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The line of duty

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

August was a tough month for Dale and Ann Hampton, part-time residents of Pawleys Plantation.

It always is.

The 18th would have been the 33rd birthday of their only child, Capt. Kimberly Hampton. On Aug. 31, they marked the sixth anniversary of the day she was deployed to Iraq, remembering her bright smile and how happy she was to be going; to serve her country.

“The day she was deployed, she was so excited, she beamed,” Dale said. “She was thrilled by the opportunity.”

For Dale and Ann, it was a day of mixed feelings. They worried about her, of course, but they were so proud of her and they were pleased to see her so happy.

“That’s always a very hard day for parents,” Dale said, “but you still support them. How can you not support somebody who wants to do that?”

There’s still pride in the memory, but also devastating pain and loss.

On Jan. 2, 2004, just three months after her deployment, Kimberly was killed. Her OH-58 Kiowa helicopter was shot down by hostile ground fire in Fallujah. She became the first female pilot in U.S. military history to die in combat and the first woman from South Carolina to die in the Iraq conflict.

She was 27.

“They told us that up to that point, that was the most important mission they had done,” Ann said.

Kimberly’s unit was providing air support for infantry rounding up black market weapons.

She was commander of Delta Troop of the 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.

Kimberly was flying low and fast with a co-pilot, performing evasive maneuvers when they were hit with a heat-seeking missile fired from a rooftop, Dale said. It struck the helicopter’s tail and they lost control. The helicopter hit a wall and Kimberly died instantly in the crash.

When Ann and Dale were notified, it was a confirmation of their worst fears. They’d been living in terror, since Ann got up that morning. Her usual routine was to get out of bed and immediately check her e-mail for a message from Kimberly, then read the news.

“The first thing I saw was that a helicopter had crashed. It gave the location and I knew that’s where she was,” Ann said.

She started calling Fort Bragg, looking for information, but details weren’t being released.

“As the morning progressed, we found out one pilot was dead and we knew there would probably be a communications blackout from Iraq, but we kept calling Fort Bragg.”

On one call, she said she begged the person on the other end “to just tell me if the family has been notified.” But they weren’t allowed to say.

Ann said she thought about all sorts of things during that interminable day while she waited for information, including a conversation in which Kimberly noted things always had a way of working out for her. At the time, Ann told her that “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” Kimberly was always a hard worker.

Ann said she used that memory to convince herself her daughter was safe and things would work out.

She also remembered a call from Kimberly just weeks earlier. Kimberly phoned to say a helicopter had been shot down, but both pilots were all right and back at base.

“She just wanted us to know everything was fine,” Ann said.

But they hadn’t heard anything on Jan. 2, even before the communications blackout.

It was an accident that finally notified the Hamptons their daughter was dead. They had just moved to Seneca and the change in address wasn’t yet reflected in Kimberly’s records.

They’d sold their house in Easley to someone who worked at the same company as Dale.

“The Army went to that house looking for us,” Dale said. The new owner “instantly knew what was going on, so he called a supervisor.”

The supervisor in turn called Dale.

“Then we knew,” he said. But the minutes they spent waiting for Army officials to arrive and give confirmation were the longest of their lives. Finally, at 4:20 p.m., 12 hours to the minute after Kimberly died, the official news arrived.

“When that van pulled in, I just dropped to my knees,” Dale said. “It confirmed that it wasn’t a dream.”

Six years later, Ann wears a small likeness of the helicopter her daughter flew. The small, gold charm is on a chain around her neck and a larger model sits on a coffee table in their living room. Ann also adorns herself with dragonflies, a reference to the book, “Water Bugs and Dragonflies” by Doris Stickney, which uses the insects to help explain death to children. Ann says dragonflies are “God’s helicopters.”

Though it wasn’t something she’d talked about while growing up, it was a lifelong dream for Kimberly to fly. In a booklet she put together in third grade, she wrote that she wanted to fly above the trees like a bird. Dale and Ann found it while she was in flight school and gave it to her when she graduated.

Kimberly made sure they remembered that before she died in a letter she wrote to her parents in 2003, while she was stationed in Afghanistan. That letter helped them through their grief.

“I sent her one of those ‘I worry about you’ type e-mails,” Ann recalled. “She wrote me back the most beautiful answer.”

The gist of the note was that if anything were to happen to Kimberly while serving her country, she wanted her parents to know that she had been doing a job she loved, living her dreams and that she had been happy.

“I pull it out a lot and read it, because it’s confirmation that she did believe in what she was doing,” Ann said. “She considered it a privilege to serve her country.”

Dale said that letter tells a lot about Kimberly. She was thoughtful, smart and had “more depth of life” than many twice her age. She was a good student and was an excellent athlete, playing tennis in high school and at Presbyterian College, where she never lost a conference match.

Dale and Ann said their daughter was always very patriotic and liked the structure the military added to her daily life. When she entered flight school at 21, her parents said they knew it was a careful thoughtout decision.

“I guess we kind of let her take flight,” Ann said. “She had her wings and we had to let her go, because we knew she had made the decision she thought was right.”

They knew she’d be successful, they said, because she was successful at everything she set her mind to.

“She always made it so easy to be proud of her,” Ann said.

Since her death, Kimberly has been recognized in many ways. A library in Easley bears her name, as does an Upstate highway. At her funeral, more than 1,000 people gathered to pay tribute. Dale and Ann said they believe their daughter would be honored and humbled by the attention her life and death garnered.

“She was always gung-ho at everything, but when she got accolades or something, she was a little bit bashful,” Ann said.

Though they lost their daughter to the conflict in Iraq, the Hamptons said they want to see the U.S. finish what it started there.

“We have so many contacts there still,” Dale said, “so we probably have more information than most about how conditions are now as opposed to what they were like when Kimberly got there, not long after it started. The conditions are so much better and we take comfort in that, knowing she was a part of making that happen.”

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