US army combat photographer snapped one last picture - seconds before an explosion killed her

Specialist Hilda Clayton took this photo moments before she died as the mortar tube accidentally exploded during a live-fire training exercise.
Specialist Hilda Clayton took this photo moments before she died as the mortar tube accidentally exploded during a live-fire training exercise.PHOTO: EPA

(WASHINGTON POST) - Nearly four years ago (2013), Specialist Hilda Clayton, a combat photographer in the US Army, was documenting a live-fire exercise in Afghanistan when, without warning, a mortar tube accidentally exploded in front of her.

Clayton, 22, was killed in the blast, along with an Afghan military photographer she was training and three Afghan National Army soldiers. Eleven other people were injured.

In the instant before the device detonated, Clayton snapped one last picture. So did her trainee.

On Monday (May 1), the Army published the images in its May-June issue of the Military Review, the Army's professional journal.

Unreleased until now, they offer a haunting view of a soldier's final moments, capturing the dizzying burst of fire, smoke and debris that claimed the lives of five people.

In a short write-up on the incident, Military Review praised Clayton's service, saying she died documenting a "critical juncture" of the war in Afghanistan.

"The story was not in the fighting but in the partnership that was necessary between US and Afghan forces to stabilize the Afghan nation," Military Review wrote.

"Not only did Clayton help document activities aimed at shaping and strengthening the partnership but she also shared in the risk by participating in the effort," the journal wrote.

"Clayton's death symbolizes how female soldiers are increasingly exposed to hazardous situations in training and in combat on par with their male counterparts."

Clayton was the first combat documentation and production specialist to be killed in Afghanistan, the Army said.

Bill Darley, managing editor of Military Review, told Time that the photos were brought to the journal's attention by a staff member who served with her.

The current issue focused in part on gender equality, so it was an opportune time to pay homage to her, he told the magazine.

After the images were shared widely online, the journal wrote: "This edition of the Military Review is focused on promoting the concepts of gender equality and these photographs illustrate the dangers our military men and women face both in training and in combat."

Clayton's family approved the release of the photos, as did her unit, Stars and Stripes reported. Combat photographers have demanding and often dangerous jobs.

The primary mission is to follow combat soldiers wherever they're deployed and capture their operations "in any environment," as the journal noted.

Clayton, who was from Augusta, Georgia, had been deployed overseas for less than a year when she died.

After graduating from the Defense Information School in July 2012, she was assigned as a visual specialist to the Army's 55th Signal Co., known as Combat Camera, according to the Augusta Chronicle.

She was attached to the 4th Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, in Afghanistan, where her mission was to document the training of Afghan forces. The brigade is nicknamed "Long Knife."

In July 2013, Clayton was in Laghman Province in northeastern Afghanistan taking pictures of her American and Afghan counterparts when the mortar exploded.

The Army said the group was conducting a "mortar validation exercise" at Forward Operating Base Gamberi.

A number of Clayton's images had already been featured on the Pentagon and Army's websites, as well as in print publications, Army officials told the Chronicle in 2013.

Combat Camera honored Clayton by naming its annual best combat photography competition after her.

"Spc. Clayton embodied the Cavalry spirit. She was always willing to take on any mission and she pursued every opportunity to tell our story with her images," Col. Bill Benson, commander of Long Knife, wrote in an open letter shortly after Clayton's death.

Her photos, he added, "told the story of US efforts in Afghanistan" and the maturation of Afghan forces.

"In the short time that she was with Long Knife, she earned the respect and admiration of everyone she came in contact with," Benson wrote.

"Though nothing can fill the void that has been left, I hope that there is some consolation in knowing that Spc. Clayton was a valuable member of the Long Knife team and that she made a positive difference every day that she was with us."