Army Specialist David Hickman’s unit, the 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry from Fort Bragg, performed honor guard duties for his burial at Lakeview Memorial Park on Nov. 26, 2011, in Greensboro, N.C. (Joseph Rodriguez/Greensboro News and Record)

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.

Army Spec. David E. Hickman, pictured here at Al Asad Airbase in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, was killed in Iraq on Nov. 14, 2011. (Courtesy of Zack Zornes)

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.”

Grim news

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.

But the news arrived anyway. Lyndsee Mabe, another of Hickman’s close friends, was at the house and mentioned that a Marine from the nearby town of Ramseur had been killed in Afghanistan.

“Is that where David was?” Veronica asked.

“No,” Mabe said. “Iraq.”

“Oh,” Veronica said, stroking her son’s military ID tags. “I thought that was in Afghanistan.”

After nearly a decade of fighting two wars that sometimes appear indistinct to an increasingly disconnected American public, even those most deeply and directly affected by them can be confused by the far-off battles. But the grief always finds its way home.

‘Seemed like Superman’

The war in Iraq began in March 2003, when Hickman was a freshman at Northeast. By the time he graduated, in 2006, nearly 2,500 members of the U.S. military had died in the war.

Hickman, the son of an Air Force veteran, was a gym rat with the sort of sculpted physique that he only half-jokingly said would make the gods jealous. He also held a black belt in taekwondo. In 2009, he decided to enlist.

“He didn’t sign up to get his life on track,” his friend Trainum said. “He wanted to be a physically and mentally elite soldier.”

“It seemed like the perfect David job,” Pegram said. “It was basically a huge workout.”

He eventually hoped to join the Special Forces, his friends said.

When he was deployed, around Memorial Day of this year, the U.S. death toll was nearly 4,450, but the casualty rate had dropped significantly.

Still, the country remained dangerous. Fifteen Americans were killed there in June, the bloodiest month in two years. But if Hickman feared for his life, he hardly let on, instead projecting an aura of invincibility that was notable even in the macho culture of the military.

“He always seemed like Superman,” said Spec. Morgan Corbett, who became one of Hickman’s best friends during basic training. “Everyone looked up to him.”

Trainum said Hickman had joked about death: “He said, ‘If I die, I want you to invite every girl. I want hot girls crying at my funeral.’ But we never talked seriously about death or dying. We always talked about what would happen later in life. I don’t know that he even thought about dying. I just know it never crossed my mind that he wasn’t coming back.”

One of the first things Hickman planned to do upon returning was to have a blowout party. They would get limos, book a VIP table on the roof at Greene Street Club, drink gallons of beer.

“He said we were going to have a music video night,” Trainum said. “David really wanted to live it up.”

A soldier’s end

On Nov. 14, Hickman spent the afternoon at Camp Taji, a major base north of Baghdad, Zornes said. He ate chicken fingers dipped in barbecue sauce for lunch, bought parmesan Cheez-Its at the post exchange and suffered through “Confessions of a Shopaholic” with most of the rest of the platoon.

“It was a lame chick flick,” Zornes said. “But we all sat there and watched it.”

Just after 6 p.m., the convoy left for JSS Muthana, with Hickman in the lead truck, a heavily armored International MaxxPro. Zornes was right behind him, he said.

About 25 minutes later, Zornes said, a bomb exploded on the side of the road, near Hickman’s truck.

Helicopters swooped in to take the casualties away.

After the smoke and chaos cleared, the convoy returned to Camp Taji. At a briefing, Zornes said, the soldiers learned from an Army officer that Spec. David E. Hickman had suffered broken ribs, a shattered wrist and lacerations on his leg and face.

“And then he said he had internal brain bleeding,” Zornes said, “and that they were able to stabilize him before he left, but that when he landed at Victory Base Camp, they weren’t able to stabilize him.”

And then, for the 4,474th time in America’s Iraq war, a U.S. service member was pronounced dead.

Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.