The U.S. Army Signal Corps has a long lineage of heroes, but few, if any, have left a mark quite like Spc. Hilda Clayton.
Clayton, a combat documentation/production specialist (25V/visual information specialist) assigned to 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), 21st Signal Brigade, was recognized as a 2021 Distinguished Member of the Regiment during an induction ceremony Aug. 19, in Augusta, Georgia.
Clayton was killed performing her duty as a combat photographer when a mortar tube exploded during a live-fire training exercise in Afghanistan, on July 2, 2013. She captured the final moments before she died with her camera, and nearly four years later, her image of those moments was released to the public.
“It almost took my breath away,” said Lt. Col. Kyle Yates, 41st Signal Battalion commander.
Yates, Clayton’s company commander at the time of her death, said he experiences a flurry of emotions that ultimately leaves him feeling conflicted anytime he sees the image.
“There was so much more to Hilda than that picture,” Yates said. “On the other hand, I love that the picture has established a legacy that continues to honor her to this day, and that it will do so for many years to come.”
Tanisha Aiken agrees. Aiken, a force integration specialist in the Office Chief of Signal-Enlisted Division, U.S. Army Signal School, was a first sergeant at the Noncommissioned Officers Academy, Fort Meade, Maryland, when she met Clayton in 2012. Occasionally, Aiken would reach out to 55th COMCAM for assistance with various details, and Clayton was always among those selected. Aiken immediately took notice of Clayton’s “hard-charging, never afraid to get dirty” character, which in many ways reminded Aiken of herself, so the first sergeant seized the opportunity to mentor Clayton.
“Spc. Clayton would always ask me questions or get my advice on what she needed to do to advance to the next rank, so I took her under my wing and provided her guidance and mentorship, because I saw that same fire in her that I had in me, and I wanted her to be successful,” Aiken said.
Being relatively new to the Army, both Yates and Aiken saw tremendous potential in Clayton as a leader and combat photographer. So when it came time for Yates to send a few Soldiers downrange to where he already he had a COMCAM team, Yates asked his unit’s first sergeant who he recommended, and without hesitation, he said Clayton.
“He replied that she absolutely was ready and that she had thoroughly impressed her platoon leadership since arriving to the company,” Yates said.
Upon being called into her first sergeant’s office to share news that she needed to get ready to deploy, Yates said that Clayton maintained her military bearing but was visibly excited, bearing a “slight grin.”
“The exchange felt electric,” Yates recalled. “She simply wanted to do what she had been training to do when it really mattered – during a deployment – and Hilda knew then that she had earned her place on that team.”
A short time later, Yates bid farewell to Clayton and two of his other Soldiers, never imagining only two of them would return. And despite it being nearly a decade since he last saw Clayton, Yates said he feels like she is still his responsibility.
“She was my Soldier … I sent her to Afghanistan, and I didn’t bring her back home to her family,” he said. “To this day ... I feel a tremendous loss in that I was unable to accomplish my mission of bringing her home safely.”
Sharing stories and memories of Soldiers are crucial to ensuring that not only their legacy lives on, but also that of the Signal Regiment.
“It’s important to keep her legacy alive because this is our Regiment’s history,” Yates said. “It’s even more important now, because combat camera [25V] is leaving the Signal Corps, and Army Public Affairs is assuming responsibility for all visual information [military occupational specialties],” Yates said.
That transfer of responsibility will take effect on Oct. 1, but it won’t diminish Clayton’s impact on the Signal Corps in any way. If anything, Clayton’s recognition as a Distinguished Member of the Regiment will help ensure that her legacy continues for years into the future.
“Her being inducted should send a message of encouragement, commitment, sacrifice, selfless service and inspiration to anyone in the Army and other military services,” Aiken said.
“Hilda’s legacy has etched combat camera into Signal Corps history forever,” Yates added.
Since her death, Clayton was also inducted into the Defense Information School Hall of Heroes on Dec. 13, 2013, at Fort Meade, Maryland; memorialized with a barracks dedication on May 27, 2019, at Fort Gordon, Georgia; and is the inspiration behind the annual Spc. Hilda I. Clayton Best Combat Camera Competition.