Army Specialist David Hickmans unit, the 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne… (Joseph Rodriguez/Greensboro…)
GREENSBORO, N.C. — To find Army Spec. David Emanuel Hickman on the morning after his unit returned to Fort Bragg from Iraq, you had to drive 100 miles north, to his home town. Up Highway 29, less than two clicks from the northeast Greensboro cul-de-sac where he grew up, Hickman was in Lot 54 in the Garden of Peace at Lakeview Memorial Park Cemetery.
Freshly turned red soil covered his coffin, which went into the ground two weeks and a day before he was due home. There were two shriveled carnations on the damp dirt. There was no marker yet, no indication that this was a soldier’s grave.
Hickman, 23, was killed in Baghdad by a roadside bomb that ripped through his armored truck Nov. 14 — eight years, seven months and 25 days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq began.
He was the 4,474th member of the U.S. military to die in the war, according to the Pentagon.
And he may have been the last.
With the final U.S. combat troops crossing out of Iraq into Kuwait, those who held Hickman dear are struggling to come to terms with the particular poignancy of his fate. As the unpopular war that claimed his life quietly rumbles to a close, you can hear within his inner circle echoes of John F. Kerry’s famous 1971 congressional testimony on Vietnam:
How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
“Thank God if David is the last one to die, because that means nobody else will have to go through this,” said Logan Trainum, one of Hickman’s closest friends. “But it’s crazy that he died. No matter your position on this war — if you’re for or against it — I think everybody thinks we shouldn’t have been over there anymore.”
U.S. combat operations in Iraq officially ended months before Hickman’s unit shipped out from Fort Bragg in May. His platoon spent most of its deployment on “presence patrols,” walking through Iraqi neighborhoods to remind insurgents that the U.S. military was still there, said Spec. Zack Zornes, who served in Hickman’s platoon.
Hickman liked the military, Zornes said. “But there were days on end where me and Hickman would be sitting in his room, being like: ‘Why are we even here? What are we doing?’ We were just doing police work. I totally agree with Hickman’s friends and family who are mad. We had no reason to be there anymore.”
The last time Hickman called home was Nov. 13, a Sunday. He was at Joint Security Station Muthana, the small operating base in Baghdad that housed his platoon. He told his family he was excited to be coming home before Christmas, according to friends.
The following day, shortly before midnight, Army officials showed up in Greensboro to tell Hickman’s parents that their son had been killed by a makeshift bomb.
Exactly four weeks later, Veronica Hickman sat quietly in her living room, wearing a T-shirt with her son’s military photo printed on its front.
The aftermath of his death had been a drawn-out series of emotionally wrenching events:
The candlelight vigil at the Northeast Guilford High School football stadium, where he had been a team captain and an all-conference linebacker. The solemn Thanksgiving Day arrival of his remains. The open-casket funeral, where friends said they could not get over the swelling in his face. The ceremony at Fort Bragg for Spec. David E. Hickman of the 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
And now, another ceremony at Fort Bragg loomed, to mark the end of the war that claimed Hickman’s life. His family had been invited to meet privately with President Obama before his address to the troops.
Inside the home that Hickman’s mother, Veronica, shares with his father, also named David, a withered flower arrangement was on the coffee table, with a candle from the vigil poking out of the shriveled spray. The folded U.S. flag presented to the family at the funeral sat in a triangular wooden box at the end of the sofa; military ribbons were pinned inside, along with expert infantryman and parachutist badges.
Neither Hickman’s father nor his younger brother, DeVon, was home. His wife, Calli, also wasn’t there; in fact, until Hickman died, his family and most of his friends had not heard of Calli, let alone known that she had married him at a courthouse shortly before his deployment.
Olivia Pegram, a high school friend, showed up and parked near Hickman’s white Chevy Impala with the radio that never worked.
“How are you?” she asked.
Veronica shrugged. “I’m just running and gunning, in and out, in and out, keeping busy.”
She was watching “Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.” It was the first time since her son’s death that she had turned on the TV. She’d been avoiding the news. Stories about troops coming home and military casualties were emotional triggers she did not want to squeeze.