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Fallen soldier, son of federal public defender in Tampa, had big heart and big plans

TAMPA — His mother built her career defending people's rights.

Michael Davis Elm seemed to take notice.

He liked girls, but at his Arizona high school, he worked to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance. "He faced a lot of hostility for that," she said.

He volunteered for years with Planned Parenthood, an uncommon choice for a young man.

Then, three years ago, he joined the Army.

"He didn't have to do this," said Donna Lee Elm, federal public defender for the Middle District of Florida.

"I'm the head of a federal agency. We have plenty of money. He excelled in school and everything else he undertook. This was a kid who was going somewhere. He was going to accomplish things. He had options. He joined the Army because he wanted to serve his country."

Three times he was offered a chance to enter the officer training program. He declined.

"He wanted to be an infantryman," his mother said.

Spc. Elm served in A Company, 1st Battalion, of the 26th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division at Fort Knox, Ky.

He landed in Afghanistan about 11 months ago.

Twice he was wounded, and twice he returned to battle. Then came another explosion.

On Oct. 15, Donna Elm got a visit from an Army officer and a chaplain. Michael had been killed in action the previous day.

He was 25.

The third of five children, he was an infant when his mother began law school; she was then pregnant with twins.

His birthplace was Mesa, Ariz. He grew up to be ambitious, artistic and sensitive, voted best actor at Greenway High School in Phoenix for playing the lead role in The Importance of Being Earnest. He attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, but before long, he was talking about a career in the military.

He enlisted about the same time that Donna Elm came to Tampa to lead the office that represents indigent defendants in federal court. Her husband, Dennis, joined her after he retired from his career as a surveyor.

Over the past 11 months, they kept in touch with Michael through rare phone calls — she last spoke with him on Mother's Day — and Facebook messages.

His Facebook page offered glimpses of his life.

There's a photo of him with his mother at boot camp graduation in Fort Benning, Ga. He was an honor graduate.

He had a playful side. He posted photos of a stuffed lobster doll named Red that he took with him on travels. Red posed with an iPod, several guns and a collection of Justin Bieber photographs.

He also had a serious side. He posted a cartoon showing two flag-draped coffins. One is marked "Didn't ask"; the other, "Didn't tell."

He interpreted the cartoon for a Facebook friend: "To me it makes it seem as though both straight and gay soldiers have died and their service and sacrifice was equal … so why not treat them equally?"

The Facebook page says he liked Tom Waits and The Catcher in the Rye. And it includes his lighthearted description of his own inner incongruities.

"Frat Guy + Army Grunt = Total Tool."

"Feminist + Loves Kittens = Total Fairy."

"Camping + Canoeing = Total Stud."

"Cooks + Dances = Total Boyfriend."

He wanted to be in a relationship, his mother said, but he had put that part of his life on hold for the military.

She knew the peril her son faced when he joined the Army at a time of war. But she supported his decision.

"It was what he felt was right for him," she said.

Marty Clear can be reached at


Spc. Michael

Davis Elm

Born: Nov. 27, 1985

Died: Oct. 14, 2011

Survivors: parents Donna and Dennis Elm; brother Matthew Elm; sisters Margaret Campbell, Christy Rangel and Katie Elm; grandmother Joy Samson

Burial: Monday at Arlington National Cemetery

Fallen soldier, son of federal public defender in Tampa, had big heart and big plans 10/25/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 25, 2011 11:00pm]
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