The Celebrate Freedom Foundation in Columbia is restoring an Army Cobra Attack helicopter that flew in Vietnam and has named the aircraft “Kimberly” after pilot Capt. Kimberly Hampton, an Easley native who died in 2004 after her Kiowa Warrior helicopter was shot down near Fallujah, Iraq. The military-based foundation, which has three other vintage helicopters, will use it for its Project SOaR program, which teaches middle and high school students about career fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), particularly in the aviation industry. Pilots fly the helicopters to schools to give students an up-close presentation of how STEM courses are beneficial in technological fields.
She lost her life soaring above the desert, not the treetops she envisioned when she was a little girl and wrote a book, asking Santa for the ability to fly.
“If I could fly I would visit many places I will never get to go or see on land,” she wrote in the Christmas book. “Being able to fly is a lot to ask for, but some day it might happen.”
Kimberly Hampton had not thought about her flying story for a long time when her parents presented it as a gift when she finished flight school in the Army.
After vigorous training, health obstacles and life-changing decisions, South Carolina’s Kimberly Hampton received her wings and reached her childhood fantasy of flight after joining the Army.
She was always a reacher.
Kimberly was always reaching to achieve another goal, reaching to better her own score, and reaching past health challenges. Later, as her parents found out, she had reached out to help others and left a lasting impact.
More than 12 years after their daughter died in Iraq, the parents of the first female pilot in the United States shot down by enemy fire are still learning about the life of their daughter.
As a star tennis player, a battalion commander of the ROTC at Presbyterian College and an Army captain, the 27-year-old battled obstacles her entire life, leading up to the moment her OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter was shot down near Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.
What they are learning is that their daughter, with the smile that everyone loved and no one forgot, was a leader.
They still hear from strangers – people who dipped briefly into their only daughter’s life – who say Kimberly left an impression by her words and her actions, quietly helped others push beyond their comfort zones and reach past fear.
“Those are the kinds of things that we found out subsequent to her death that amazes us and touches us,” said her mother, Ann Hampton.
Kimberly certainly left an impact on me. I attended Easley High School with her in the early 1990s and only knew her for two years, but her story and legacy have changed my perception of hard work, life struggles and fighting for what you believe in.
It was not the battle scars people saw when they met Kimberly or worked alongside her every day.
She endured those each morning as she pushed through her morning runs in the Army or pounded through a tennis match on the court in college.
“She had struggles and a lot of determination,” Ann Hampton said. “She was overcoming the overwhelming.”
Hampton grew up in Easley, where she was a star on the Easley High School tennis team and student body president in 12th grade.
Kimberly didn’t take up the rear in a giddy girl’s clique or fit into any one group’s mold.
She was everyone’s friend, and we all knew her by her athleticism, school spirit, intellect and smile.
As cliché as it sounds, I knew Kimberly was remarkable when I met her.
After I learned of Kimberly’s death, I naturally remembered the times I had spent with her. She and I were not the best-friend-forever types who talked on the phone past curfew. We never shared a shoulder when times were tough.
We did share floor space at sleep-overs and a weekend summer trip at the beach, where she was the center of attention for all the boys we met at the hotel pool and the best beach companion any teenage girl could want.
We took pictures on the beach and we tiptoed past our sleeping chaperone at night to meet boys.
Kimberly had not been in my thoughts in years. I mourned her death and wrote about her in 2004 and quietly cried after hearing a song that reminded me of her from time to time, but life went on as usual.
I thought about her when the library in our hometown and a nearby highway were named in her honor, and when the Kimberly Hampton Primary School in Fort Bragg, N.C., opened.
Then in 2016, Kimberly circled back into my life.
‘We want to … educate’
While covering an event for The Herald at Fort Mill High School, I met a pilot with the Celebrate Freedom Foundation, which had flown two Cobra helicopters to the school.
The Celebrate Freedom Foundation is a military-based organization that promotes education through programs such as Project SOaR (School/Student Opportunities and Rewards), which supports science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, courses for students in middle and high schools.
Experts in the field, military veterans with the foundation, visit schools to emphasize engineering and technology career paths and positions in the aviation industry and talk about how STEM courses are vital to technological careers.
“We think it is really important that the students understand when we go to the schools, we want to be able to educate these students, these teachers, the parents, the general public, that the cost of freedom … it’s not free,” Celebrate Freedom Foundation President Jack Lovelady said.
To make an impact, the foundation flies in $10 million vintage AH-1F Cobra Attack Helicopters, restored by the foundation.
Wide-eyed students watch as the brightly painted helicopters that flew in Vietnam land on their football practice fields, the loud blades whirling, and two pilots climb out of the cockpit.
The students stand within feet of the aircraft as veterans stress the importance of STEM coursework and talk about technological careers, such as ones in the military.
Few events I have covered, mainly as a photographer, have brought me to tears.
Watching those pilots in their flight suits climb out of the cockpit made me think of my friend Kimberly and how she sacrificed her life.
I introduced myself to the pilot and after getting the information I needed – with tears staining my cheeks and an unsteady voice – I told him about my pilot friend who died.
Journalists are not supposed to interject themselves into stories. We’re supposed to fade into the background and document the event.
That day, I became part of Kimberly’s story.
The pilot excitedly told the foundation leaders at the event in Fort Mill that day – more than a two hours’ drive away from Easley – that I knew Kimberly.
To me, Kimberly was a teenage girl with braces, the quiet girl with the beautiful curly blonde hair who served on the School Improvement Council, National Honor Society, the tennis player and friend I wished I had known better.
To those leaders, Kimberly was a warrior and hero.
The Celebrate Freedom Foundation announced it will name the newly acquired AH-1F Cobra helicopter the “Kimberly,” after war hero Kimberly Hampton.
“We were looking at what name we wanted to select for the next aircraft that’s going to fly,” Lovelady said. “We know that we need to tell the story of the sacrifices that are made for freedom, so we selected Kimberly Hampton to honor for our next aircraft.”
Lovelady said he wants “teachers and students to know that they get up every day and go to school and they do what they want to do … they go to work because of people like Kimberly.”
The foundation has three other helicopters, which military mechanical experts have restored at a hangar at the Metropolitan Airport in Columbia.
All of the aircraft are named after women who were supportive of the military — USO entertainers Lena Horne and Ann Margaret and entertainer and nurse Martha Raye.
The “Kimberly” should be ready for flight next spring, Lovelady said.
‘She will never be forgotten’
Kimberly’s parents quietly paused when they found out the foundation was naming the million-dollar aircraft after their daughter.
“It means a tremendous amount to us to know that she will never be forgotten,” Dale Hampton said from his home in Seneca.
“Our children are not supposed to die before we do,” he said, adding that he has been fearful people will not remember Kimberly. “Things like this assure us that she will never be forgotten.”
Ann Hampton said her daughter, “who always gave 110 percent,” pushed herself despite physical challenges and through challenging personal choices.
When she was a child, doctors told Kimberly’s parents their daughter might never be able to run, and she developed allergies and debilitating scoliosis.
“In spite of those medical conditions, she put forth the effort and proved that she could overcome them,” Ann Hampton said.
Kimberly played tennis at Presbyterian College, where she never lost a match, and she joined the college’s Army ROTC, where she became the second woman to serve as the school’s ROTC battalion commander her senior year.
After graduating from college, Kimberly joined the Army and attended flight school, completing training with honors.
She served in South Korea and in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and commanded the Delta Troop in the 1st Squadron of the 17th Cavalry Regiment in Iraq.
Kimberly’s choices about college and a career path were challenging for her, Ann Hampton said.
She was commissioned to attend West Point Military Academy but struggled with her decision to attend. Kimberly started there but came back to Easley several weeks later after deciding the institution was more of an environment for men, Ann Hampton said.
She attended Furman University but later transferred to Presbyterian College to play tennis.
She overcame obstacles of being a woman in the air cavalry, her mother said, and she was challenged by the academics.
“She had to work for it,” Ann Hampton said. “It didn’t just come to her naturally.”
Kimberly recognized the struggles of others and reached out to help.
In fact, Dale and Ann Hampton are still learning how far their daughter’s compassion reached.
Years after Kimberly died, the Hamptons heard from a high school friend who said Kimberly encouraged her when the student was struggling socially.
Another friend at Presbyterian College told the Hamptons she would have never made it through the ROTC program had it not been for Kimberly.
During early morning runs, Kimberly would speed ahead but circled back around to encourage the friend. The woman joined the military and married a career soldier.
Because of Kimberly’s influence, the woman began helping other women struggling while their husbands were deployed, Ann Hampton said. “She feels like she got started on this path because of Kimberly.”
For me, Kimberly helped in an unconventional and ethereal way.
I was performing on stage at Easley High School and chose to sing a spiritual song.
The balcony spotlight shining in my eyes was the only thing in my vision, except for Kimberly. She was on the front row, in the bottom part of my vision and a bit clouded by the light.
The song was about Christ.
Kimberly never took her eyes off me. She nodded her head and smiled. And as I sang, she had tears in her eyes.
She didn’t rescue me from battle, teach me how to read, or help push me past physical and mental challenges. She helped me get through a song.
While interviewing Dale and Ann Hampton, I conveyed that story.
Stories like that amaze her parents, Dale Hampton said, because they continue to learn about their daughter years after her death.
The Hamptons said they hope Kimberly’s life story will help the students the Celebrate Freedom Foundation is aiming to reach.
“If that can be used as encouragement to people … the rewards of the hard work make it worthwhile,” Dale Hampton said. “Kimberly would be thrilled by the Celebrate Freedom Foundation.”
Reaching students through the SOaR program, Kimberly will fly once again.
“I wish I had known Kimberly,” Lovelady said. “She was without a doubt a really outstanding person and Kimberly is going to continue to live through our aircraft.”
By Tracy Kimball