November 11 is Veterans Day, a time to honor those who have served in uniform and who continue to strengthen and enrich our country with their expertise and talents as civilians. In this blog post, the International Republican Institute (IRI)’s Mark Koenig reflects on his military service and on being part of IRI’s mission of advancing democracy worldwide.
As a child growing up in the heart of it all, Ohio, I loved hearing stories of my grandfathers and their time in the military. I recall a time I asked my father how much money military members made, and he told me, “They don’t serve for the money. They serve because they love their country.” I felt it was both humble and honorable to give oneself to defend their country. I wanted to be remembered that way too — remembered not for fame and fortune, but for devotion to my country and its people.
I enlisted in the U.S. Army on May 20th, 2008. I graduated Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and shortly after, graduated Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Fort Gordon, Georgia. This was home to the U.S. Signal Corps and where I eventually became a signal support systems specialist. My job was to properly and safely assemble, operate, troubleshoot and train others on all communications equipment, from wires and cables to radios and satellites. I was first assigned to a quartermaster unit in northwest Ohio. In May of 2012, I was promoted to sergeant, assigned to an airborne company in central Ohio and worked toward a bachelor’s degree in international studies with a specialization in African studies at Ohio State University.
After nine years in the Army, I joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Tanzania. Living in Iringa, Tanzania, I learned Swahili and worked with village governments and nongovernmental organizations on malaria prevention, maternal and infant nutrition education and other health outreach initiatives.
Both in the military and in the Peace Corps, I served with people who joined for their love of country and led by example. I wanted to continue to devote myself to my country upon returning home, to work for an organization that promoted the ideals the United States stands for. I saw the opportunity to contribute my skills to IRI’s mission of advancing democracy worldwide as a way to join in the effort of letting all voices be heard.
Today, as a program associate for IRI’s Africa Division, I’ve worked primarily on our southern portfolio, which has afforded me the opportunity to connect with countries such as Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, and Zimbabwe on both a national and regional level. I first joined IRI as a Safety and Security intern and in February 2019, shortly after joining the Africa Division, I was given the opportunity to apply my security background and assist in Nigeria’s elections as a security coordinator.
As a solider, my purpose was to protect the rights and freedoms of my fellow Americans. As a part of IRI’s international election observation mission, I was able to witness the same rights and freedoms exercised by citizens who, too, love their country.
During my time in the military and here at IRI, I’ve learned that the love of freedom is not a quality that distinguishes Americans from citizens of other countries. Liberty, democracy, the rule of law—these principles might be central to U.S. history and conduct, but they are shared by all people everywhere—and it is the responsibility of Americans to advance them as far as we can.
Fidelity to country is not rooted in American soil itself, but rather in the ideals that have made the United States prosperous, free and just. I’ve had the opportunity to leave my country many times in my capacity as a soldier, volunteer and democracy advocate—and every time, I’ve felt more connected to my grandfathers and the values of America they swore to protect. I’ve felt more American. Duty to country is not only a part of me as a veteran, it is a part of all of us here at IRI, as we support and advance freedom and democracy worldwide.