On November 14th, two weeks before he was supposed to go home, Spc. David Emanuel Hickman became the last American service member to be killed in Iraq. While on a regular “presence patrol” in Baghdad, his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED), the signature weapon of the war in Iraq.
News of Hickman’s death really hit me hard, as it brought back the painful memory of four fellow Marines that were killed under rather similar circumstances in Al Qaim, Iraq in September 2004. Just two weeks into my first combat deployment, the four Marines (three from the incoming infantry battalion, and one from the outgoing battalion) were killed by an IED during one of the last right-seat, left-seat battlespace turnover missions. LCpl Nicholas Perez, the Marine from the outgoing battalion, was literally scheduled to fly out of the country upon returning from the patrol. His bags were all packed, staged, and ready to go, but he never returned.
It’s important for Americans to reflect on Hickman’s sacrifice, as his death is reflective of the extraordinary sacrifice of all the brave men and women who served our country in Iraq. It’s also important to consider why Hickman’s death, and the death of men like LCpl Perez, seems so cruel in part because of how close they were to coming home.
A paratrooper based in Fort Bragg, Hickman was only 23 years old when he died. Team captain and all conference outside linebacker in high school, Hickman was a gifted athlete known affectionately by his friends as “Zeus” (because his physique would make even the gods jealous). A black belt in Taekwondo, Hickman dreamed of joining the Special Forces. He was the 4,484th member of the U.S. military to die in the war (and the 66th to die since the beginning of Operation New Dawn). “It’s not fair; he was so close to ” voiced Hickman’s good friend Logan Trainum.
What does it mean to be the last person to die in a war? The death itself is certainly symbolic, the last chapter of a book most Americans would like to close and forget. But what is it about Hickman being so close to coming home that makes his death sting so deeply? Hickman’s death is no more tragic than any of our other combat dead, but its proximity to our withdrawal makes it seem almost preventable. When we mourn his death, we are heartbroken by what could have been. According to Marcus Aurelius, “It is not the young man who misses the days he does not know. It is us, the living, who bear the pain of those missed days.”
What does it mean to die while your country is withdrawing from an unpopular conflict? For one, it threatens to taint your death with a bitter, political aftertaste. Knowing that withdrawing our troops was a campaign promise by President Obama, it’s impossible not to consider whether the timing of the withdrawal was politically motivated. There is also a collective sigh of relief when the final troops depart the combat zone, so the death of the last service member may be held by some as a political talisman.
To those who loved and served with Hickman, the reason why he was the last soldier chosen to die will be the most elusive, and yet the most pressing, answer they will seek. “What if Obama had ordered us home just two weeks earlier?” “What if we weren’t forced to conduct presence patrols?” “What if he and I had switched seats that day?” What if.
As many comrades of fallen warriors know, there is no end to the madness of the “what-ifs.” They are an incessant cycle of guilt and anguish that have driven many strong and decent, God-fearing men to the edge of sanity. Learning to accept that some questions are better left unanswered is a level of enlightenment that unfortunately not all can attain. And so, if not clarity, we should all wish serenity upon Hickman’s fellow soldiers and loved ones, and the friends and loved ones of all those lost in this long, bloody war. That is the very least they deserve.
As we celebrate the homecoming of our final troops from Iraq, let us reflect on the sacrifice of the 1.5 million service members who have fought in Iraq, as well as their families that have born the burdens of war’s aftermath. More than 4,400 Americans died while serving their country in Iraq. Let us honor those who fell by caring for those who made it home. As President Obama said, “Because part of ending a war responsibly is standing by those who have fought it.”
Bingham Jamison served two combat tours as a Marine Corps officer in Iraq. He earned his Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation after leaving active duty, and has worked combating terrorism financing and managing investments for non-profit endowments and foundations. A captain in the Marine Ready Reserves, he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two children.