The scars and tattoos that don Elizabeth Marks’ body only tell part of her story. The Army sergeant has fought her entire life, and not just on a battlefield.
She went from an at-risk youth in Arizona to a wounded warrior in Iraq. She suffered a life-threatening respiratory problem and fought tooth and nail to keep her job as a combat medic.
Yet she still stands and eyes her future with tenacity, all while holding compassion for her fellow soldiers.
So going against the best Paralympic swimmers in the world wouldn't be the toughest battle she had faced, even for someone who knew nothing about swimming when she started.
“Swimming became my happy place. In the pool I became strong again. It was peaceful, and I enjoy the silence of what it’s like to be in the pool,” said Marks, who won gold in the 100-meter breaststroke and bronze in the 4x100 medley at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. “I was grateful to go to Rio and represent Team USA.”
Marks had three operations to restructure her hips, which were severely injured in April 2010 while on assignment in Iraq. To further complicate things, an illness affected mobility more in her legs and decreased her lung capacity, which led to disorientation and vision problems while in the pool.
The Army twice found Marks unfit to continue her job as a combat medic specialist.
“They found me unfit until I contested a third time,” Marks said. “The third time they found me fit for duty. It was July 3, 2012, the same day I was accepted into the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program.”
Marks, who is both actively serving in the Army and competing as a world-class swimmer, is one of several U.S. Olympians and Paralympians being honored Saturday as part of Armed Forces Day.
After her injury in Iraq and long before medaling in Rio as a Paralympic swimmer, Marks had to prove she could live up to the standard of the type of soldier her old man bragged about — which might be tougher than Army standards.
“My dad was in the Marines and a Vietnam veteran, and he always talked about how much he respected the corpsman,” she said.
Marks said she wanted to become a combat medic after hearing her father James talk gallantly about how much he admired the Navy corpsman who treated him while injured in Vietnam.
Elizabeth said he father didn’t talk much about Vietnam or the extent of his injuries, much like her very own demeanor.
Still, Marks made it her mission to wear the uniform to honor not only her dad but also her brothers and sisters who wear it for their respective branches of service.
“People of the military are amazing,” she said. “I love my brothers and sisters in all branches, and to have them as family is special. Military is hard, and we all work very hard.”
Marks has since earned a bachelor’s degree, but she insists on remaining enlisted instead of pursuing the officer route.
“I’m staying enlisted mostly because I love being a combat medic. I love being with my soldiers,” she said. “I think enlisted corps can be empowered a little bit more.
It’s OK to be educated and enlisted.”
Marks trains in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the WCAP, and still gets back to work with her fellow soldiers, whom she holds the utmost respect. Swimming for medals never was the goal.
“I’ve never chased a medal,” she said. “I never needed to be the fastest or best at anything in the pool. I enjoy trying hard and performing in the pool for my team, and my brothers and sisters in the military.
“I want to show them what I’m capable of instead of what I’m not.”
She said whenever she talks to groups of people, she always reminds them to remember those who fought in Vietnam, as most of those military members weren’t afforded the same opportunities as today’s service members.
“I always include how grateful I am about the support I’ve been given,” she said. “I try to recognize the Vietnam veterans who didn’t get these opportunities and fought so hard for our generation. I think we as soldiers can carry that forward and let them know how much they’re appreciated, and that sentiment can carry on for years to come.”
Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.