A memorial service is being planned for later this month for the first Washington State University student to die in Iraq.
Sgt. Damien Ficek, who was studying to be an athletic trainer in a rigorous WSU program, was described Monday as “a brilliant young man” and a quiet leader for younger students in the program.
“He was a special guy,” Carol Zweifel, his academic adviser in the athletic training education program, said. “He was so well-balanced and focused.”
Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson signed a proclamation declaring Monday Sgt. Damien Ficek Memorial Day, having the city pay formal tribute to the first Pullman resident who made “the ultimate sacrifice” in Iraq.
WSU President Lane Rawlins issued a statement of sympathy to Ficek’s wife, Kyla, who is also a WSU student, and to the rest of his family. His name will be added to the school’s veterans memorial.
The university has about 75 students serving in Iraq, but Ficek is the first to be killed in the war, said Charii Higgins, coordinator of the WSU veterans affairs office.
Ficek came to WSU after serving a tour in the U.S. Army and taking some classes at Pierce Community College. He was a licensed massage therapist and was attending college on the GI Bill as a result of that previous Army service, Higgins said.
“He was an extremely intelligent young man,” she said. “This guy had his feet on the ground and he knew where he was going.”
That route led through the school’s highly selective athletic training program, which combines the College of Education with the Athletic Department. The two-year program takes only 20 students each year, who work with staff trainers and eventually are assigned to different athletic teams.
Ficek had been on the President’s Honor Roll in the fall of 2002 and spring of 2003, and received a scholarship to the College of Education for the 2003-04 school year.
Ficek was 26 when he was accepted into the program in the fall of 2003. He would have been assigned to a team at the beginning of 2004, Zweifel said, and was excited about getting into the “hands-on” part of the program.
In that first semester, Ficek’s maturity had started to establish him as one of the leaders of his student group, she said.
“He was very much a team player, and his peers were starting to look up to him,” Zweifel said.
But Ficek was also a member of the Washington National Guard’s 161st Infantry Regiment, which was called to active duty in late 2003 and sent to Iraq. While he had concerns about picking up his studies when he returned, he had no regrets about going, she recalled.
He had e-mailed WSU officials in October, saying he expected to be back for classes in the spring.
Ficek was killed Dec. 30, just two days short of his 27th birthday. He was on patrol in Baghdad when his unit was attacked by enemy forces using small arms fire, the Pentagon said in a statement Monday.
A sunset candlelight vigil, with a bugler playing taps and a rifle salute, will be held either Jan. 19 or 20 on campus, at a location to be determined, Higgins said. Funeral services are expected to be held in Oregon.
WSU said Ficek is survived by his wife, Kyla; parents Donna and Danny Vian of Portland and Dean and Suzanne Dibble of Vancouver, Wash.; two brothers and a large extended family.