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Books: From tragedy, a story of inspiration takes flight

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

When Army Capt. Kimberly Hampton was killed in the line of duty in Iraq in 2004, it made international headlines.

The 27-year-old South Carolina native’s OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter was shot down by hostile ground fire in Fallujah on Jan. 2, 2004, just a few months after her deployment. 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.

“There were a lot of stories written and told in the media, and it seemed like in almost every story there was an error,” said Hampton’s mother, Ann, a part-time resident of Pawleys Plantation.

Someone would hear something from someone else and so on and it would make it into print or a broadcast. It was frustrating for Ann and her husband, Dale. Their daughter’s story deserved to be told, but they wanted it told right.

That’s what motivated Ann to tell the story herself with the aid of a professional writer, Anna Simon. The product of their efforts, “Kimberly’s Flight,” was released in hardcover in May by Casemate publishing house.

“With Kimberly being our only child, I really wanted something written that was lasting — something the nurses could read to me in the nursing home. As we get older, memories fade and I wanted her story written down for us.”

It was Dale who had the idea to present Kimberly’s story to a wider audience. He wanted her life to be celebrated.

“Kimberly’s Flight” accomplishes both goals and more.

The book started out as a biography, said Simon, an award-winning journalist who has been with the Greenville News since 1990. She was assigned to write about Kimberly’s death for the paper and spent the days leading up to Kimberly’s funeral with the family. When the Hamptons started talking about a book, they had offers from other writers, but they chose to work with someone they knew; someone nearby, so the project wouldn’t be rushed.

They called Simon and it proved to be the right choice as they ended up working on the project for six years.

She and Ann spent a year working on telling Kimberly’s story in the third person. They found an agent that specializes in books about the military, but when the agent started looking into selling the project, it was found that biographies are only selling right now if the subject is extremely famous.

After talking it over, the authors decided to regroup and write the book as a memoir, told in Ann’s words, as a mother who has lost her only child.

“It’s very much a mother-daughter story,” Simon said. “I’ve had friends say, ‘I know it’s a sad story, so I’m not sure I want to read it,’ but it’s a story of bravery, courage, dedication and love. It’s something hardened military men could read and enjoy that captures the camaraderie and service of the military, or that a middle school girl could read to draw inspiration. Kimberly is a phenomenal female role model.”

Writing the book took as long as it did because Ann needed to stop periodically.

“There would be times when I just couldn’t read anymore. I couldn’t make suggestions,” Ann said.

It was such an emotional experience that she had to take breaks when it got to be too much, but she said Simon never pushed her or rushed her; she was always understanding.

“As a reporter, I knew you just needed space and I’d hear from you when you were ready,” Simon told her.

During the process of planning, writing and then rewriting, the book went from the simple chronicling of a young woman who gave her life in service to her country to a story of inspiration that Ann hopes can be of help to other parents who have lost a child. It’s a story about how a mother managed to go on, to put one foot in front of another every morning after suffering the most painful thing a parent can imagine.

Yet it’s still a tribute to Kimberly — the laughing little girl the Hamptons raised and the strong, amazing woman who was so excited about serving her country and who would have turned 36 next month.

In writing the book, Simon talked to the Hamptons, of course, and drew from news accounts and her own experience surrounding Kimberly’s death. But she also called others who knew Kimberly — people who grew up with her and served with her. It seemed each interview would turn up another person to talk to, so that gradually Simon was able to fill in the holes in Kimberly’s story, coming up with tales of her life even the Hamptons hadn’t known.

The stories were in turn funny, happy and sad. But what showed up again and again was the respect everyone who knew Kimberly seemed to have for her.

Then there were the stories of things that happened after Kimberly was killed. Simon calls them “everyday miracles.”

“Some soldiers feel Kimberly protected them after her death,” she explains.

The stories were heartwarming and perhaps even healing for Ann and her husband.

“I knew Kimberly was a very kind, loving person, but since her death I’ve heard so many stories from people she grew up with and went to school with and served with,” Ann said. “Her compassionate nature came out. She had a kind of tendency to pull for the underdog. She helped a lot of people by showing a kindness to them, maybe when others did not. I knew she was that way, but I didn’t know to what extent until after her death.”

The book hasn’t been out long, but so far the response has been incredible, Simon said. It’s already in its second printing and the authors have made the rounds, doing talks and signings, including military bases. They receive letters and e-mails of thanks from people who enjoy and are helped by the book.

“So many people have told us that once they started it, they couldn’t put it down,” Ann said. “It’s really not a sad story, although some people have said they laughed and cried as they were reading it.”

Simon cried as she wrote it.

“But I think it’s a story of hope and faith and believing, of following your dreams,” Ann said.

She wants people who read it to take something positive from it.

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