November 14, 2011--eight years, seven months, twenty-five days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq the last American casualty of the war died. Army Specialist David Emanuel Hickman from Greensboro, North Carolina was killed by improvised explosive device while doing a routine "presence patrol" in Baghdad. He was the 4,474th U.S. military casualty of the war--he was 23 years old. Will his be a name any of us remember within the scope of our nation's history, or will his name be forgotten forever?
Some say that his death was an unnecessary death in a war that never should have been fought. Others say that his was an honorable death in which he did his duty for our nation. All agree that his death and the death of many others who fought in this war exacted a great price from our nation. And, it did. Too often we forget that there are more casualties than just those who served in our military in the war. There are the deaths of those who war was waged, and then there are all the other deaths associated with the war. War is hell and takes a major toll upon all those involved. Consider these figures:
- 4,474 U.S. military deaths
- 1,487 contractor deaths
- 448 academics deaths
- 348 journalist deaths
- 319 Coalition military deaths
- 7,076 total deaths
- 23,984 Iraqi insurgent deaths
- 104,000 to 114,000 Iraqi civilian deaths
- 127,984 to 137,984 total deaths
But in the end, David Emanuel Hickman will be the last footnote in the war that all of us need to remember. He becomes the exclamation mark. Logan Trainum, one of Hickman's closest friends, stated: "Thank God if David is the last one to die, because that means nobody else will have to go through this. But it's crazy that he died. No matter your position on this war--if you're for it or against it--I think everybody thinks we shouldn't have been over there anymore." It is finished.
In his 1971 congressional testimony on the then Viet Nam War, Senator John F. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran (Silver star, Bronze star with Combat V, and three Purple Hearts), raised the question in hopes to end that war: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
I am sure that will be a question that is wrestled for generations to come because I do not think that wars will ever end--there will always be wars. Yet, with David Emanuel Hickman I have had a fascination with this last man of the war. He was a good citizen, a health and exercise buff, good-humored, married, and wanted to be the best soldier he could possibly be. He wanted to serve his country with honor and he did. He was a good person doing the job he had agreed to do. Whether we agreed with the war or not, we all have to admit that his was a sad death--mere weeks before he was to go home.
But my fascination with this man was in the fact that he was the last casualty--the last death--in war . . . and with his given name. David, in Hebrew means "beloved"--is the greatest casualty of any war? Losing the "beloved"? Nearly an estimated 150,000 "beloved" gave their lives in this war--countless others will never be the same because of this war or any war. And then there was his middle name--Emanuel. Emanuel, a Hebrew word meaning "God is with us." Even in the horrors of war, God is with us.
It has been this season of Advent that those of us who call ourselves the followers of Jesus are reminded how convoluted the journey of faith can be. Reminded how far we can stray from the love and the grace of God. Reminded how dark our world can become when we step out of the light and into the darkness. And, yet, the Advent journey--a familiar journey--points us down the path to the greatest reminder of all . . . we are not alone . . . God is with us. Amazingly, God is with us no matter how poorly we choose to live our lives. God desires us and calls for us.
No matter how the war in Iraq gets played out in history--ours or theirs--we are reminded through the person of David Emanuel Hickman that we are the "beloved" and that "God is with us". May we never forget the last fallen warrior and may we make war no more. May we beat our swords into plowshares and know peace.