Key West's own Mark Bollong, a third-generation Conch, Mary Immaculate High School graduate and decorated Navy SEAL, has been tapped by the Navy to be the next director of operations for U.S. Special Operations Command in Africa.
And no one is prouder than 96-year-old Elizabeth Street resident Marjorie Barrett, his grandmother.
"He always wanted to be in the Navy, ever since his school days, and he was always very adventurous," Barrett said Thursday. "Of course, when he said he was going to be a SEAL, I didn't like it one bit, but there was no changing his mind."
Barrett recalled how she had to look up the secretive Navy units about which she knew little.
"It's a risky business, but he's my first grandchild and the light of my eyes," the grandmother said. "I still worry, but not as much as I did early on."
The Navy announced last week that the former chief staff officer for Naval Special Warfare Group 1, commander of SEAL Team 5, as well as commander of Special Operations Task Force-West in Afghanistan, was not only promoted to captain, but will be part of the command staff that oversees the missions for all Special Operations Forces in Africa, said Naval Special Warfare Group 1 spokesman Lt. Ben Tisdale.
That command includes not only all the SEALs operating in Africa, but other elite units such as Green Berets, Rangers and Reconnaissance Marines.
"I am very honored and humbled to have been selected for captain," Bollong said in a prepared statement. "I certainly would not have earned this honor without the incredible support from my leadership, fellow SEALs, sailors and my family throughout the years. Although I am very excited about my next assignment overseas, I will greatly miss Key West and my family and friends."
Bollong graduated from Mary Immaculate High School in 1986 and from the University of Florida in 1992 before going on to complete the notoriously brutal Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUD/S) as part of Class 185 in 1992.
Bollong is the brother of Meredith Bollong, co-owner of Besame Mucho in Bahama Village, and also a friend of Key West High School swim coach Judd Wise.
"Mark is very nonchalant about things and he doesn't like to toot his own horn, but when he emailed me last week to tell me, it made the hair stand up on my arms," Wise said. "It's well-deserved. People don't know all the things that he's accomplished, and the fact that he has made captain now overseeing all those elite forces, for a kid coming from a 4-by-2 island, is just awesome."
Wise was at Bollong's change-of-command ceremony in Coronado, Calif., last month.
"People don't realize that he was in charge of 150 people over there (in Afghanistan) and to hear the admiral describe how he brought all 150 of his people home just brought tears to my eyes. His grandmother, parents and sister, there's none prouder in Key West. Believe me."
Bollong may have been allowed to write his own official press release, which also stated, "He is the son of Ms. Christine Bollong and Mr. Hans. J. Bollong who are equally proud (with grandmother Barrett) and would whack him in the head if he didn't mention it."
Bollong's other family members said they preferred not to comment and referred questions to Barrett, said his sister, Meredith Bollong.
"He told me the Navy might put something in the local paper," Barrett said. "Last time we spoke, he told me he'd rather be out in the field doing all those thing the SEALs do rather than desk work, but maybe the Navy doesn't want to risk him anymore. They're a very secretive group."
She paused a moment.
"We're all very proud him of him and hope he continues the way he has."