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‘The day my world stopped turning’

Family remembers son/brother killed by suicide bomber

By Carlienne A. Frisch

Like many American boys, Caleb Erickson played with G.I. Joe action figures. By the time he was 16, he began to explore enlistment options. He joined the U.S. Marine Corp two months after graduating from Waseca High School and eventually was deployed to Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom. During combat operations in Helmand Province, Lance Corporal Caleb Erickson was killed when a suicide bomber hit Erickson’s convoy on Feb. 28, 2014, two months before he was to return to the States. That’s the short version of the story, but there is much more to understand. Erickson’s mother, Karla Madden, his sister, Rue, and a fellow Marine shared their thoughts and memories.

Caleb Erickson died in 2014 after his convoy was struck by a suicide bomber. Contributed photo

“Caleb was just an easy-going, fun-loving kid. Our family meant the world to him,” said Karla. “He had a close relationship with his sister. He was known for having an infectious smile, lighting up the room. I sure do miss that smile.

Caleb was an adventurous boy with lots of energy.

“He liked being outside, riding bikes, rollerblading, playing with cars and trucks, getting dirty,” she continued. “He was very active in sports throughout school. He played soccer and football, and he wrestled. He would volunteer for all the jobs and tasks no one else wanted to do. He enjoyed hanging with his friends, playing video games, cruising and working on vehicles. His first love was his Dodge truck (which he sold to a friend before leaving for Boot Camp), and then, while at Camp Lejeune, N.C., his last love was his Volkswagen GTI.”

Rue Erickson, two years older than her brother, reminisced: “Caleb was a very loving brother. We would go on bike rides in the summer, play in the sandbox, and go camping with our parents. We would explore the campgrounds together.”

Their mother added, “At age 16, Caleb was checking out branches of the military. He talked with his grandfather, Howard Erickson, who had served in the Army. Caleb chose the Marines because, he said, ‘They are the best. The few, the proud, the Marines.’ ”

Caleb Erickson and her sister, Rue. Contributed photo

Erickson left for basic training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, Calif. in July 2012, graduating three months later. He went on to Jacksonville, N.C. for training as a motor team mechanic. In summer 2013, he had six weeks of training in the California desert to prepare him to serve in Afghanistan.

“My brother came home around Labor Day 2013 for about one week,” said Rue. “We had the whole family on my mother’s side over, played games outside and sat around, talking. He was in the motor team in the Marines, specializing in H-Vac systems, air conditioning the trucks. He wasn’t scared about going to Afghanistan. Not at all.”

A fellow Marine, Sgt. Allen Borum, served with Caleb.

“He was a very energetic person,” said Sgt. Borum. “He basically took whatever he wanted to do to heart and ran with it.”

Killed by a suicide bomber

On Feb. 28, 2014, Caleb was in the turret of a truck from which he fired at an assassin who was driving a Toyota Corolla filled with explosives. The car exploded with such force that it turned the six-ton truck on its side. Caleb was one of four Marines airlifted to England for medical care. His was the only casualty, his mother said, probably because he was in the turret of the truck and not inside of it.

Caleb and his mom, Karla. Contributed photo

For Karla, the date is unforgettable. She said, “The day my world stopped turning was Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. I was at work at the Waseca Veterinary Clinic. Seeing two Marines in uniform walk into where I work just sucked all the air right out of me. I knew it wasn’t good. They took me into a conference room. Their first words were, ‘On behalf of a grateful nation . . .’ Then, my body stopped functioning. The first few days I was just numb and physically there. On Sunday, March 2, we flew to Dover Air Force Base to see Caleb brought back to American soil. To know he was in that casket getting off the plane broke my heart.”

It was Sgt. Borum who brought Caleb’s body from the East Coast to Waseca.

“We flew the body from Delaware to Chicago, just me and two pilots in a single engine plane, then to Minneapolis and Owatonna,” said Sgt. Borum. “We loaded the casket into a hearse in Owatonna and drove to Waseca. I had to tell Caleb’s mother that she wouldn’t be able to identify him, but she looked at the body. His whole head was bandaged all in white, but you could see his uniform. She wanted an open casket.”

A Hero’s Welcome

Caleb Erickson served in the motor team in the Marines. Contributed photo

Karla vividly remembers the day, March 8, 2014, when her son came home.

“After Caleb was flown to the Owatonna airport, I saw a sight I won’t forget. People with flags were lining up along the sides of the roads from the airport to Waseca, people gathered together to welcome home a hero—my son. At the funeral home, the casket was open. It’s one smell I will never forget. It was just like death. I could smell the burned flesh. But I know it’s what he wanted to do. If given the chance, he would have done it all over again. While in Afghanistan, he was offered the chance to come home early from the deployment, but he refused the offer, saying he wanted to stay with his unit. He had gotten a tattoo while in the Marines—a cross with dog tags (ID tags) hanging from it. When I asked why he chose that, he said that it was to represent the two things, besides his family, that meant a lot to him.

Karla has received three folded American flags. She said, “One was handed to me by a Marine officer at the funeral. The other two were sent. One was flying in Afghanistan the day of Caleb’s death, the other was flown in Afghanistan the day of his memorial here.”

Annual memorial

Caleb Erickson was memorialized by the Marines, too. Contributed photo

Sgt. Borum said, “Every year I want to come to the memorial in August, but I haven’t found the courage to make it back up there.” Although there is pain in some of the memories, one of the things Sgt. Borum remembers is Erickson’s sense of humor--and his Minnesota accent. Borum said, “It was the funniest thing I could ever imagine, and he would always put bunny ears on his helmet when he was in the truck.”

Her brother’s sense of humor is also in the forefront of Rue’s memories.

“He was very caring and loving; he would make you laugh when you were having a bad day,” said Rue. “I miss that about him—that he could turn my day around in a second. I miss his smile, his crisp blue eyes. And I know he would be a great uncle. We’re missing out on his spending time with my kids. They all were born after he went to Afghanistan.”

Although Caleb is no longer physically with his family and his community, words he wrote remain: “Something everyone needs to learn is to enjoy everything in your life. You never know how much time you have left on earth. If death comes rolling upon you, don’t be afraid, it’s God calling you to spend your eternity with him.”

Snow Bunny Ale—a tribute

In 2018, the Ward House Brewery in Waseca began producing a limited amount of specialized ale every February, in memory of Lance Corporal Caleb Erickson. The brewery offered the family several ales to sample and annually produces the flavor that was chosen, calling it Snow Bunny Ale. (Erickson was called Snow Bunny by his fellow-Marines for two reasons—he was a Minnesotan and he worked with air conditioning.)

John Mansfield, owner and brew master, said, “I have a great deal of respect for veterans. I served in Saudi Arabia in the Gulf War in 1990-91. I told the family ‘If there’s anything that I can do . . .’ so we talked a little bit more about an ale. Some guys in Caleb’s platoon came from other states to taste the beers. They chose the one they liked and called it Snow Bunny.

“The ale is light on the palate, with a hint of bitterness and an amber color. We made up memorial glasses for $10. The money from the ale sales goes to Caleb’s memorial fund through his mother.”

Karla Madden explained that funds are given to various local and state organizations that help veterans who have wounds, seen and unseen, including PTSD.

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