Army Spc. Hilda Clayton, an Augusta photographer who documented overseas security missions, died during an Afghan National Army training exercise Tuesday, when a mortar system failed and created a “catastrophic explosion” that killed four people and wounded 11, according to an Army colonel.
In an open letter to the Army’s “Long Knife Brigade,” Col. Bill Benson offered his thoughts and prayers for Clayton’s family, friends and colleagues during a time of mourning he described as “incredibly difficult” to handle.
“Though not assigned directly to Long Knife, Spc. Clayton embodied the Cavalry spirit. She was always willing to take on any mission and she pursued every opportunity to tell our story with her images,” said Benson, the commander of 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, which is nicknamed Long Knife.
“In the short time that (Clayton) was with Long Knife, she earned the respect and admiration of everyone she came in contact with,” Benson wrote. “Our deepest condolences are with her husband, her parents, and her family and friends at home. Though nothing can fill the void that has been left, I hope that there is some consolation in knowing that Spc. Clayton was a valuable member of the Long Knife team and that she made a positive difference every day that she was with us.”
Benson said Clayton, 22, was a combat camera specialist attached to the Long Knife Brigade to document the development of the Afghan National Security Forces and that she died doing what she loved.
On Tuesday, the commander said, a mortar weapons system failed during an Afghan National Army training exercise in Qaraghahi, Afghanistan.
The explosion also killed three Afghan soldiers.
“This is a tragedy for the Afghan National Army’s 201st Corps as much as it is for us,” Benson said.
Clayton’s images have been featured on Department of Defense and Department of the Army Web sites, as well as in print stories read around the world.
“Clayton’s photos told the story of the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, as well as the maturation of the Afghan National Security Forces,” Benson said.
According to Clayton’s Facebook page, she graduated from Westside High School in Omaha, Neb., in 2009 and majored in business studies and cosmetology at Augusta Technical College.
While in Augusta, she met her husband, Chase Clayton, a 2009 graduate of Cross Creek High School who now lives in Texas, according to his Facebook page.
In July 2012, Hilda Clayton graduated from the Defense Information School and was assigned to the Army’s 55th Signal Co. as a combat documentation specialist in the 21st Signal Brigade. She was stationed at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland.
Clayton’s mother, an Augusta area resident, was too distraught to speak with the media Thursday, officials at Fort Gordon said.
However, Chase Clayton said in a Facebook post not to mourn, but “celebrate his angel” for “she got her wings” on Tuesday.
Clayton’s body probably will be brought back to Georgia, but plans have not yet been finalized, officials said.
“Rest in peace my beautiful wife,” Chase Clayton wrote in an online post. “She passed doing what she loved for her country. I love and miss you baby. See you in another life. Rest in paradise my love.”