As a combat documentation/production specialist in the Army, Spc. Hilda I. Clayton witnessed and captured history for the world to see. Now a portrait of the Soldier and her final piece of work capture the attention of all who enter one of 15th Signal Brigade's highest-traffic areas, telling a story of service and self-sacrifice.
Fort Gordon honored Clayton with a memorialization and barracks dedication ceremony on Monday. Located behind the dining facility on Hospital Road, Building 33805 was officially renamed to Clayton Barracks.
Hundreds of Soldiers, friends and family members of Clayton gathered at the barracks to pay their respects to the fallen hero. Every year, approximately 900 Soldiers will occupy Clayton Barracks as they complete their transition from civilian to signal Soldier.
Clayton, 22-year-old Augusta native, was killed while photographing a live-fire training exercise in Laghman Province, Afghanistan, on July 2, 2013. She was the first Army combat camera (COMCAM) Soldier to die in Afghanistan. Four Afghan soldiers also died in the accident.
Clayton was assigned to the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), 21st Signal Brigade, Fort Meade, Maryland. Her unit has the distinction of being the only active duty COMCAM unit in the U.S. Army. Its mission is to "rapidly deploy worldwide into the full spectrum of military operations to capture, edit and transmit high definition still and video imagery in support of commanders' tactical, operational, and tactical objectives."
At the time of her death, she was attached to the 4th Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, based in eastern Afghanistan.
Clayton captured the final moments before she died with her camera. In 2017, the Army released the image to the public, giving a harrowing look into the risks Soldiers take both on and off the battlefield. That photo now hangs on a wall dedicated to Clayton inside the barracks' entrance.
The barracks dedication was the beginning of an effort across the 15th Sig. Bde. footprint to rename its barracks after signal Soldiers who have either lost their lives in service to the Nation or who have had a distinguished military career.
Lt. Col. Thomas J. Paff, 551st Signal Battalion commander, said he could not think of anyone more fitting than Clayton, a previous 551st Soldier, to memorialize the first barracks after.
"The United States Signal Corps has a long lineage with many heroic signal Soldiers, and I cannot think of a better hero today than Spc. Clayton," Paff said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Richard M. Meadows, 21st Sig. Bde. command sergeant major, traveled from Fort Detrick, Maryland, to attend the ceremony.
Meadows said he had a chance to speak with several people who knew Clayton personally and each one described a Soldier who loved her work as a "COMCAM Soldier."
Speaking on behalf of Clayton's former brigade commander, Col. Bill Benson, Meadows said, "Spc. Clayton embodied the cavalry spirit. She was always willing to take on any mission and she pursued every opportunity to tell her story with her images."
Meadows went on to say that Clayton exemplified all of the Army values, but on that fatal day, loyalty, duty, and selfless service stood out most.
"When you get a chance to look at the photograph Clayton took on that tragic day in July, you will see that she never looked away. She never quit," Meadows said. "She fulfilled her mission as a Soldier."
Clayton's former first sergeant, Command Sgt. Maj. Vernell Hall, recalled the day he and the company commander spoke to Clayton about the potential deployment to Afghanistan. Without hesitation, Clayton volunteered to fill the COMCAM void.
"This type of dedication and commitment was constantly demonstrated by Spc. Clayton," Meadows said, speaking on behalf of Hall. "She wanted to deploy and she felt it was her purpose."
Lt. Col. Kyle Yates, Clayton's former company commander, traveled from Lexington, Kentucky, to attend the ceremony.
"It is a very poignant reminder that we put our Soldiers in some of the most difficult situations and circumstances that a person can imagine, and they still perform admirably," he said.
Tears streaming down his face, Yates said it was difficult for him to articulate the impact Clayton's life has had on him.
"She's still my Soldier, and I'm still responsible for her," he said. "She never came home, and this is the least that I can do to help honor her memory."