SENECA — It has been said that every parent’s worst fear is losing a child. But if that fear is realized, as it was for Dale and Ann Hampton with the death of their only child Kimberly, you develop a new fear: Will my child be forgotten?
“It was without a doubt the worst thing that has ever happened to us,” Ann Hampton said during a recent interview with The Easley Progress. “I say that it happened to us, but it didn’t. It happened to her. We just have to live with it. We have to live without her now.”
On Jan. 2, 2004, Captain Kimberly Hampton was killed in Iraq when the Kiowa Warrior chopper she was piloting was shot down outside of Fallujah. She was the first female military pilot in American history to be shot down and killed as a result of hostile enemy fire.
She was 27 years old.
“We try to remember and to think about how she lived, not how she died,” said Mrs. Hampton. “She was proud to serve her country, she loved her job, she loved being a helicopter pilot and she knew that what she was doing was worthwhile.”
Since Kimberly’s death, countless memorials, monuments and dedications have been erected in and around Pickens County in her honor, memorials that Mrs. Hampton has mixed feelings about.
“They are bittersweet. I would rather they not have to be there,” she said. “But Kimberly has gotten recognition for her service and, you know, it’s reassuring to see the monuments and the memorials and the library and all, but yes, bittersweet is probably the best word to use for that.”
Recently, an organization known as Flags for Fallen Military held a ceremony in which a memorial flagpole was placed at the Hampton’s home in Seneca in honor of their daughter’s service.
“We were very humbled that they do this,” she said. “A lot of the men — and I suppose women too — are Vietnam vets and those veterans did not receive their homecoming, the recognition, the honor they deserved. But they certainly are doing their best to make sure that the current war’s fallen heroes are being honored and it just really means so much to us.”
History has a way of remembering people for their deeds but it’s important to remember that Mr. and Mrs. Hampton didn’t just bury a soldier. They buried their daughter. Their only child — a little girl they referred to as “their miracle baby” because she didn’t come along until after 12 years of marriage.
“She would take her uniform off and she was … the girl next door,” Mrs. Hampton said and smiled. “She loved the outdoors. She was a very good tennis player. She started playing tennis at about 12-years-old. After she went into the Army she didn’t play a whole lot, but she did play through college.”
Two colleges, in fact.
Kimberly played for Furman University before going on to be an honors graduate and champion tennis player at Presbyterian College where she led the team to three South Atlantic Conference (SAC) women’s tennis tournament titles in a row. Kimberly was named Women’s Tennis Player of the Year in 1997 and 1998 as well as Female Athlete of the Year in 1998 by the SAC.
“She always tried her best,” Mrs. Hampton said. “She wanted her best to be perfect, but if it wasn’t — as long as she knew she had done her best — I think she was happy.
“She was driven, even from a very, very young age,” she continued. “She was passionate about her school work, she was passionate about learning. She loved little kids. When she was stationed in Korea for two years, she tutored English to some Korean children. I remember her telling me about when she went to an orphanage (in Korea) and played with the children and helped take them to a children’s amusement park. In fact, I think she enjoyed that as much as the kids did.”
Although her deployments often kept her stationed at different parts of the country and the world, she always considered Easley to be home.
“Oh, so many things I miss about Easley,” Kimberly wrote in an email on Sept. 18, 2003. “My favorite meal at Joe’s is two grilled cheese sandwiches with fries and sweet tea. Gotta have ice cream afterwards, of course.”
Mrs. Hampton echoed her daughter’s sentiments: “Easley is home. We do not physically live there right now but it has always been home and it will always be home,” she said.
When asked about Kimberly’s home life, Mrs. Hampton’s voice softened.
“She was very dedicated and driven but yet, she still liked to have a good time. She liked hiking and camping and the great outdoors, she loved animals. She was just a … a genuinely good person who enjoyed life, but yet, took it very seriously.”
Following the flag pole dedication at their home, both Mr. and Mrs. Hampton lingered, chatting with neighbors, friends and family about their daughter’s life and service. The ceremony was aptly timed — Aug. 18 would have been Kimberly’s 40th birthday.
“We have two more (flag pole dedications) to do this year but you know, I wish we didn’t have to do these at all,” said Mike Wilson, S.C. coordinator for Flags For Fallen Military. “I wish we didn’t have to do the first one. Every one will break your heart. This is her birthday gift from us. This is our thank you.”
Mr. Hampton expressed appreciation for all who had attended.
“I don’t know if anyone of you can really understand what this feels like,” he said following the ceremony. “The other gold star families out there, they know. But it’s a hard thing to explain. Thank you all for coming out here today, you really don’t know how much it means to us.”
“You know, it has been 12-and-a-half years since Kimberly was killed,” Mrs. Hampton said. “And it’s very humbling — very humbling — to us that after 12-and-a-half years, her memory and her sacrifice and her service are still being remembered.”
They always will be, Mr. and Mrs. Hampton. They always will be.
Reach Kasie Strickland at 864-855-0355.