The Rhino Den – WE ARE STILL AT WAR.

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By Jack Mandaville

Earlier this evening I was at dinner with my girlfriend, enjoying a large plate of Texas fajitas with a tall, cold glass of water to wash everything down. As I was finishing my plate—and loosening my belt after eating more than I probably should have—we somehow got onto the topic of the plastic crate sitting in our closet.

“I know if there was ever a fire the first thing you’d want to grab is your Marine Corps tub,” she said.

“Hey now, I’d grab you first then the tub,” I responded jokingly.

This crate, nestled under a bunch of boxes in the corner of our walk-in closet, is the only visual reminder in our entire place that I served. All of the most important physical items from my active-duty years (photographs, uniforms, war loot, letters, etc) sit in that nondescript tub that was purchased for less than $5 at Walmart. It’s a vital, yet hidden, link to my past.

At thirty years old and seven years removed from the Marines, I’ve outgrown the majority of the post-service readjustment obstacles that many encounter. I’m settled and happy with my professional and personal life—thinking more about tomorrow than yesterday.

Our conversation quickly progressed from a rare Q&A about my time in service to one about the guys I served with and where they’re at now. I talked about how I respect them more now than I did while were young men on active-duty, how they’re all doing well in life and looking to the future.

These are a group of men who served in one of the toughest jobs in one of the toughest time periods of the Iraq War and, contrary to the popular media narrative, none of them are felons or living on the streets. In fact, among them, there are successful contractors, cops, lawyers, med students, businessmen, and even a PhD candidate at any Ivy League school. The ones who stayed in the military have advanced within the enlisted ranks and some have even taken commissions. They’re family men, as well. Hell, at this point, our peer group has gone through a mini baby boom, causing me to lose track of all the new names in our family.

Yes, they did some incredible and impressive things in uniform. But the talented professionals and doting fathers they’ve become has driven my respect for them through the roof.

Within that conversation I also casually mentioned that we were involved with the Global War on Terror in its early stages. I mentioned the fact that some of the young men and women deployed to Afghanistan now were barely learning to read when the Twin Towers were hit—not even old enough to comprehend the enormity of that day.

That conversation was six hours ago. It’s 3:20 in the morning and, in a bout of insomnia, I just checked my Twitter feed. One of the first things that popped up was a tweet from a Twin Cities news anchorman.

–RIP Caleb Erickson– Marine from Waseca, MN killed by suicide bomber in Afghanistan Friday. 20 years old.

This wasn’t the first tweet of its kind that I’ve seen. But something about it struck my soul. It was undoubtedly a combination of the earlier conversation with my girlfriend—again, that is out of the ordinary these days—and the fact that this young man was from the same home state as me. Additionally, the tweet was accompanied by a picture. It was that same backdrop mixed with the American and Marine Corps flags that I had once sat in front of. A young, straight-faced man halfway through bootcamp with a white barracks cover resting atop his head as he stared into the camera.

Twenty years old. He wasn’t even in double digits when we crossed the LOD into Iraq ten years ago. It’s heartbreaking. It’s a terrible reminder that we’re still at war. It’s a terrible reminder that this young man will never have the same opportunity to live the life of peace the men of my generation have enjoyed. He’s the same as those we lost ten years ago, who should be where we are–eating too much Mexican food and chirping away with their loved ones about different subjects. He’ll never have that memory crate to stuff away in the corner of his house as he goes on with life.

And now we have one more Gold Star family in America. We have one more platoon missing a brother. It’s year twelve in Afghanistan. That conflict is on its second president, its eighth CentCom commander, its 2,313th US death, and its 3,425th Coalition death.

Even for those of us whose job revolves around supporting active-duty troops and Veterans, sometimes we need these hard reminders. Because knowing the troops are still in Afghanistan and wanting to see a logical conclusion to the war are two different things. I can no longer carry on with a “I did my time, glad I’m not there” mentality. My own cousin has been in Afghanistan for months now and the only time I give it any thought is when I see occasional pictures of him on Facebook. I owe him more. We owe the young men and women still serving more.

This country is still at war. We’re still losing our people. We have an entirely new generation of war vets that will have to encounter the trials and tribulations of post-war adjustment until they settle into their groove.

What are we doing?