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A family's 'homegrown hero' is hurt in rollover

The Army sergeant doesn't want his parents to worry, but of course they do. And with the concern, there's another emotion: pride.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 20, 2003


photo
[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Denise Hilton holds a photo of her son, Sgt. Christopher Lee Hilton, who suffered a head injury when the truck he drove rolled over.
BAYONET POINT -- From his tent in the windswept Kuwaiti desert, Sgt. Christopher Lee Hilton sat down to write two letters, one to his parents, another to his younger brother, Jeff.

"Hey, it's ok here, I guess considering. Wish I had a phone to call but all lines have been down," the 29-year-old Army mechanic wrote March 9 to Mom and Dad in Bayonet Point. "I love you and miss you. I'll be home soon."

He spoke of cereal bars, lemonade, Grandma and how he spent 16 hours putting a new engine in a Humvee -- anything but the war he was about to fight.

The letter to Jeff, 23, was quite different. It focused on the poor, lonely conditions: "It really s---- here," Hilton wrote. On impending combat: "If we go, we go. If not, then better."

But soon the war would begin and Hilton's unit, attached to the 3rd Infantry, pushed into the uncertainty of Iraq.

What happened next is a bit of a mystery.

Hilton was injured when the five-ton truck he was driving rolled over, but his family is not sure whether that was the result of an accident or an attack near the start of the war.

They are also unaware of the extent of his injury, learning only that it was severe enough that he'll have scars on his head.

Chris Hilton did not want them to know, just like he did not want to let on how miserable the desert was.

He asked his commanding officers not to release word that he had been hurt.

"He didn't want us to be worried about him," his mother, 50-year-old Denise Hilton, said Thursday. "Like she wasn't worried every day," interjected his father, David Hilton, also 50, a boat mechanic.

"I love him for it," Mrs. Hilton said. "It's great that he feels he needs to do that, protect us, shield us."

Their son, whose job is to repair mobile missile launchers, radar equipment and light vehicles, also apparently insisted he be put back into action -- an act that fills his parents with pride.

"Chris has demonstrated remarkable bravery and compassion while fighting for our freedom," Denise Hilton said. "He is truly a homegrown hero."

Born in Dunedin and raised in Bayonet Point, Hilton attended Hudson High School. He played football, wrestled and was on the weightlifting team, bench pressing more than 300 pounds.

Academics did not come easy, but Hilton worked hard, his father said, recalling the day his son quit the football team:

"Christopher went to the coach and said, 'I need to do a makeup test.' The coach said, 'The test or football.' Christopher turned in his gear and walked away. He was determined to graduate."

Six months after graduating in 1993, Hilton enlisted, joining the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., where his 6-foot-3, 235 pound frame earned him the nickname "Bear."

"He didn't want to end up doing construction or whatever," his father said. "He wanted to get into law enforcement at some point, and he knew the military was good training."

The experience came quickly. Chris was sent to Haiti in 1994 as part of a peacekeeping mission. From there he went through extensive training, earning a commendation medal and diploma for wheeled vehicle maintenance in 1999.

That's what brought Hilton to the maintenance unit at Fort Stewart, Ga. He lives a mile off post with his wife, Roberta, and her three children: David, 15, Bobbe, 13, and Michael, 12.

* * *

In the early days of his deployment, Hilton kept up with his family via e-mail. They were terse dispatches, asking how the kids were, how things were in Florida, how his brother was doing. But that luxury faded as the war grew closer.

No one heard from him for weeks.

Denise Hilton tried to limit her exposure to the incessant television coverage. Reports of casualties, often without a name or a unit, were the most difficult for her, causing restlessness at night.

Even when the names are released it's tough. "You can't feel good about that but you can exhale a little bit," she said. "Thank God it's not Chris."

In an hourlong interview at the Hiltons' ranch-style home, they seemed composed, gladly discussing the contents of care packages they have mailed: Lemonade. Chocolate pudding. A Bucs Super Bowl T-shirt, size XL.

But just as easily they were overcome with emotion. Mrs. Hilton began crying when asked about the Blue Star banner hanging in the front window. Sewn by her sister, it is a reminder that a loved one is in the service.

Below the banner, an electric candle flickered in a frosted vase. Hilton gave it to her for Christmas. "It's going to stay on until he comes home, 24/7," she said, wiping away tears.

* * *

The telephone rang at 2 a.m. April 10.

It was the first time since Feb. 24 that Roberta Hilton, 33, had heard her husband's voice. "I don't want to upset you," he said, "but I rolled my five-ton." If it had rolled another time, he might not have lived.

"He said, 'I'm going to have a really nice scar on my head.' I said, 'We can get past the scar, at least you are still here."'

She did not press for details. Some people at Fort Stewart think Hilton came under attack since a heavy vehicle like his is not prone to tipping.

Despite the injury, Hilton said he wanted to stay with his unit. "He said, 'I've got a job, a mission.' He didn't say he was scared or worried, but I could tell he was, just by the tone of the voice," Roberta Hilton said.

If his experience was traumatic, it was nothing compared to what happened to Army 2nd Lt. Jeffrey Kaylor, also from Fort Stewart. On April 7, near Baghdad's airport, the 24-year-old Kaylor was killed by a grenade.

Chris Hilton had spoken to Kaylor just moments before the attack. After it happened, Hilton picked up the man's Kevlar helmet. Inside was a picture of his wife, Jenna. "He had just talked to him," Roberta Hilton said of her husband. "It's just unbelievable what he's seen, what he's been through. He's not sure if he's going to stay in the Army."

At the time, the rumor in Hilton's unit was that it would return to Kuwait in May and then head for the United States. When he lands, Hilton plans to take his family to Disney World and then head west, to Bayonet Point.

-- Alex Leary can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is leary@sptimes.com .

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