LANDSTUHL, Germany – 19-year-old Casey Hicks was a young Soldier with hopes and dreams, a new husband and her whole life before her, but everything changed with a knock on her door.
A Michigan native, Hicks wanted to join the military when she was in fifth grade.
“My family was always passionate about the military,” Hicks said. “My grandfather served and many of my aunts, uncles and cousins served, too.”
In her junior year of high school, Hicks started talking to a recruiter and decided to join the U.S. Army.
“There are 219 ways to be a Soldier and one of them was as an animal care specialist,” Hicks said. “I grew up with pets and had horses so this seemed like a great fit.”
Hicks enlisted at the beginning of her senior year of high school.
Later that year she started working at a burger restaurant to tide her over until leaving for basic training, and that is where Hicks met her future husband, Juan Guadalupe Garza, Jr.
“I started working at the restaurant and not long after that this new kid started,” Hicks said. “We just clicked.”
According to Hicks, Garza really wanted to join the Marine Corps.
“He was the first one from his family to graduate high school,” Hicks said.
“He really wanted to be a Marine and make a career out of it.”
Garza enlisted and left for the Marine Corps boot camp a couple of weeks before Hicks did.
“This was in 2002, so the technology wasn’t anything like it is now,” Hicks said. “We wrote letters to each other throughout basic training and he surprised me by showing up at my basic training graduation in October.”
Garza proposed to Hicks on Thanksgiving day.
”It was one of the best days of my life,” Hicks remembered. “We were 18 and 19 and felt like such adults with many hopes and dreams. We thought we had it all figured out.”
Hicks was stationed at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C. and Garza was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California.
“We eloped on the 26th of December and didn’t tell anyone,” Hicks said. “We were both home on leave. We [the U.S. Military] were about to invade Iraq and we knew he would ship out in a matter of time.”
Hicks kissed her husband goodbye Dec 30 at the Detroit airport on his way to Camp Pendleton, and he was sent overseas a few weeks later.
“We planned a big wedding for after his deployment,” Hicks remembered. ”We had all these hopes and dreams but it all ended with a knock on my door.”
“I remember it clearly,” Hicks said. “I got home from the gym and I saw this Army guy in his greens sitting in the lobby. “It was [Washington] D.C.; I didn’t think much of it. I went upstairs while phoning my friend and there was a knock on my apartment door.”
When she opened the door there were two Marines, and “the Army guy from the lobby” was the chaplain.
Garza’s life was snuffed out by a sniper’s bullet in the desert sands just east of Baghdad. Garza was killed in action on April 8, 2003.
“It all came crashing down,” Hicks said.
“I was a 19-year-old war widow. The whole process was so foreign for me, I had to plan a funeral for my husband of four months. He was only 20.”
According to Hicks, the community was very supportive. People were holding flags and lined up along the street, the local media televised the process and more than 500 people attended his funeral.
“Juan was Monroe County’s first casualty of Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Hicks said. “They were really supportive, which I’m thankful for. It was nice to have them there. It was a good feeling.”
For the last 18 years, she has taken it one-step at a time to live the life her late husband never had the chance to live.
Hicks returned to work as soon as possible to try to fill the void left by her husband’s sudden death, but she found herself needing something more.
Running was always one of Hick’s passions. She started running cross-country and track in junior high when she was twelve years old, so when Garza died, she found comfort in running and signed up for her first Army ten miler later that same year.
“[Washington] D.C. is home of the Army’s 10-miler and I ran it with my peers from work,” Hicks said. “Running has always been a good stress-reliever for me.”
That race motivated Hicks to keep running, and after the race, her friend, Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Arbenz-Smith, asked her if she wanted to run in the Marine Corps marathon in three weeks.
“I said yes, let’s do it,” Hicks said. “I don’t know how he did it, but he got me signed up. These races sell out fast but somehow he did it. But now I just had three weeks to train for my first marathon and to attend a memorial ceremony across the country.”
Hicks trained as much as she could with Arbenz-Smith, who ran along with her. Running gave her purpose and the Marine Corps marathon started her journey as a long-distance runner.
“Six months after Juan died, I ran my first marathon. One foot in front of the other,” Hicks. said. “One step at a time.”
Her husband is always with her, she runs with a picture of him pinned to her bib.
Since then Hicks has completed six Army 10 Milers, four 12-Milers, twenty half marathons, eight marathons, 22 Spartan races, five triathlons and two Ironmans.
Hicks says that the reason she runs is simple.
“I run for him. He’s not here to run. At 19 years, I learned that life is short. Grief gets easier over time. There are good and bad days, but you keep going. It’s one step at a time.”