Kimberly Hampton truly was a star — seeking out the Army's hardest assignments, piloting her Kiowa helicopter in Korea and in Afghanistan.
She then volunteered for Iraq, where enemy ground fire crippled her chopper, which crashed into a wall, breaking her neck. She was 27 years old when she died in the early days of a new year.
Everyone who served with her remembers not just her skill — but her attitude. "Capt. Hampton told me, if it can be done, my guys will do it," said her commanding officer, Robin Brown. Said another colleague, "She was like a breath of fresh air, mixing old traditions with the dawn of a new age."
Hampton died Jan. 2 near the Iraqi city of Fallujah, a hotbed of anti-American insurgency. As of this week, nearly 500 U.S. troops have died since President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1, 2003.
The pattern started to emerge early, at tiny (enrollment 1,200) Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., where Hampton graduated with honors. A champion on the tennis courts — 27-0 in three years of singles — she was admired by teammates and adored by her coach, Donna Arnold.
"Kimbo was a coach's dream," Arnold said. “You put her on the court, you didn't have to worry; she knew what to do and was going to do it, giving it everything she had."
In the classroom she was also a super-achiever, but with a quiet grace. "She was competitive, but it wasn't about beating people; it was about being the best she could be," said her ROTC commander, Lt. Larry Mulhall, who persuaded Hampton to help him recruit others after graduation, which led to a surge in ROTC enrollment.
"She was exceptional, but what you need to know is that she wasn't a hot dog, she didn't like to draw attention to herself," said Dr. Dean Thompson, her favorite English teacher. Or, as Presbyterian College President John Griffith put it, "She kept a sign over her desk, from Aristotle — that excellence is not an act but a habit. That sums up Kimberly."
Parents' loss, solace in how she lived life
An only child, her loss is crushing for her parents. Now, every day, around her neck, her mother, Ann Hampton, wears a gold charm of a Kiowa helicopter that Kimberly gave her after graduating from flight school at Fort Rucker in Alabama.
Ann is unflinching now, in her grief, as is her husband, Dean, a successful business executive who never once missed one of his daughter's tennis matches. "She hated to see us cry; she did her job; now we're trying to do ours," her mother recalled.
There is no rancor in this family, no bitterness over the administration policy in Iraq. "Kimberly was doing what she wanted to do.... She believed in the cause; we still do," her father said.
The Hamptons are consoled because Kimberly never relinquished her dream — of flying and serving — from the third grade.
As Thompson summed up, "When you consider how many people go through life on autopilot, never really reaching for the stars, and then you look at what Kimberly did, you cannot regret the cause she was fighting for."