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America's combat mission in Afghanistan officially ended in December — a pivotal milestone marked by President Barack Obama's thanking soldiers for their "extraordinary sacrifices" after 13 years of bloodshed.
Yet on Wednesday, another U.S. service member was killed and seven others were wounded by enemy fire — a sign that those sacrifices continue as U.S. military operations still wind down over the next couple of years.
It's also a somber reminder for the families of the last two U.S. soldiers killed in December — Sgt. 1st Class Ramon Morris and Spc. Wyatt Martin — that the troops remain in harm's way.
Morris' fiancée, Christina Strange, told NBC's Lester Holt in an exclusive interview that she doesn't consider combat operations finished as long as soldiers continue coming home in coffins.
"I don't agree," Strange said. "I guess I don't know how to say it. The war to me is not over."
Morris, 37, of New York City, and Martin, 22, of Mesa, Arizona, were killed when their convoy came under attack Dec. 12 near Bagram Airbase.
Strange said Morris, the father of their 3-year-old daughter, Ariana, had just emailed her the day before to say he was coming home in two weeks. It was his third deployment after two tours in Iraq.
The news of his death, by all purposes, made Strange a war widow. She still struggles with how to tell her child that her father was killed.
"I don't have an answer to that one," said Strange, an Army reservist. "I don't think she understands that he's not coming home."
So far, more than $4,000 has been donated to an online memorial fund for Morris.
More than 2,300 Americans have paid the price with their lives in this war. About 9,800 U.S. troops are still serving in Afghanistan as the withdrawal process plays out. However, Obama also said troop levels wouldn't phase out as planned for 2015, acknowledging a lingering danger.
Martin's mom, Julie Martin, said the idea of a "last" soldier's death in war rings hollow because the U.S. continues to be on alert in dangerous places.
"So when you say they were the last ones, they really weren't the last ones," Julie Martin said.
Her son enlisted in the Army in 2011, straight out of high school. Being a soldier was everything to him, his family said. As they cope with his loss, they appreciate that others haven't forgotten the sacrifice he made for his country.
"We've gotten so many cards from all over the country. ... There are a lot of people out there who aren't forgetting," said his father, Brian Martin. "So for our experience, we are seeing a lot of people who are remembering Wyatt and Sergeant Morris."
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