May 4 (UPI) -- The last photo taken by an Army combat photographer just a fraction of a second before her death illuminates the dangers of the little-known mission to document military action on the ground for planning and public relations purposes.
Combat photographers may take as many risks as their fellow soldiers. Many civilian journalists have been killed documenting conflicts, from Ernie Pyle in Okinawa during World War II to Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington in Libya.
Army combat cameraman Spc. Hilda Clayton, whose final image was released by the Pentagon on Monday, was part of the military's Combat Camera operation. The photo depicts the explosion that killed her on assignment on July 2, 2013.
A mortar being fired by the Afghan National Army malfunctioned and exploded while she was photographing them in Laghman Province, Afghanistan. Besides Clayton, 22, the blast killed four Afghan soldiers.
Based at Fort Meade, Md., the 55th Signal Company is responsible for recording U.S. military operations all over the world. The unit provides a public service, by showing the American people what the military is doing, in addition to documenting its actions for future planning and public relations efforts. Formed in 1943, the company has served in every American conflict since World War II. Their unit motto is "Eyes of the Army, Combat Focused."
Clayton's last photos were originally reported by Military Review on Monday after her family gave permission for them to be published.
"Clayton's death symbolizes how female soldiers are increasingly exposed to hazardous situations in training and in combat on par with their male counterparts," Military Review noted.
"I don't think any photo that I've seen can compare to that photo. She has the last shot of how she died in that photo," Spc. Shenee Brooks, a fellow member of her unit, told CBS News.
Mortar malfunctions of this type, though rare, can be devastating for the teams using them in such close proximity. A mortar tube explosion killed seven Marines and wounded eight others in March 2013 during a training exercise in Nevada. The mortar had been accidentally double-loaded, and the incident was attributed to human error.