Wheeling Native’s Moving Story Included in Book

WHEELING — After 1st Lt. Daren M. Hidalgo paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country in Afghanistan, Wheeling native Sarah Kemp found herself in search of a way to express her feelings about the man she met and fell in love with while in Kandahar as a member of the USO.

So she started writing.

Hidalgo, of Wakesha, Wisc., was killed in action on Feb. 20, 2011 by an improvised explosive device in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Now, more than six years later, as a way to continue honoring Hidalgo’s life and the sacrifices of all military personnel and their families, Kemp’s moving story, “The Bracelet,” has been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul’s “Military Families: 101 Stories About the Forces Behind the Forces.”

Kemp’s story — which recounts her experience in the days following Hidalgo’s death and the inspiring connection that unfolded between her and Hidalgo’s family since — is reprinted on this page.

A 2003 graduate of Wheeling Central Catholic High School and 2007 Marshall University graduate with a degree in journalism, Kemp has worked for the USO — short for United Service Organizations Inc. — for seven years in Kandahar, Washington, D.C. and now Stuttgart, Germany, where she is a USO center manager.

During a recent telephone interview, Kemp said she began writing a blog as the easiest way to stay in touch with family and friends when she first moved to Kandahar. She has always had a “passion for writing,” she said, but after Hidalgo was killed in action she didn’t know how to express herself.

“After Daren was killed in action, I didn’t know what to do, because I was blogging about once a week at that point and I was like, ‘I can’t write. I don’t know what to say,'” Kemp said.

She said she took the advice of her sister and just started writing in her blog like she “was writing a letter to his parents” and explaining about the wonderful man she came to know and love. She said it was the encouragement she needed to write about her cherished memories of Hidalgo from the four months between the Halloween night they first crossed paths and his death.

Kemp said when she learned about Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing getting into a partnership with the USO to do a book about military families that would help support the USO, she was strongly encouraged by her co-workers to write a piece for the book. She said the personal connection she shared with Hidalgo’s mother and family was a part of her grief process that she had not written about before.

“This was very personal — the connection I have with Daren’s mother … is one of the most cherished relationships that I have in my life,” Kemp said.

That’s when she decided to sit down and write “The Bracelet,” which recounts how a bracelet she made from navy blue and camoflauge-colored parachute cord unknowingly provided her and Hidalgo’s mother some “found comfort” to honor the same courageous man who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country.

As soon as Kemp finished her letter, she immediately sent a copy to Hidalgo’s mother, explaining the opportunity provided to her by the publishing company.

“I wanted to make sure she would be comfortable with it and honestly that I would be comfortable sharing that much of a personal relationship,” Kemp said.

Kemp said Hidalgo’s mother told her she felt it was extremely important for her to share her story with others.

“I never want her to think that she is the only one who misses him or the only one who remembers him — that there are so many other people out there constantly thinking about him, and as long as I’m here, I’m not going to let his memory fade … and so I wanted to show her that and thank her and her family for really welcoming me into their family. … They’ve opened their arms and hearts to me,” Kemp said.

Kemp said Hidalgo’s family even invited her to a Memorial Day picnic in Pennsylvamia where they dedicated a bench in his memory.

“I’m so thankful — not just to the Hidalgos but also the military family as a whole,” she said.

After Hidalgo was killed, Kemp said the entire “military family” — including soldiers from Hidalgo’s unit — have reached out to check on her to make sure she is doing well.

“The military community has welcomed me so much in these past seven years,” she said.

Kemp said another extremely emotional moment came when Hidalgo’s family sent her a package that included all the letters she had written to their son. Kemp said the package also contained a sealed, addressed letter to her from Hidalgo that he never had a chance to mail.

“So it was this incredible gift to get months later … this letter that I didn’t even know existed,” she said.

Kemp said it was incredible to meet the entire Hidalgo family and all of Hidalgo’s friends while participating in the annual Soldier’s Marathon at Fort Benning, Ga., as a way to honor him.

“It was an amazing experience,” Kemp said.

Kemp said she feels honored that her story was one of 101 chosen for the “Military Families” book.

“I am happy that more people will come to know the great man that I knew,” she added.

Kemp was a recruiter for Marshall University for over two years following her graduation.

She said after becoming a bit bored of her work as a recruiter, she decided to look into doing public relations work for a nonprofit, something she had been interested in since her high school days when she decided to get involved with a fundraiser following the loss of a classmate.

She said the woman who helped organize the event worked for the Red Cross.

“I just thought she had the coolest job … how amazing it would be to work for an organization that you knew was making a difference in people’s lives,” Kemp said. “I was so proud of us as a class, that we were able to raise money to put these (automated external defibrillators) in high schools and honor our friend.”

Kemp said it was that early experience that has really stuck with her throughout her career. She said another high school experience had an influence on her decision to work abroad, when a trip to France was canceled following the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Kemp said her French teacher told the students, ‘There’s going to be another chance for you to travel abroad. I promise you that, and I want you to take it. If you are offered another chance to go — go,'” Kemp said.

Kemp said she was still working as a recruiter and looking for a career shift when she just happened to see a television commercial about the USO.

She said two months after applying for a position, she found herself working for the USO in Kandahar. She worked there for 21 months before moving back to the United States in 2012 and going on to work as manager of volunteer operations at the USO Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

After four years in the nation’s capital, she transferred to Stuttgart, Germany as USO center manager earlier this year.