Two weeks ago, Army Spc. David Hickman called from Baghdad, excited about coming home in time for Christmas. His mother recalled feeling a wave of relief just "hearing David's voice."
The next day, Nov. 14, soldiers knocked at Veronica Hickman's door. Her son had been killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad that morning.
In the twilight of a war that many Americans regard as over, with only a month before all the troops are to be gone, David Hickman may prove to be the last soldier to die in Iraq. That, at least, is the prayer of families of the remaining U.S. forces, who face an agonizing wait as the rapidly diminishing number of troops pack up and head home.
It is also the prayer of Veronica Hickman and her husband, David, who bear a grief they hope no other family will have to endure.
David Emanuel Hickman, 23, was the 4,483rd American military member killed in Iraq, according to icasualties.org, and just the second in November. He was the 53rd to die this year, by far the lowest annual total of the war and 16 times lower than the peak rate in 2007.
Although combat operations have officially been considered over since September 2010, danger remains. Every death in war is tragic, but the loss of a son or daughter as a war winds down seems all the more unbearable and unfathomable.
Even now, each soldier's step outside a fortified operating base in Iraq is a step into a combat zone. Hickman was returning from a seemingly routine patrol when his armor-plated vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb, members of his unit told his friends in North Carolina.
Logan Trainum, Hickman's best friend, said David told him troops felt compromised by President Obama's announcement in October that U.S. troops in Iraq would be home by Christmas.
"David was frustrated — he said all the guys were frustrated," Trainum said. "They felt like people were going to make one last try to get them before they left."
If Veronica Hickman could meet Obama, she said, "I'd tell him: 'You shouldn't have broadcast that everybody would be out by the end of the year. It made them targets. You should have slyly got them out.' "
Many of Hickman's friends found it incomprehensible that he could be gone just as he was preparing to return to them. They had planned homecoming parties — and a special night at a local tavern, one where they had all hung out before he shipped out to Iraq in May. Some had assumed that with the troops coming home, casualties were unlikely.
At a candlelight service on the high school football field where Hickman had starred as a linebacker, his friends fought back tears as they came to grips with their loss. They described a young man of few words but great integrity, who could always be counted on to do what was right, and just.
"He was our protector — he always protected us girls when we all went out," said Lyndsee Mabe, a friend from high school. She wore a T-shirt printed with a color photo of Hickman in his uniform and paratrooper beret.
"I thought maybe he'd be safe, with the president bringing all the troops home," Mabe said.
Shelley Rice, the class president during Hickman's senior year, had known him since sixth grade, when he gave her a stuffed bear on Valentine's Day.
"David was such a protector that he did it for a living — he protected our country," Rice said.
The darkened field was lined with tiny American flags. His friends took orders for the T-shirts bearing Hickman's photo. A table was piled with more photos, surrounded by American flags and a message: "We Love You."
"I won't ever look at the flag again without seeing David's face up there on that thing," said John Primm, the school's athletic director when Hickman attended. "He was a young man of duty, a rare thing these days."
Primm said he was teaching a current events class on Iraq and Afghanistan when he got the news of Hickman's death.
The son of a retired Air Force veteran, Hickman was a powerfully built man who was proud of his physique, Trainum said. He jokingly referred to himself as Zeus, Trainum said, because "he had a body the gods would be jealous of."
The Rev. Derek Bailey, who led prayers at the service, said of Hickman: "He was a mountain of a man. Now it feels like the mountain has crumbled."
During the service, the wind kicked up and blew out the mourners' candles. "David wouldn't want us crying," Trainum said. "He's up there, blowing out our candles."
Later, Veronica Hickman spoke of planning her son's funeral just as America's war in Iraq is winding down more than 6,000 miles away.
"He was supposed to come home Dec. 1, but he didn't tell me because he wanted to surprise me," Hickman said. "And I didn't tell him I had a surprise party planned for him.
"And now," she said, "my surprise turns out to be that I'm going to my son's funeral."
The war is not quite over, she said. Her son's comrades are still in harm's way. She knows that thousands of families are enduring the same fears that had gripped her, trying to hold on until the end of the year.
"The war is still there," she said. "My heart goes out to all those other families."