When Kimberly Hampton headed off to war the first time, she sent her mother an e-mail, joking about the hazards of flying a small helicopter. But she had a serious message, too.
"If there is anything I can say to ease your mind ... if anything ever happens to me, you can be certain that I am doing the things I love," she wrote. "... I’m living my dreams for sure, living life on the edge at times and pushing the envelope. ...
"So, worry if you must," she added, "but you can be sure that your only child is living a full, exciting life and is HAPPY!"
Kimberly Hampton wrote that message on Feb. 4, 2003, while stationed in Afghanistan. Eleven months later, the 27-year-old Army captain was killed in Fallujah, Iraq, when her Kiowa helicopter was shot down.
"A lot of times when I’m feeling down, I’ll read it," her mother, Ann, says of the note. "It doesn’t take away the hurt or the loneliness. It does reinforce the fact that she was happy."
Growing up in Easley, S.C., Kimberly Hampton excelled at most everything: She was the high school student body president and captain of the tennis team, then ROTC battalion commander and an honors graduate from Presbyterian College.
Her dreams of taking to the skies began early. When she finished Army flight school, her parents presented her with a composition she had written in third grade saying she "would like to fly like a bird."
Hampton liked the structure and discipline of the military and in college wrote a letter to her mother, saying: "The United States needs good, solid troops in the hot spots. That’s where I want to be."
Stationed with the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq, she had taken over a troop command months before her death.
"She was an overachiever," her mother says. "She felt she had to work harder, maybe because she was female. But that didn’t bother her."
Ann Hampton says she was comforted by a chaplain in Iraq who said he admired her daughter because "she never lost her femininity."
"Being in command, she had to be rough and tough ... but she was extremely fair," her mother says. "Just because she lived in a man’s world, she didn’t try to be a man. At night, she could take her hair out of the bun, and still look like a beautiful girl."
"She was a sweet girl, tenderhearted," her mother adds. "She was just real genuine."
To his friends in the Army, he was known as Sheldon Hawk Eagle.
To his family and fellow tribe members, the 21-year Army private killed in Iraq was also remembered with a proud Lakota name: Wanbli Ohitika — Brave Eagle.
A member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, he was one of 17 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division killed last November in a collision of two helicopters in Mosul, Iraq.
Hawk Eagle could trace his bloodline to two great Indian chiefs: Crazy Horse on his father’s side, and Sitting Bull on his mother’s, according to his aunt, Barbara Strikes Enemy Turner.
Her nephew was quiet and loyal, a mature young man who gave every decision careful thought, says Turner, who helped raise him after his parents died. "He didn’t jump into anything," she recalls. "He was very meticulous and organized."
Hawk Eagle was a talented artist who loved to draw and paint and a classic car buff who knew every model he saw on the road. Hawk Eagle also adored kids and talked about a career in child psychology, looking to the Army to pay for college. But the military turned out to be such a good fit, his aunt says, he thought it might be his life.
"He loved it and everything about it," she says. "He said, ’This is where I need to be right now.’"
Other American Indian troops have died in Iraq, including Army specialist Lori Piestewa, a Hopi believed to be the first American Indian woman killed while fighting for the U.S. military.
Friends and family mourned and celebrated Hawk Eagle’s life in two days of ceremonies that featured tribal drums, Lakota songs and prayers, an overnight vigil and, his aunt says, the presentation of a red feather — akin to a Purple Heart.
A procession led by a riderless horse covered with a red, white and blue blanket and a wagon carrying the flag-draped coffin made its way through the streets of Eagle Butte, S.D. Hawk Eagle’s sister, Frankie, removed her brother’s yellow ribbon from a tree outside the high school gymnasium, where more than 1,000 people gathered.
Hawk Eagle’s funeral was held at sunrise, then a cortege made the 150-mile journey to the Black Hills National Cemetery, where a Black Hawk helicopter flew overhead in tribute.
"The sun was shining. That was good," his aunt says. "But it was a hard day. It was so hard."
When Frank T. Carvill told his sister he had been called up to go to Iraq, she was stunned.
"Gee, Frank, are you going to be part of the AARP battalion?" she teased, referring to the retirees lobbying group.
At 51, Carvill, an Army sergeant with the New Jersey National Guard, was among the oldest soldiers to die in Iraq. He was killed last June in an ambush outside Baghdad that also claimed the lives of four other Guard members from New Jersey and Oregon.
Carvill had escaped both terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, where he worked as a paralegal. In 1993, he helped a co-worker down 54 floors to safety. On Sept. 11, 2001, he left the north tower moments before one of the hijacked planes plowed into the building.
Carvill was a voracious reader who loved politics, an outdoorsman who enjoyed kayaking, a trusted friend who had the same buddies for 30 years.
He was a devoted big brother to Peggy Liguori, who still remembers how as kids, he took her to see "Blue Hawaii" and "Born Free" at the movies. He was the longtime pal to Rick Rancitelli who admired Carvill’s "million-dollar vocabulary" and his writing and public speaking skills.
Carvill joined the Guard two decades ago out of a sense of patriotism and never regretted it, though he believed the war in Iraq was a political mistake, Rancitelli says.
Rancitelli sent his friend copies of The New Yorker, military history books and Grateful Dead music. He also e-mailed him photos of a lake house he recently bought — a perfect spot to decompress when Carvill returned.
"Just get home, everything else will be gravy," he wrote Carvill.
But on the day he was supposed to head home on leave, he gave up his seat on the plane to another soldier who had a family emergency, according to his sister.
"My brother’s biggest downfall was never being able to say no," Liguori says. "He was always willing to help."
He was killed, she says, that day he gave up his seat.
In May, Carvill sent friends an e-mail, saying he was trying to make the best of the situation but was looking forward to joining them for dinner back home.
He also offered some reflections about the war that turned out to be prophetic.
"Our occupation is not intended to be forever," he wrote. "I don’t know how we can get out in the short run. We as a nation are going to have absorb huge costs, both in money and in lives, for several more years...."
One month later, he was dead.
Jason Dunham stepped into the role of protector long before he ever donned a Marine uniform.
As a teenager, he put himself between a friend and an adversary to protect his buddy during a fight. As a brother, he would warn his little sister to watch out for boys. As a man, he dreamed of becoming a state trooper — so long as work didn’t take him too far from home, where he could keep an eye on those he loved most.
Dunham died as he had lived, said the minister at his burial last May: "Caring more for others than himself."
He has been nominated for the Medal of Honor, given for extraordinary valor without regard to one’s safety.
On April 14, the 22-year-old corporal from Scio, N.Y., was patrolling a vehicle checkpoint near Husaybah, Iraq, when a man leapt from a car and snatched Dunham by his throat. As Dunham wrestled with his attacker, he apparently spotted a grenade in the Iraqi’s hand and shouted a warning to other Marines rushing to his aid.
Marine officials would later conclude that Dunham dived onto the explosive and covered it with his helmet to shield his comrades. He died a week later at a U.S. hospital, his parents by his side. His mother, Deb, held one hand. His father, Dan, clasped the other.
"He never opened his eyes," his mother said.
Dunham is among several Americans in the Iraq war who gave their lives to save another. Marine Sgt. Kirk Straseskie, 23, of Beaver Dam, Wis., drowned after he jumped into a canal to rescue victims of a helicopter crash. Army Sgt. Jaror Puello-Coronado, 36, of Pocono Summit, Pa., was hit by an out-of-control truck after he pushed another soldier out of its path.
Dunham is the first person in this conflict to be recommended for the nation’s highest military honor, according to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. In a letter asking President Bush to approve the Medal of Honor nomination, Schumer noted that Dunham’s "unbelievable bravery and selflessness" saved the lives of at least two other Marines.
"I can imagine no clearer a case of an individual soldier exhibiting the ideals that the Congressional Medal was established to honor."
Dunham’s mother says they were ideals her son displayed all his life.
"He was a hero before this," she said. "It didn’t take this for us to find that out."
I look forward to the memorial honoring these brave service men and women. America's youth will never change. We will always have the bravest and most eager ready to stand up for freedom.
Touching post. Thank you.
I've read MANY, MANY other stories of such selfless sacrifice, and it always pains me, that these people are not coming home to their loved one. They makes my acheivements pale in comparision.
They answered the call above and beyond the call of duty.
God bless the USA soldiers.
God Bless our Fallen Warriors. Though their loss is too painful, and we can offer no viable condolence, I can only offer the thanks of a grateful nation. They did not die in vain.
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