Before the sympathy, Britney Hocking sometimes gets skepticism when she shares that her older brother was killed last month in Iraq.
“I’ve actually had people ask me: ‘Do you mean Afghanistan?’ ” she said.
Some also have wondered aloud whether Sgt. Brandon Hocking’s death was a freak accident.
That a soldier could still be killed in Iraq by an improvised explosive device surprises people. Our presence there and the potential for violence has largely faded from the American conscience.
Hocking’s death, one of the latest since the official end of combat operations in August, serves as a grim reminder of what is fast becoming a forgotten war. The United States has spent eight years of war in Iraq, with 4,443 servicemembers killed there. About 46,000 troops remain on the ground in “advise and assist” roles, and 23 servicemembers — 11 this year — have been killed since the mission change.
Iraq was once the dominant story on any given front page and nightly newscast. Today, attention has dropped to less than 1 percent of the daily news, according to the Pew Research Center.
Coverage spiked for a week in August when President Barack Obama declared the end of combat operations, but even then Americans were paying more attention to the salmonella outbreak in eggs, the center found.
In January, nearly two thirds of the people surveyed by Pew said they were only somewhat interested, not too interested or not interested at all in news about Iraq.
“It would have been unthinkable even two years ago to say that we would reach a point at which most Americans and, indeed, some people in Washington, would increasingly be forgetting about Iraq,” Sen. John McCain said in February. “But that point has largely come.”
Hocking, a 6-foot-7 small arms repair specialist, was buried Sunday on what would have been his 25th birthday.
He had recently reenlisted for six years after the Army agreed to send him to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in his home state of Washington. His family said he wanted to be closer to his parents and watch over his five younger sisters.
Hocking “was always there for me. Even if I called at three in the morning, he would come, no questions asked,” Britney Hocking said, recalling that when she took a job in downtown Seattle, he gave her one of his Army knives for safety.
The siblings were looking forward to raising their children in the same area.
“His kids are the same age as my kids, and we were always talking about finally being able to have family dinners,” Britney Hocking said.
Brandon’s son, Sebastian, is 4, and his daughter, Gwen, is 3. They are with their mother near Ft. Stewart, Ga., where Hocking was stationed with the 87th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion.
Hocking spent a few aimless years after high school before he became a soldier in 2005.
“Putting on the uniform raised his spirits,” said his father, Kevin Hocking. “It made him feel like a man.”
This was Hocking’s second deployment to Iraq. When he was killed March 21 in Samawah, he had only 10 days left before coming home.
Hocking was the gunner in the lead vehicle on convoys that traveled up to 250 miles between bases as a mobile repair team for small weapons, such as grenade launchers. Over the course of the deployment Hocking only experienced one incident along those long stretches of road before his death, according to Kevin Hocking.
Hosking had reassured his family Iraq was mostly quiet.
“I was under the impression not much was going on there, and all the danger was in Afghanistan,” Britney Hocking said.
As fighting increased in Afghanistan, America’s attention to the war there followed suit. Iraq slipped further out of mind while the country debated a new Afghan strategy and a surge of troops to quell the resurgence of the Taliban.
“You don’t really see anything about Iraq anymore,” Kevin Hocking said. “It’s all turned to Afghanistan.”
His son, the good-humored soldier who volunteered to be in the front, was killed at a time when no one was looking.
The week after his death, the governor of Washington called for flags at government buildings to be flown at half staff in Hocking’s honor. Unlike years past, when private businesses would automatically do the same, Kevin Hocking and family friends had to call and ask some to please lower their flag.