Commentary

Capt. Hill follows father, uncle into Army

Hill says, "Taking care of soldiers … is one of the most honorable things you can do"

Originally Published: November 12, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

It seems almost silly to say, but Caton Hill sounded … so grown up. Well, actually, she always did seem older than her age. She was the clever, sarcastic, cut-to-the-chase forward for the Oklahoma women's basketball team when the program made its first Final Four appearance in 2002.

[+] EnlargeCaton Hill
Caton Hill for ESPN.comCaton Hill played a school-record 140 games for Oklahoma from 1999-2004. Now she's an Army doctor headed to Afghanistan.

Wednesday, on Veterans Day, a group of journalists -- some of us who'd covered her Oklahoma career -- were on a conference call with Capt. Caton Hill, now an Army doctor about to be deployed to Afghanistan.

We used to ask her about zone defenses or how well the Sooners had run their offense. Now she was answering about some of the specifics she needed to know to take care of soldiers in combat.

"IEDs … there's a way that they explode -- it's different than any sort of injury you would see stateside," she said of improvised explosive devices. "You learn how gunshot wounds enter, and how they move. You learn the physics of them. You also need to know about traumatic brain injuries."

Someone asked her at one point if, after everything she'd done -- playing Division I basketball, joining the Army, going to medical school -- there was anything that intimidated her.

"You know," she said, "war is intimidating. Um … nothing else comes to mind."

A classic Caton answer. I still envision her on court in her Sooners uniform, blonde hair pulled back in that messy bun, with a facial expression that could alternately be fiercely determined or wryly amused. She was listed at 6-foot-1 -- not sure she was quite that tall -- and was a grinder inside for the undersized Sooners.

She started (139) and played in (140) more games than any other player in Big 12 women's basketball history. Knowing Hill, she would jokingly point out that what gave her the edge for that record was the four games she played before suffering a season-ending knee injury in November 2002. That meant those games added on to the four full seasons she played at Oklahoma; she averaged 11.7 points and 7.5 rebounds in her career.

I can picture her in the locker room after Oklahoma was upset by Washington in the 2001 Sweet 16 in Spokane, Wash. Some teammates were crying, but Hill was just ticked off because the Sooners had played poorly.

I can picture her in the locker room at the Alamodome in San Antonio in 2002, after she'd gone against Swin Cash, Asjha Jones, Tamika Williams and Diana Taurasi in the paint during the Sooners' loss in the national championship game to a UConn team many consider the best ever in women's college hoops.

That time, Hill appeared as worn out as you would expect, say, Han Solo to look if he'd just faced every villain from the "Star Wars" movies all at once. I reference that because Hill mentioned she is "kind of a sci-fi geek."

Thus, when she recently saw a stuffed "Yoda" doll at the store, she bought him and hopes he will fit amongst the gear she's taking to her new post overseas.

"It makes me happy when I look at him," she said. "I mean, you have so much camo, you just need a little bit of quirkiness."

She isn't still Caton Hill the OU ballplayer anymore, although she really doesn't look that much different. Now she's 28, a doctor serving at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga., with the "Task Force Brawlers" (Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment).

Caton Hill
APOklahoma coach Sherri Coale said Caton Hill is gifted with intelligence, attention to detail, perseverance and indomitable will.

She'll soon go to Uzbekistan to prepare for deployment in Afghanistan. She'll be a primary-care physician for the pilots in her brigade and might need to accompany missions herself.

Some of her nonmilitary friends, including former teammates, haven't quite grasped what is happening.

"They'll be like, 'I hope your trip's nice.' And I'm like, 'It's not a trip!'" Hill said with that comic tone that always cracked up us sportswriters. "So I've kind of run into people just not getting it. I think it's going to be a great experience, but it's still scary. You've got to respect the situation.

"They'll keep me kind of hubbed, because I need to take care of people. So it's not like I'm out there doing a lot of risky business -- but I'm still there. And I'm a flight surgeon, so I hope to fly and take care of patients when they're transported. It's me going to war, so there's some anxiety."

But this is also something she has grown up understanding. Both Hill and her brother, Andrew, who is in his fourth year of military medical school in Bethesda, Md., have followed their father, Howard Hill, and uncle, John Binkley, into the Army.

"I'd been around it," Caton said. "I wanted to join because I think that taking care of soldiers, the people who are fighting for you, is one of the most honorable things you can do."

Caton was born in Kansas when her father was stationed at Fort Leavenworth and went to high school in the Sunflower State until finishing her last two years in Ada, Okla., where the family relocated.

Her father, a retired lieutenant colonel, and uncle, a retired colonel, both served in Vietnam. They have given her the standard fellow soldier's advice -- including to be wary of the C-ration meals that might contain as much as 3,000 calories. And, of course, they've talked about serious things. She said her father and uncle are excited for her to serve overseas as they did.

"If my dad didn't have terrible knees, he'd want to be over there," Hill said. "My uncle was trying on some of my gear when he was here visiting, because it's so much different. We had a military group talk -- you know, like listen to your instincts.

"My mom -- she's not so excited. She says she's going to pretend I'm going to college for a year and am just not coming home for Christmas."

I searched to find something I remembered writing for ESPN.com before what was to be Hill's senior season of 2002-03. It was this:

Here's the deal with Hill. You know how ridiculous some people's bios are: They were president of every club, played 18 different sports in high school, saved the town from raging flood waters, won the science fair seven consecutive years by building and then adding onto a biosphere … only slightly exaggerated, that's Hill.

She wants to be a doctor, so I can guarantee that means she WILL be a doctor.

It turned out basketball's conclusion would be delayed for Hill. On Nov. 26, 2002, Oklahoma lost guard Erin Higgins to an ACL injury in a pregame shootaround. Then, 40 seconds into that night's contest, Hill suffered a torn ACL and also had to redshirt.

[+] EnlargeCaton Hill
Caton Hill for ESPN.comCaton Hill, a U.S. Army captain, will spend her yearlong deployment as a flight doctor for the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

So instead, Hill's career ended with the 2003-04 season, in which Oklahoma -- as the No. 6 seed -- upset the top three seeds in the Big 12 tournament to win the championship. Hill played in one more NCAA tournament, then focused her full attention on medical school.

She had talked while in college about sports helping prepare her for what she thought would be next in life.

"I've learned from basketball that I'm good under pressure," Hill said in 2002. "And that if you give your best and things still don't go your way, you just deal with that. I think if you're a doctor, you have to understand that concept, or it would be so hard for you."

Now, seven years later, she is a doctor. And she can reflect back on the ways playing sports really did help her on this road.

"Going through medical school, I realized I had a sense of foundation that not everyone had developed yet," she said. "I attribute that to the sport trials that I had. Other people would do badly on a test and would freak out. If I had a bad test, I'd say, 'Oh, I need to change some things.'

"The challenges I had in sports really made me understand myself better. I have an underlying confidence about what I can do, and if something is not going my way, I just know I have to change it, and I'll be OK. I think that's laid down when you're running sprints and can't breathe, but you somehow do it. That has helped me, and it will help me when I get over there."

There is one other element to this, too. Hill was born in 1981 and grew up believing there was nothing a girl couldn't do. She always knew she could get an education, be an athlete, go to medical school, join the Army.

She is being deployed to a country where many women were forced into an existence under Taliban rule so restrictive that it's a nightmare nearly impossible for many people to comprehend. It's a region of the world where little girls have had acid thrown in their faces for trying to learn, where schools for girls continue to be targeted by bombs and arson.

"I read 'A Thousand Splendid Suns,' by the author who wrote 'The Kite Runner,'" Hill said of Khaled Hosseini. "It blew my mind to imagine me not being able to do what I wanted to do. I've grown up very lucky and have had great opportunities. And to go into a country where that's still going on -- like women trying to deliver babies in burqas. I've delivered babies -- I can't imagine having something cover my face, not being able to expose my wrists. It's just crazy.

"I don't know how much exposure I'll have to local people. But for someone to be what I am -- a doctor in the military -- to see people there, it will be … I don't know … interesting."

One always hopes that the women in the military can somehow -- just with their presence -- bring some inspiration to women in situations so bleak. But while Hill might not necessarily see herself in inspirational terms -- she jokes that her friends just warn her, "Don't do anything stupid or dangerous over there!" -- many other people do see her that way.

Especially her coach at Oklahoma, Sherri Coale.

"When I think back on her play here, I am flooded with a myriad of moments," Coale said. "A screen, a 3, a free-throw rebound that she shouldn't have been able to outrun everyone to, but she did. She just made plays.

"I'm not surprised by Caton's career path; it reflects accurately her gifts of intelligence, attention to detail, perseverance and indomitable will. She told me last week that college basketball was hard. And in a weird sort of way that made me insanely proud.

"Hopefully, we helped play some small role in honing her skills and enhancing her will, preparing her for this tour of duty for our country. Our mission is always to prepare each student-athlete to go out and make a difference in her corner of the world. Caton Hill is literally doing just that. And we couldn't be more proud."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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