It’s tough for most Americans to learn much about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the U.S. military has waged since 9/11. So it’s all the more important to pay attention when combat chronicles – and their impact back home – surface.
Anna Simon covered the 2004 death in Iraq of Kimberly Hampton for South Carolina’s The Greenville News. She became friendly with Kimberly’s mother, Ann Hampton, after writing a series of articles about Kimberly. The pair chatted with Battleland via email recently about their book, Kimberly’s Flight: The Story of Captain Kimberly Hampton, America’s First Woman Combat Pilot Killed in Battle:
How did Kimberly N. Hampton die?
Ann Hampton, mother: Kimberly was flying an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter above the outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq, providing cover for ground troops raiding an illicit weapons marketplace when she was shot down on Jan. 2, 2004.
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She chose to lead her troops on a mission she knew would be particularly dangerous. It was a mission others were slated to lead. While her death left her father and me with a hole in our hearts that will never heal, she left a powerful legacy of dedication to her mission, to her troops, and to her country that fills us with pride.
Who was she?
Anna Simon, reporter: An all-American girl from a small Southern mill town, U.S. Army Captain Kimberly N. Hampton was a top student, student body president, ROTC battalion commander, highly ranked college tennis player, and West Point appointee. She overcame demons of doubt after deciding to leave the Academy and found joy on a different path to the life she wanted.
Driven by ambition and determination, Kimberly rapidly rose through the ranks in a typically all-male bastion of military aviation to command Delta Troop, 1/17 Cavalry, 82nd Airborne Division.
She lived her dream of commanding U.S. Army Cavalry troops, and was America’s first female military pilot killed in combat by the enemy. Her name graces memorial walls and highway signs throughout the country, including the U.S. Army 1/17th Cavalry Headquarters at Ft. Bragg, N.C., an Army ROTC field-training course at Ft. Lewis, Washington, and the county library headquarters in her hometown of Easley, South Carolina.
Why is she worth a book?
Anna Simon, reporter: Kimberly’s Flight presents Kimberly’s exemplary life as an inspiration for young people who want to serve their country. Her parents’ journey since the death of their only child adds depth to a story they hope will serve as an inspiration for all parents who have suffered the loss of a child. Kimberly’s story is a true slice-of-life saga of what is good, decent and honorable in America today.
How did Kimberly fare amid the macho world of military aviation?
Anna Simon, reporter: First and foremost she was a soldier and wanted to be recognized as such. She won the respect of her troops through grit, determination and hard work, as well as a rare combination of intelligence and street smarts.
In one of about 50 interviews for the book with those who knew her, mentored her, and served with her, one pilot who flew with her in Iraq told me he tended to forget that she was female. He said he was reminded of her gender only when she took her hair out of the tight bun she typically wore and pulled it into a ponytail so it would fit under her helmet before she got into the cockpit.
A flight instructor with her troops in Iraq put it this way: “She had the command presence and was going to make the decision and was going to do the right thing. She wasn’t afraid of being in command. She wasn’t afraid of commanding mostly males, which is kind of difficult in the military sometimes.”
Ann Hampton, mother: In the forward to the book, Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell IV, as commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, wrote:
“Not only does the act of jumping out of an airplane into the total darkness of night from a mere 800 feet above the ground require an aversion to risk most commonly found in testosterone-laden young males, but the physical rigors of jumping with more than 100 pounds of combat equipment strapped to one’s person challenges even the fittest male, not to mention typically lighter females. Consequently, women were not allowed to serve in the 82nd Airborne until 1979. Even today, these challenges remain large enough hurdles that the Division remains 90-95% male. This simple statistic says much about Captain Hampton’s dedication and toughness.”
Caldwell continues, saying: “While most aspiring helicopter pilots in the Army, men and women, choose to serve as Blackhawk or Chinook pilots who ferry troops about the battlefield, Kimberly chose the far more dangerous path of becoming an OH-58 “Kiowa” pilot. This specialty meant that her mission was to actively seek out and engage the enemy, and it has only been open to women since the 1990s. She subsequently became one of the first female combat aviation commanders in the history of the 82nd Airborne. It was this decision which inevitably put her at the frontlines outside Fallujah, Iraq, on a fateful winter day.”
Is that world changing because of women like Kimberly?
Anna Simon, reporter: As more and more women take leadership roles in the military and other formerly male-dominated career fields, role models like Kimberly serve as examples to follow and as confidence-boosters when the going gets tough.
A young intelligence officer in Iraq who took reports from Kimberly and other pilots as they went off duty was about to take command herself when I interviewed her for the book. She told me she reflects often on Kimberly’s qualities as a leader, and described Kimberly as a female role model this way: “She was able to exert her authority without raising her voice, without being mean. She was still a lady…Despite her overwhelming responsibilities as a troop commander, she was still a lovely person, she was still a sweet person, she was still a humble person.”
How is Kimberly’s family faring:
Ann and Dale Hampton, parents: The loss of a child is the most devastating event any parent can experience. Your children simply are not supposed to die before you do and when it happens, it turns your world upside down and causes you to change all plans for the future because your children are your future.
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Because we had been married 12 years before Kimberly came into our world and she was our only child, we probably had a closer relationship with her than many parents might have with their children. To say the loss was crushing would be a gross understatement.
There is no way to describe the pain and anguish. We felt as if our world was coming to an end when she died. However, having received comfort and support from so many people, both known and unknown, and also the Army’s continuing moral support of us, along with our growing faith, we are learning to deal with our loss.
Since January 2, 2004, our focus has been to find ways to turn our tragedy into something positive for others, thereby redirecting our sorrow into another channel that will give comfort and support to others in need.
So far this has worked well for us and we have grown stronger emotionally and spiritually as a result. Kimberly’s Flight has provided us with an additional outlet for our emotions and has given us a medium through which we can to reach out to others who have also experienced the loss of a child.
Kimberly always did an outstanding job in whatever task she would undertake and she always made us proud of her…now we are trying to do our jobs well so she will be proud of us.
Even though Ann’s two trips to the Kurdish region of Iraq and her continuing personal interactions and relationships with numerous Iraqi people have helped her healing process immensely, neither of us will ever truly “heal” nor have “closure” in the death of our only child. It is hoped that our efforts to look for the positives in our situation can become an example for others who have also experienced the loss of a child and allow us to “walk with them” as they too travel down this same dark path we are on.