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A career soldier remembers
On Veterans Day, Army Colonel Mark Elfendahl will be speaking at one of his daughter’s schools about service to country. As he did on Veterans Day last year, he will remind them that the freedoms they enjoy are not to be taken for granted.
Elfendahl has what one might call a storied military career — a degree at West Point, successful tours of duty at the world’s hot spots over the years, and recent postings at the very center of the United States Army leadership.
Elfendahl, a 1985 graduate of Mercer Island High School, grew up, in his words, “as a young idealist surrounded by the ghosts and heroes of those from his own family” who proudly served in the United States military.
His father was a major in the Army Air Corps in the years after the attack at Pearl Harbor. He has two uncles, Reed and Byron Johnson, one a Green Beret, who served their country.
“I was motivated by others when I decided to serve in 1982,” he said, adding that his parents were thrilled when he attended the storied West Point on a full scholarship. Elfendahl earned a degree in political science from West Point and later graduated with honors in 1999 from the Defense Language Institute in California. He holds a master’s degree in International Relations in 2001 from the Frederick Schiller University in Germany, where he was an Olmstead Scholar.
Elfendahl grew up southeast of Island Crest Park down S.E. 61st Street. He attended Island Park for elementary school, South Mercer Junior High School and Mercer Island High School. He delivered papers in the afternoon for the Seattle Times, cutting through the Stevenson Farm to deliver papers to homes next to Pioneer Park. He remembers sledding down 68th Avenue S.E. during snowy winter days.
It was a steady and happy childhood.
He regrets that his father was too ill to see him graduate from West Point. He came to the Island for a visit as he headed for his first assignment after graduation. His dad died soon afterward.
Ever since, he said, “I have been moving like a gypsy caravan.”
Indeed, he and his wife, Heike, whom he met in Germany in 1993, have moved a dozen times in their 16-year marriage. He and his wife have two young daughters. They now live in Williamsburg, Virginia.
His posts as a soldier and list of military honors is long. He is accomplished and educated. He speaks German fluently and has attended training across all areas from soldiering techniques to international policy.
He has been to Europe on assignment or to attend school on three separate occasions. His medals include a Bronze Star, a Meritorious Service Cluster with three oak leaf clusters, a Amy Commendation Medal, Afghan Campaign Medal, Southwest Asia Service Medal, Ranger Tab, German Parachutist badges, air assault badge and more.
He watched the Berlin Wall fall and the people walking across the broken barrier into freedom for the first time. He was part of Desert Storm, commanding reconnaissance missions. His tour in Iraq brought him face-to-face with IEDs and roadside bombs.
Elfendahl’s time in Iraq was formative for him, he said. “I was proud to offer those people a shot at a self-determined life.”
There were losses. He thinks about those who died every day.
“Why did I make it back?” he asks himself. “And why they did not?”
“The most satisfying thing about it all is the people I have served with,” the soldier said. They are proud and patriotic.
“We did our duty, we followed our orders.”
Asked what the students will want to know on Wednesday, he ticks off a list: they will want to know about weapons, and if it is hard, and if he was scared on the battlefield. He will tell them that it is a rewarding life, and yes, they need to get up early and follow orders and that fear is sometimes a good thing.
When they ask why soldiers have to go to war, well then, that is when it gets serious. But he will say, when we do go to war, “The American soldier does it magnificently.”
He seems to be at the ready to return to the battlefield.
He can’t rest easy, he said. “I still have 80,000 of my friends in the desert.”