PULLMAN – As many as 300 people, including about 50 ROTC students in their dress greens, gathered at a sunset vigil on the Washington State University campus to honor the first Pullman resident killed in the Iraq war.
Sgt. Damien Ficek, 26, a member of the Washington National Guard’s 81st Brigade, was killed by small-arms fire on Dec. 30 while on patrol in Baghdad.
Ficek’s wife, Kyla, read from her husband’s journal about his first major firefight in Iraq, during which he took his first life.
“This evening made my life so clear,” Ficek wrote. “There is no point in doing anything halfway.”
She said her husband was a patriot who was able to bridge the gap with the Iraqi soldiers he helped train. He believed his mission was the most important in the war. The return of U.S. troops still serving in Iraq depends on the successful training of an Iraqi security force, Bush administration officials have said.
The crowd gathered Wednesday evening at the Compton Center on campus and walked silently, carrying candles to the Veterans Memorial in front of Bryan Hall. There, Kyla Ficek spoke of her love for her husband and how proud she was of him.
“Our marriage was cut short, but I am grateful for having him in my life,” she said. “Given more time, he could have done so much more in this world.”
Ficek, who graduated from Beaverton High School in Oregon, enlisted in the Army in August 1996, serving with the 2nd Ranger Battalion at Fort Lewis until June 2000. In 2002, he enlisted with the National Guard and was deployed to Iraq in February 2003.
At WSU he was a student in the athletic training department. He would have been assigned to a Cougar athletic team upon his return from Iraq, his academic adviser, Carol Zweifel, told The Spokesman-Review earlier this month.
After his wife spoke Wednesday evening, an ROTC honor guard retired the colors, lowering the flag that had flown at half-staff. Then taps echoed off the WSU buildings surrounding the grassy square.
Also speaking at the vigil was Heather Alfred, who read from a letter sent to her by her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Mike Alfred, Ficek’s roommate in Iraq.
“Damien Ficek was a true friend and a dedicated soldier,” Alfred wrote. “The kind of soldier you wanted in your platoon. He was blunt, comical and thought of as more of a brother than a friend.”
Alfred wrote that his friend still leads by the example he left behind.
“Damien was exactly the type of person I wanted to be around,” said another friend, Sgt. Michael Brabner, who spoke at the vigil. “I would be honored to follow Damien into combat.”
Charli Higgins of WSU Veterans Affairs, who organized the vigil, said she thought so many showed up – even those who did not know him – to honor his memory and the memory of so many who have fallen from all over the United States.
As the ceremony ended, bagpipes played “Amazing Grace,” and the crowd wandered off in the gathering darkness with a name to attach to the increasing toll in Iraq.
“I hope you will all leave here today touched by Damien’s spirit,” Brabner told them.