Greensboro, N.C. As the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq on Sunday, friends and family of the first and last American fighters killed in combat were cherishing their memories rather than dwelling on whether the war and their sacrifice was worth it.
Nearly 4,500 American fighters died before the last U.S. troops crossed the border into Kuwait. David Hickman, 23, of Greensboro was the last of those war casualties, killed in November by the kind of improvised bomb that was a signature weapon of this war.
“David Emanuel Hickman. Doesn’t that name just bring out a smile to your face?” said Logan Trainum, one of Hickman’s closest friends, at the funeral where the soldier was laid to rest after a ceremony in a Greensboro church packed with friends and family.
Trainum says he’s not spending time asking why Hickman died: “There aren’t enough facts available for me to have a defined opinion about things. I’m just sad, and pray that my best friend didn’t lay down his life for nothing.”
He’d rather remember who Hickman was: a cutup who liked to joke around with friends. A physical fitness fanatic who half-kiddingly called himself “Zeus” because he had a body that would make the gods jealous. A ferocious outside linebacker at Northeast Guilford High School who was the linchpin of a defense so complicated they had to scrap it after he graduated because no other teenager could figure it out.
Hickman was these things and more, a whole life scarcely glimpsed in the terse language of a Defense Department news release last month. Three paragraphs said Hickman died in Baghdad on Nov. 14, “of injuries suffered after encountering an improvised explosive device.”
He was more, too, than the man who bears the symbolic freight of being the last member of the U.S. military to die in a war launched in the political shadow of 9/11, which brought thousands of his fellow citizens out into the streets to oppose and support it. Eventually, the war largely faded from the public’s thoughts.
“There’s a lot of people, in my family included, they don’t know what’s going on in this world,” said Wes Needham, who coached linebackers at Northeast when David was a student. “They’re oblivious to it. I just sit and think about it, the courage that it takes to do what they do, especially when they’re all David’s age.”
And they were mostly young. According to an Associated Press analysis of casualty data, the average age of Americans who died in Iraq was 26. Nearly 1,300 were 22 or younger, but middle-aged people fought and died as well: some 511 were older than 35.
“I’ve trained a lot of kids. They go to college and you kind of lose track of them and forget them,” said Mike King of Greensboro Black Belt Academy, where Hickman trained in taekwondo for about eight years. “He was never like that. That smile and that laugh immediately come to mind.”