LAGHMAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Civilian contractors and service members working at Forward Operating Base Gamberi gathered outside the Morale, Welfare and Recreation building July 8 to honor the life of Spc. Hilda Clayton during a memorial ceremony.
Clayton was a combat documentation/production specialist assigned to the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), 21st Signal Brigade, of Fort Meade, Md., who died while taking pictures of Afghan National Army soldiers as they conducted a live-fire training exercise on July 2. A mortar weapon system failed, resulting in a catastrophic explosion. During the incident, four Afghan soldiers taking part in the training died.
The Augusta, Ga., native was forward-deployed as the combat camera asset covering the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, “Task Force Long Knife,” at the time of her death.
Images of Clayton as well as pictures she took were projected on a screen as the sun began to set behind the Afghan mountainside. The rest of the 55th Signal Company, soldiers assigned to the different provinces throughout Afghanistan, flew in to pay their respects for their fallen comrade.
“Even though she was with us for a limited time, she had a tremendous impact on us all,” said Lt. Col. William T. Johnson, commander of 4th Brigade’s 5th Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment.
Johnson spoke of Clayton’s enthusiasm she had for her job and her relentlessly positive energy that affected all those around her.
Clayton was a soldier, a friend, a wife, a daughter and a sister. During his remarks, Johnson also said Clayton would truly be missed.
The solemn ceremony included remarks from her supervisors and friends she made while at Gamberi.
Staff Sgt. Darian George, the 55th Signal Company’s noncommissioned officer-in-charge, said he knew Clayton for more than a year. George said Clayton was on her way to becoming an outstanding leader.
“She was the kind of soldier you want to keep in your ranks,” George said. “She was completely devoted to her field, her mission, her husband and to her family.”
George told the crowd to keep Clayton and her family in their thoughts and prayers in the days ahead.
Another soldier who spoke about Clayton was her roommate from Gamberi, Spc. Bridgette LeBeau. Helicopters could be seen buzzing overhead as LeBeau, a psychological operations specialist, said Clayton was like a little sister to her.
LeBeau said she remembers Clayton loved being physically active. Clayton wrestled soldiers twice her size while being certified for U.S. Army Combatives, Level 1, and at other times doing Crossfit exercises with the fitness community at Gamberi.
“Clayton never let her small stature stop her from doing anything,” LeBeau said. “She was an amazing person, and I hope she will never be forgotten.”
The chaplain provided a memorial reflection and benediction in honor of Clayton as the orange glow of the sun slowly began to fade.
The final roll call acknowledging her absence, a firing party of seven soldiers fired three volleys, the loud pops breaking the silence. A bugler played taps and following the ceremony all were encouraged to come forward and pay their final respects.
Spc. Van Seng Thao, also a combat documentation/production specialist assigned to Clayton’s company, said he was part of her four-soldier team and said Clayton wasn’t just another soldier.
He said Clayton affected his company in one way and following the ceremony he saw how big an impact she had on others.
“I thought the ceremony was really good,” Thao said. “I did not realize how much she affected people she worked with here at FOB Gamberi.”
Thao said upon arriving to Afghanistan the combat camera teams were sent to different provinces but kept in touch with the use of social media.
“She was my ‘little sister,’” Thao said. “She always ended our Facebook conversations with goodbye big brother.”
Thao said he learned from being a soldier; he learned from Clayton.
“It’s not something I could put into words,” Thao said. “But I do know that ... it is something I will use to become a better soldier, a better leader and a better person altogether. I will never forget her.”
Clayton is survived by her husband, Chase Clayton, her mother, Evelyn Suarez, her father, Ellis Ortiz, and her half-sister, Josie Suarez.