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.Story: 'It feels good to be home safe and sound': 300 troops arrive at Fort Hood
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.'The war is over': Last US soldiers leave Iraq
"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."
The pain is fresh for people who knew Hickman. But the years have not eased the anguish of those who lost loved ones in the war's earliest days, when funerals were broadcast live on local television, before the country became numb to the casualty count.
Vicky Langley's son, Marine Pvt. Jonathan Lee Gifford, was killed just two days into the war. More than eight years later she sits in her Decatur, Ill. home, surrounded by photographs of him and even a couple of paintings of him in his dress uniform that total strangers created and sent her.Story: Iraqis celebrate US exit, but worry for future
She said she doesn't concern herself with thoughts about the cost of the war and whether it was worth the life of her son and all the others who died.
"Only the Iraqi people can answer that," she said.
She thinks of her son constantly. She recalls the first day of kindergarten and how she came home and "turned on every appliance I could (because) it was just so quiet without him." She remembers how as a young man he would call her, without fail, when the first snow of the year started to fall. She still hears the knock at her door at 11 at night, and the chaplain telling her that her 30-year-old son had been killed in Iraq.
And she sees him in the 4-year-old daughter he left behind, who is now 12. Lexie Gifford's thin frame and face are miniature versions of her father's, her smile a replica of his. She has the same slow, I'll-get-there-when-I-get-there walk. For a reason nobody understands, a while back she started popping frozen French fries in her mouth just like her dad used to do.
As the last troops prepared to leave Iraq, Langley was getting ready.
"I'll probably sit and cry," said Langley, 58. "I'll be happy for the ones you can be happy for and sad for the ones you are sad for."
Langley's life has been one catastrophe after another since her son died. The next year her husband died. Then months later, doctors told her the reason she was feeling poorly was that her kidneys had shut down. That was followed by a fall and a broken back. Today, as she waits for her name to come up on a list for a kidney transplant, she gets around the house she shares with her mother in a motorized scooter.
The one thing she doesn't have, she said, is guilt. Though she talked her son out of enlisting in the military a couple times over the years, the reasons began and ended with concerns about the safety for her only child.Story: 'Iraq War Ledger': The conflict by the numbers
But after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, she knew there would be no talking him out of enlisting. Besides, she said, "If I was young enough I would have gone in, too."
Even though the country's mood was much different in 2009 when Hickman joined the Army, he had no doubts about his decision, Trainum said.
"When I talked with him on the phone a week before, he wasn't unhappy about where he was or regretting being there at all," Trainum said. "It was just going to work for him, and he was looking forward to getting his work done and getting home."
Hickman, Gifford and the others left behind parents and spouses and children like Lexie, whose memories of her Marine father are what one might expect of a girl who was four when she last saw him.
"He popped out of a Christmas box," she said, of the Christmas just before Gifford was deployed, when he hid inside a large box to surprise his daughter. "He was tall. He had brown hair. He was nice."
The losses linger for people who saw the flag-draped coffins come home.
"I used to watch all the war stories on TV, you know," said Needham, Hickman's old coach. "But since this happened to David, I can't watch that stuff anymore. I just think: That's how he died."
Associated Press news researcher Monika Mathur contributed to this report. Babwin reported from Decatur, Ill.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.