Before the injuries, before she found purpose in the pool and the platform for advocacy it offered, before the gold medals, before there was Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Marks, there was Ellie — a girl who grew up among members of the veteran community.

Marks, who is Military Times’ 2024 Soldier of the Year, spent her childhood surrounded by “100 grandparents who had all served in the military,” she says, exposure that came courtesy of her father — himself a Marine and Vietnam veteran — who worked maintenance at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Arizona.

Marks followed the community’s example, enlisting in the Army in 2008 as a combat medic during a time when women were not permitted to join the infantry.

Two years later, Marks was injured while deployed to Iraq and sent to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

Any uncertainties one may face on the road to recovery following such an ordeal were quieted by Marks’ desire to return to service alongside her fellow soldiers.

Marks found further inspiration when she discovered the pool — even though her first visits more closely resembled “not drowning” than swimming, she jokes.

It was there that Marks encountered “a very nice master sergeant and a very nice spouse” who showed her “how to swim the right way.”

“During that process — and their kindness — I found so much more than swimming,” she says. “It was the first time that I felt purpose and quiet. And it was extremely painful, but it was the first time in months where I got to dictate my own pain and push as hard as I wanted.”

Swimming also diversified her goals. In addition to fighting to preserve a career in uniform, Marks joined adaptive swimming events, beginning with the Warrior Games before moving on to paralympic competitions.

Significantly more vital than the athleticism such events inspire, however, is the platform they afford to mentor fellow service members seeking an outlet for recovery, Marks says.

“The only reason I became or have stayed a swimmer or stayed in the military wasn’t because of medals and accolades,” Marks said. “It was because of my brothers and sisters in the military and my hope that they could be afforded opportunity and support.”

In 2012, after being declared fit for duty, Marks took another step toward her advocacy goals when she joined the Army’s World Class Athlete Program to pursue competitive swimming full-time while in uniform.

But her road since her initial recovery, while interspersed with moments of great accomplishment, has been anything but smooth.

In 2014, Marks’ lungs gave out while she was en route to London for the inaugural Invictus Games. She subsequently spent a month in a medically induced coma, kept alive by a machine that pumped her blood outside her body to replenish it with oxygen. Once more, recovery in the pool beckoned.

Two years later, Marks won a gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Paralympic Games, setting a world record for her classification in the 100-meter breaststroke. She also took home a bronze medal in a medley relay. ESPN recognized her with the Pat Tillman Award for Service that same year.

Less than a year after winning gold in Rio, chronic pain and ongoing complications from injuries necessitated the amputation of Marks’ left leg below the knee.

Then it was back to the pool.

When she competed in the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Summer Paralympic Games, Marks won gold in the 100-meter backstroke, silver in the 50-meter freestyle and bronze in the 50-meter butterfly.

Herculean feats all, but Marks is far from done. She is currently considered a favorite to qualify for the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games, where she’s poised to add to an already-dazzling athletic resume.

Victory in Paris is no doubt the goal, but such pursuits, Marks says, are inherently tied to ensuring those in uniform know that, regardless of any obstacle, they always have someone in their corner eager to lend support.

“I’ll share any information or lessons learned,” Marks says. “I just want more service members to pursue adaptive sports. My dream is to help them get there.”

For the past 23 years, Service Members of the Year awards have honored one outstanding military (active duty, Guard or Reserve) member from each branch of service. They are selected based on exemplary military service that goes beyond the call of duty. The honorees and their families are being flown to Washington, D.C., for a visit to the nation’s capital and a special awards ceremony attended by congressional, military and community leaders. The awards ceremony will take place on April 24, 2024. To watch the livestream of the event, register here.

See all of Military Times’ 2024 Service Members of the Year honorees.

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