get beat up with frequent moves and may not work in their next home (totally understandable!), while others decide it’s worth the risk so that you truly feel at home, wherever you are in the world. I fall into the latter category and learned to be this way by observing my grandmothers and mom, who were all Army wives as well. I can’t imagine not being surrounded by items I love, and certainly couldn’t put off collecting diamonds in the rough as I find them!
Figuring out how to arrange our furniture in each new home is a bit of a Tetris game, but I enjoy the challenge of it. One thing I’ve had to make concessions on is curtains. It would be crazy to buy new curtains for each new home to fit different window heights, so for now, some of our curtains are too short (like in my son’s room), and on many windows, we’ve decided to just embrace the horizontal blinds that came with the apartment, no matter how much of an eyesore they are. It’s all about choosing your priorities, especially when you move frequently.
What advice would you give to someone who has to move with children?
Be as organized as possible and plan well. Kids grow so quickly, and when we move, I always make sure to only travel with clothes that have some room for them to grow (you never know how long it’ll be before you see your stuff again). Also, purge things before you leave. Donate toys that aren’t used, sell or donate outgrown clothing that you don’t want to keep as keepsakes (this can be tough but you have to remove emotion sometimes); anything you can do beforehand will make settling into your new home that much easier. Once we’re in a new space, I always try to set up the kids’ rooms first. That way they can start feeling like they’re really home and can settle into a good routine (and also have a place to play while you tackle boxes in other areas).
How do your children inspire you?
They inspire me to embrace the silly side of life. They love to dance and laugh and be goofy, and watching them is a good reminder to live in the moment!
Do you think your design style has changed since you became a mother?
It has changed a little bit, but I think it’s important to teach kids to be respectful of decorative items that aren’t meant to be played with. I’ve had to remove most things from our coffee table, and our bar cart is now packed away, but other than that, I just try to elevate the more fragile things and place their things on the lower levels. At Christmas time, we have the “One Finger Rule” where they can touch the Christmas ornaments with one finger. Sounds crazy, but it works! I also place the kid-friendly ornaments at the bottom so that I don’t have to worry about them, and I also like to keep a bowl of large jingle bells for the kids to place in the lower branches. They love it!
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Can you talk us through your typical day?
I get up at 6am when my son wakes up and immediately make coffee for myself and make him breakfast. Jack had a severe speech delay and some developmental delays that qualified him for special education preschool when he turned 3, so he goes to school five days a week at our local elementary school. It has been such a huge blessing and now he has a vocabulary of a 5-year-old! My daughter wakes up a bit later, and we’re all out the door by 7:15am to take him to school and then my daughter and I head to the YMCA, where she attends school twice a week for three hours at a time. I try to use those three hours of free time to exercise (I either swim, run, or do a Glowbody PT workout), and then work on my computer. Then, we’ll head home for lunch and naptime, and I’ll tidy the house a bit, work on my blog, and often take a 30-minute nap too (I’m currently seven months pregnant so those naps are getting longer and longer though).
My son gets off the bus around 3pm. In the afternoon, we’ll often go to the pool, play with friends, or go for a walk. The kids will eat dinner around 5:30pm, and once my husband gets home from work, we’ll often go down to the beach and watch the sunset and play in the sand or under the banyan tree. Bedtime is 7:30pm, and we always tag team and take turns doing bath and reading books to the kids. I normally cook dinner once the kids are in bed since my husband’s schedule is pretty unpredictable. Then, we watch a show or two on Netflix or Amazon Prime and try to get in bed before 9:30pm so we can read. My husband is the tidier one (I definitely married well!), so he typically cleans up the house before bed. It’s nice waking up to a clean kitchen and organized living room!
If you had to choose just one, what has been your favorite moment of motherhood so far?
I really love the phase my children are at right now. They’re 22 months apart, and at 2 and 4 years old, they are finally at the point where they truly play together now. Hearing their laughter and watching their imaginations at work is such a joy!
What advice would you give your 22-year-old self?
Never quit finding joy in the little things, don’t give up hope, and don’t worry about what other people think. I was widowed at 24 when my first husband was killed in Afghanistan, and the ability to find joy in the smallest things was essential in helping me through the darkest days of grief. Despite the most devastating loss imaginable, I never had a day where I didn’t get out of bed. I clung to hope and knew that one day I’d be happy again. Eventually, I met my husband, Tom, and I felt like my soul had known him forever (no matter how hokey that sounds). He’s a bit older than I am, but I have realized that age really is just a number. I was also worried about people criticizing me for finding love again. But you know what? Everyone who loves me is so thankful that Tom was able to bring happiness to my life again. He’s exactly the man I needed, he’s strong enough to handle my past, and I met him right when I was supposed to. I can’t imagine not having the life we’ve built together! Another thing I’d tell myself is to quit picking your face and always wear sunscreen!
Katie Vail is The Everymom…
Favorite Sunday activity? A run with my husband and the kids in the jogging stroller. Though, I’m currently very pregnant and not running these days! Then, a morning spent at the beach followed by long afternoon naps for everyone 🙂
I am happiest when… I’m surrounded by family and near the ocean. Hawaii and Fripp Island, South Carolina are my happy places!
Last movie you saw in theaters? Oh gosh, I can’t even remember! It’s been years since I’ve gone to the movies.
Best way to unwind at the end of a long day? A glass of wine (when I’m not pregnant) and watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean with my husband while the kids run around between us.
Go-to restaurant order? A really good piece of steak or a nice piece of fish if we’re near the ocean. Or pizza and always dessert haha.
Favorite ice cream flavor? Anything with lots of chocolate in it!
Cake or pie? Cake!
Biggest mom fail? One time, when my son was about 15 months old, he broke out in a terrible, full-body rash. After a dose of Benadryl, the rash started to go away and then when I put him to bed that evening I completely forgot to close the outside sliding door (and screen) that was in his room. He woke up covered in mosquito bites… on top of the rash that was finally starting to go away. Needless to say, I felt like the worst mom ever after that.