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Her Heart Was Golden

My niece, First Lieutenant Hailey Hodsden, died in a tragic accident in Germany on August 1st when a German civilian truck ploughed into her lead US Army armored vehicle. As Hailey was the vehicle commander, she had her head outside the turret and suffered a lethal head injury. She is the oldest daughter of my sister Julie and her husband Scott who, like Hailey, graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Their second oldest son is also an alumnus and they currently have another son who is a member of the Senior class. All told, my family has a long history of military service to our nation and sacrifice and the grief of losing a loved one is not new to us. My oldest brother died in a B-52 crash in 1983. He was 27 years of age and, like Hailey, filled with enormous possibility and potential.

My family, with the great support of the leadership at West Point and West Point’s Association of Graduates, buried Hailey on Monday, August 28th with full honors and immense dignity. Hailey was an exceptional Rugby player and, in between Hailey’s Funeral Mass and the burial at the West Point Cemetery, the hearse and funeral procession took a detour to drive past the Army Woman’s Rugby field. To our surprise, the entire Women’s Rugby Team was standing at attention and holding a salute as each vehicle drove by. I don’t know how long they were standing there but it was of considerable time and watching these young women pay their respect to Hailey was quite emotional for me. There are many who think the military has lost fortitude and believe that this has also affected a place like West Point. My recent experiences tell me something significantly different. I know our military is still filled with legions of heroes willing to go into harm’s way to fulfill their sacred duty to their beloved country. Some say that the ideals of our country are born out in how we care for and honor our dead and wounded military and I am deeply proud of how Hailey’s life and service was honored and respected. Hailey was a great reflection of everything America would want in its officer corps.

Hailey was also just a wonderful human. She was a Russian scholar, spoke Russian, and studied abroad in Latvia. She spent a great deal of time traveling to other countries after that and exploring as much as she could. She aspired to attend graduate school and teach history in the faculty at West Point. Her senior leadership spoke glowingly about Hailey’s motivation to be the best that she could be as she devoured every leadership book and class she could get her hands on. While she had been in her Army unit in Germany for a relatively short time, she distinguished herself by her warmth, positivity, dedication, and mental and physical toughness and grit. I wish I had spent more time with her but, in the time I did have with her, I was impressed by her joy and passion for life, and her warm connections with just about everyone she came into contact with.

My sister and brother in law’s hearts are broken. As are the hearts of her beloved 7 siblings, her boyfriend Matthew, and her friends. Parents should never have to bury their children. But I already see glimpses that Hailey’s legacy of unbridled joy and enthusiasm will live on in the hearts that knew her. One of her many gifts was to let those she cared about (which were many) know just how much she appreciated them. My sister shared a simple note that 10-year-old Hailey wrote her 5th grade teacher. The teacher had held on to the note from Hailey for 14 years because Hailey had made such a deep impact on her. Here is what the note said:

Dear Ms. Perry,

Thank you for another great week! You always make every day a new adventure, every day something to look forward to. Have a nice weekend!

Your Student, Hailey Hodsden

(From her teacher: Her heart was golden, and even as a 10 year old, she was touching lives. I’m so honored that I got to have a year with her.

What 10-year-old would think to write such a note of affirmation and encouragement?! I am told that Hailey wrote Ms. Perry several other notes and many of Hailey’s friends attest to her constant appreciation and reflections of gratitude and thanksgiving. Perhaps this is how we can create some good from such a terrible tragedy. How different would this world be if we could take a page from Hailey’s life and let those we work, live, and learn with know how much we appreciate them? The research is abundantly clear that letting others know we are grateful for them can be life giving. Sometimes though, we need more than research to motivate us and so perhaps Hailey’s example of goodness and gratitude can propel us to maintain a similar habit. That is certainly my commitment to Hailey and to her loved ones and I am extremely grateful for her amazing and wonderful life.

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