Comrades remember fearless photographer featured by US Army

Soldiers who served with US Army Spc. Hilda I. Clayton remember her for the same reason that the military decided to highlight her — her fearlessness.

Clayton, 22, died in 2013 as she was teaching combat photography for the Army in Afghanistan.

During a live-fire training exercise, a mortar tube exploded, killing her and four Afghan army servicemen — including the soldier she was training in combat photography.

Her final photo, which captured that incident and her last moments of life, now has been published by the Army. The military hopes it shows the hazardous situations facing soldiers of all genders in training and combat. “I know many, many guys that never went outside the wire,” said Bridgette LeBeau, Clayton’s roommate during deployment. “She was making trips trips multiple times a week to the (Afghan National Army) base.”

The image Clayton captured freezes the fatal moment — rocks kick up and the orange flare of the blast cuts across the blue Afghan sky.

A warrior, not a soldier

“Outside the wire” is military slang for going off base, which means going outside the barbed wire protection that surrounds US military installations.

Clayton’s other roommate during deployment, Kayla Barrett, remembers her being a magnet for trouble.

“Whatever forward operating base she would travel to would usually get hit while she was there,” Barrett said. “They would have to hold her in the bunker because she wanted to go out and take photos of it.”

Female soldiers faced tight restrictions on their roles in combat at the time, but Clayton didn’t focus on it. She was dedicated to being the absolute best in her field.

Barrett said that Clayton, of Augusta, Georgia, wasn’t a soldier, she was a warrior.

Workout maven

“She gave all she had to whatever she was doing,” said LeBeau. “Whether it be her work or doing CrossFit with guys two or three times her size.”

Clayton was known for working out all around the base, weightlifting and running — even for doing handstand pushups. Her presence was infectious.

Barrett said she breathed pure magic into everything she did, and everywhere she went. “She was so graceful and classy in a way that is impossible to fake,” said Barrett.

When Clayton arrived in Afghanistan, she didn’t know anyone, but it did not take long for her to be beloved by everyone on her base. LeBeau remembers the last conversation they shared the night before Clayton’s death. Unsurprisingly, Clayton had been working out on base and was returning to her bunk. That day, soil abatement liquid had been sprayed near the helipad. Many on base called it “rhino snot,” and Clayton apparently believed it was actually rhino mucus.

“Her hands were all sticky because of the rhino snot,” said LeBeau. “She legit thought it was actual rhino snot. It made me laugh so hard as I explained to her that was just what we called it.”

Barrett also remembers the Mustache Party of 2013 when she and five soldiers wore fake mustaches as Clayton documented it all. “She took a bunch of pictures of us acting like total fools,” said Barrett.

“She didn’t even blink! She was so professional. It was glorious.”

Dedicated professional

Clayton approached every aspect of her deployment with that same professionalism. She understood that her job wasn’t just to document combat she witnessed. “She was there to capture the total human experience,” said Barrett. “Her work was really rich with it because of it.”

Her photographs for the US Army of life and operations in Laghman Province, Afghanistan, show that richness.

In just some of her published photos, Clayton documented the use of unmanned aerial systems in the province, weightlifting achievements by fellow soldiers — and self-defense training in the “Gamberi fight club.”

Clayton worked closely with Afghan army soldiers, training them in combat photography.

“She was a team-oriented girl,” said Barrett. “They were part of her team and her subjects … she never for a second treated the Afghans flippantly or as less-than.”

Along with her final photo, the Army published the photograph her Afghan counterpart took.

‘She loved what she did’

LeBeau remembers the exact moment she was informed of Clayton’s death.

“I could hear the medevac in the background because our room was right by the helipad,” said LeBeau. “It was my day off and a buddy came and told me. I was just numb. I didn’t, couldn’t, believe it.”

Her comrades say publishing that photo is something that Clayton would have wanted. She took photos to document history. They were meant to be seen and used.

“She loved what she did,” said LeBeau. “She would want it to be out there for the world to see.”

LeBeau also believes that Clayton would be proud it’s being used to make a statement by the Army. To her, it depicts a more accurate picture of what women actually go through during deployment. “I think that it is a perfect, powerful example,” said LeBeau. “Most people don’t see it, but women are in the same amount of danger.”

An obituary published in the Augusta Chronicle says that Clayton left behind her husband, Chase Clayton, mother, father, five sisters and two brothers.