WASHINGTON -- A chance meeting led to Jill Castilla making a life-altering choice.Castilla worked as a grocery store clerk in the central Oklahoma town of Stillwater when she decided to enlist in the Army National Guard. One night, she carried groceries to the car of a man who happened to be an Army recruiter.The recruiter encouraged the struggling college student to join the Army for its educational and professional development opportunities and the means to become financially independent.“At the time, it really was just an answer to prayers and gave me a lot of hope to be able to continue developing myself,” said Castilla, now a civilian aide to the secretary of the Army and CEO of Citizens Bank in Edmond, Oklahoma.She eventually rose to become one of the top banking executives in Oklahoma. The former Army technical engineer has been recognized for her innovation in interactive customer service ATM products and retail banking technology.She also recently collaborated with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to start a forgiveness program for customers who have experienced delays in receiving their stimulus checks during the pandemic.As part of the effort, she worked with over 400 banks in developing a policy that allowed customers to over withdraw their bank accounts while waiting for their stimulus checks to arrive.“It was like being on ‘Shark Tank’ [Cuban’s TV series],” she said. “I had my pitch and then he destroyed my pitch. And then he had his pitch and I had some questions. We agreed to keep collaborating, and I committed to delivering an outline of my next steps.”As a young college student, Castilla had to pledge to a new outline of her life. She said few in her hometown of Okmulgee, Oklahoma, attended college and she even considered leaving school to return there to work at another grocery store.With her student debt rising and no car, she had reached a crossroads.“I was carrying groceries out all night and working and going to school all day,” Castilla said. “I was walking to work, walking to school and just trying to make ends meet.“I really was at a point of hopelessness. I was planning to go back to my hometown and just work in the grocery store again, and then I realized I could see a strong future for myself.”Army serviceAfter graduating from basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, Castilla served as a 12T construction tech engineer. She later married a fellow Soldier and while the couple was stationed in Hawaii, she worked at a t-shirt shop in Honolulu’s tourist hub, Waikiki. There, her boss noticed her business analytical skills and interest in human behavior and steered her toward finance and bankingShe earned a bachelor’s degree in finance from Hawaii Pacific University and later a master’s in economics from the University of Oklahoma. Castilla returned to the Sooner State after her military service where she landed a position at the Federal Reserve. That position landed her stints at banks in Kansas City and Minnesota before taking over at Citizens.More than 20 years later, she has become one of the top banking executives in the state, having earned recognition as American Banker’s “Community Banker of the Year” in 2017. But she said she would not have reached her career goals without the life lessons she acquired from serving in the Guard.“The foundation of who I am as a leader today comes from those early days of being a private in the Army,” Castilla said.Now she wants to give the same opportunity to potential Soldiers who have reached similar turning points in their lives. After being appointed a CASA, she met with Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy shortly after. McCarthy, a former Army Ranger, presented her with a signed copy of the Rangers’ handbook that she frequently references while serving as a CASA.“He expects boots on the ground and for us to really be in these schools and be highly engaged and look for opportunities in which we can sell that Army story,” Castilla said.In addition to supporting recruiting, Army CASAs bolster the Army’s relations with local communities as well as connect with National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve units.RecruitingCastilla said she primarily focuses on bolstering recruiting in the state, as the Army listed Oklahoma City as one of its 22 target cities. Castilla, who resides in a northern suburb of the city, has worked with Oklahoma school superintendents to help Army recruiters gain better access to schools.“Oklahoma is incredibly patriotic … and supports our military,” she said. “But we aren't very successful in getting [its] sons and daughters to enlist in the military or join ROTC or attend the service academy.”Castilla served on the transition team for Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and plans to use her connections in the highest levels of the state’s government to assure representation for the Army. She also maintains a consistent social media presence to connect with schools on Twitter. Social media interaction also led to her partnership with Cuban.Meanwhile, Castilla’s Army story continues to grow. Her son, Ryan, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy last year and currently serves as an armor officer while her daughter, Olivia, will attend the U.S. Naval Academy. Her husband, Marcus, an Army lieutenant colonel and military policeman, will retire next year.Many of her clients either currently serve or have retired from the military, she added, while she also continues to interact with veterans in the region.Castilla said her life easily could have taken a different turn, had she not made the choice to enlist or had she not crossed paths with an Army recruiter at that Stillwater grocery store.“I think it's a great story to tell parents and that their daughters and sons can have a successful experience in the military,” she said. “And if they don't make it a career, it can provide the foundation for a great career after.”Related LinksMore about U.S. Army CASAsCASAs' unique skill sets support Army goalsArmy News ServiceARNEWS ArchivesFollow Joe Lacdan on TWITTER