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A hero without a uniform or rank

POSTED: June 27, 2013 7:36 p.m.

Among the rows of crosses and stars at Arlington National Cemetery are the final resting places of thousands of America’s heroes, its brave soldiers who fought just one battle or were in too many to count.


Soon, Arlington will welcome another hero who never fired a shot. Never wore a uniform. Never gave an order. Never received an order. But she was a hero nonetheless, an intrepid fighter and a warrior in her own right.


Kimberly Webster passed away earlier this week. She was the daughter of a colonel, the wife of a general and the mother of a captain. But all those ranks paled in comparison to the attention she commanded.


Kimberly Webster survived cancer five times, a combination of skin and breast diagnoses. She was an ardent supporter of the Relay For Life and for cancer prevention and treatment. She was open and candid when I talked to her several years ago for a story on Relay For Life on how she was diagnosed and what she went through to overcome cancer each time.


She also told me of how, even though she was behind the wheel of an oversized pickup, with the two stars squarely affixed to the top of the windshield, signifying the vehicle belonged to a major general, she routinely was asked to stop for a search of the truck as she drove back onto the base.


As the daughter of a career soldier, Kimberly lived the typical Army child life, that of a nomad, even all those experiences weren’t all that normal. Her father had been a military attaché in South America, even spending a wild night on the road avoiding the secret police and a possible hit team sent on his trail.


Kimberly and her sister once walked into a South American village, toting an animal with them — a rare and potentially lethal, unbeknownst to them, animal. A friend of mine was teaching one of her daughters and Kimberly arranged an hour-long talk to that class about her family’s time in South America.


When her husband was in command of the 3rd Infantry Division and Fort Stewart, it was a homecoming of sorts for the Websters. They had been stationed there twice before, and her parents had retired to Sunbury, where her mother had a flourishing career as an artist before she passed away two years ago.


I remember Kimberly coming by our office in Hinesville one day during the deployment. At the front desk was our receptionist, whose husband and brother were in the same unit in Iraq. When Kimberly heard that, she darted around the front counter and wrapped Sarah in a big embrace. After Kimberly left, I could tell Sarah wasn’t sure who that was, and I told her, that’s the CG’s wife. That’s the kind of people the Websters are.


We congratulated the general on the accomplishment, and he beamed with pride. I had the temerity to ask — “what does Kimberly think?” His countenance changed drastically and he hung his head.


“She said, ‘you’ve got four years to finish this,’” he replied.


But my most welcome memories of the Websters came at two very critical junctures of my life. A week after my father died, we were gathered in the tight confines of the Kennedy conference room at Fort Stewart headquarters, ready to begin a quarterly video teleconference with the general. He casually took attendance, asking the public affairs officers in the room to let him know who was there. Once he got that roll call, he informed the gathered media he had something to say before we got under way.


“This is for Pat,” he said.


For the next 30 to 45 seconds, he talked about my dad. I don’t remember what he said. By that time, I had lost it, turning into a blubbering mess in a room full of media associates and soldiers and the Webster family.


A couple of months later, when the general had been home for good for less than 72 hours, the Websters were where I will be this afternoon, in the parlor of a funeral home. They were there to pay their respects upon my mother’s passing and that they would be there when they could have been off on a rare vacation or spending time alone away from everything and everyone after so many perilous months apart meant more to me than they could ever know.


I can never repay the Websters for the incredible kindness and warmth they shared me with me, a news reporter and sometimes strongheaded son of a NCO. But I know that as long as the Websters were at Fort Stewart, the men, women and children who called Fort Stewart home had a commander and his wife who cared about them as people first and soldiers second.


Heroes come in all shapes and walks of life. There is no restriction on gender or combat experience, either. For so many reasons, Kimberly Webster was a hero. The world is better for her presence and lesser for her passing.

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