Elisha Stearns, 1972-2020

He was a protector and a soldier—deployed twice to Iraq and earning a Bronze star on his final deployment. He was passionate and funny, a thoughtful gift giver, an enthusiastic supporter of the Seattle Seahawks, a political junkie, and an aspiring heavy metal singer.

He was messy and wholly disorganized, unapologetically chatty, and a chronic complainer. He was as human as any of us is, and he was loved for it.

That his family and friends could articulate the complexities of his character is perhaps a testament to it.

Chief Warrant Officer Four Elisha Stearns, who served for more than 20 years in the United States Army, died November 18 due to complications from a long battle after suffering from a cardiac arrest while deployed in Iraq on 9 December 2019. He was 48.

Following the December 2019 cardiac arrest, which resulted in a severe anoxic brain injury, Eli’s prognosis was poor, but his family and friends remained prayerful for his recovery.

Named to honor a great prophet, Eli was blessed from the start. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, he explored the world both through books and outside of them. As a child, he spent time on the rivers and beaches of Oregon, where he has requested his ashes be scattered.

After Eli’s birth, his parents took him to a Jewish deli. Those in the deli passed him around and prayed over him. “He was an only child who early in life learned how to build an extended family through friends and expanding his cousins’ role to that of siblings,” says his father, Tim Stearns.

The son of a preacher, Eli participated in choir and acted in church plays throughout his childhood. His parents took him everywhere—even to overnight restaurant cleaning jobs—and his mother, Margie Stearns, says the three of them grew up together. Eli bonded with his mom during his adolescent years and grew into his father’s best friend as an adult.

During vacation bible school, Eli would plant fresh greenery with the children and adults. His mom remembers him coming to the classes she taught, helping the children with projects and telling them about the army. “He loved people very much,” she says.

Love, he learned from his parents, was a choice made actively; it was not a passive happening. He was taught to withhold judgement and treat every human being with love and respect.

As an adult, Eli was deployed to Iraq once in 2009 and again in 2019. On his first deployment, he met Niambi Key, who had deployed to Iraq as a civilian federal employee. Her sass and assertiveness drew him to her, and they quietly began spending time together.

The relationship spanned not only years but continents. Eli had been stationed in Germany for over 10 years when they met, living in what Niambi describes as a “janky” apartment with a tiny kitchen and compressed oven. One Thanksgiving, she flew to see him with cooking supplies in her carry-on bag and an order in for a Popeyes turkey. That Thanksgiving was a good one in the world they’d created for themselves.

A lover of food and wine, Eli was an easy person to cook for. He had his preferences but would usually eat whatever Niambi cooked for him, and happily. Even if the dish had too much salt or pepper or was undercooked, he was supportive, she said.

“I want salty turkey, it’s fine,” he’d say.

And when Eli was enjoying his food, those around him would know it. “When Eli would eat, he would moan and make sounds,” Niambi said.

Particularly, he loved the waffles she made in the waffle maker Niambi’s mother gifted the couple for their wedding. He would slather peanut butter all over them.

In 2012, once the couple had married, Eli moved into Niambi’s condo in Virginia. Later, the pair would move to Maryland to shorten Eli’s commute to Fort Meade.

On his second deployment, Eli worked with special operations on a specific mission. He could not tell his wife about the specifics of his work, but she knew that he felt reinvigorated by the mission, as if his passion for military service had been renewed. “He liked to feel like he was being effective and making change and doing things for the better, and so that’s why he liked to deploy—because he’s on the ground and it’s instant gratification,” she said.

To his wife, he was a human calculator, a football encyclopedia, and a talker. “He could talk to anyone,” Niambi said. “Which at times was annoying, but then super helpful.”

In addition to his relationship with Niambi, Eli formed a meaningful relationship with her mother, Montien Miller, who he called “mom” from the moment he met her. “His presence is what I’m just going to miss the most,” Miller said. “He didn’t even have to do anything, just be here.”

He would lie on the floor, covered in blankets and dogs, watching football and “getting pistachio shells everywhere,” Miller said. She and Eli shared a love of pistachios.

“My snack buddy is gone,” she said, smiling at the memory.

Eli, who had been married once before, lived a life of several seasons marked by an evolving hairstyle. In his early high school days, there were sideburns and a curl that reminded his friend Floyd Wills of Elvis. As high school inched toward a close, the hair grew long to support Eli’s role as lead singer in a heavy metal band. And when he entered the military, there was a “total transformation,” Wills said.

He cut his hair and lost 96 pounds over five and a half months walking, then running, with the support of his father and Wills. His military life took shape and structure while also allowing him the opportunity to use his creative mind for good in the counterintelligence field. His first duty station was at Fort Irwin, California. He thought it was near the beach.

For Wills, Eli was a brotherly figure and co-conspirator in teenage antics. The two met three decades ago as students at Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon, and built a friendship that adapted to adulthood.

“He would always find some way to cause some type of commotion or get into some type of mischief,” Wills said. When Wills would get into high school trouble, he said, Eli was usually one of the people in his company.

Wills recalled a field trip during which he, Eli, and another student broke away from the group. Covertly, the boys hiked down a small gorge to a waterfall, then jumped into the water for a swim that lasted until the teacher caught up with them. On the drive back, the teacher would choose their seats in the van.

“He put us in the very back because we were sopping wet,” Wills said.

Elisha was in full rebellion when he dropped out of high school because he wanted to be lead singer in a heavy metal band. He thought he was going to be the next Led Zeppelin, his wife said. He was in a band and trying to make it in nineties Seattle and Portland, but, as she puts it, things did not go the way they should.

In the years that followed, Eli would earn his GED, study at a community college, work, various jobs, then join the military and receive the Bronze Star — the fourth highest military honor — but he would not lose the part of him that made life more interesting for Wills.

Less than two years ago, Eli and Wills went out for drinks. After just a few drinks, Eli was in the backseat of the car sticking his head out the window when his cap flew off.

“He couldn’t hold his liquor in high school, and he couldn’t hold his liquor as an adult,” Wills said.

Wheels of the car still rolling, Eli jumped out in pursuit of his hat. From the front passenger seat, Wills watched as his friend grabbed the hat, just barely dodged an oncoming car. The stunt was like a page out of Eli’s high school playbook, Wills said.

Also enduring over the years was his passion for football. “He loved football—obnoxiously so,” says Niambi. He would spend hours focused on the NFL draft game on his phone, creating mock drafts and awaiting a rating. There were football magazines all over the house he shared with Niambi. He would recognize players in plain clothes at pizzerias, bars, restaurants.

When Eli encountered a player he recognized, he would not ask for a photo. Instead, he would share with the player any relevant statistics he had committed to memory.

Eli rooted relentlessly for his team. But at his core, Eli rooted for the underdog, his wife said.

“I think in some ways Elisha felt like he was the underdog,” she said. “And he, you know, always wanted people to be better or do better and achieve things.”

Eli is survived by his loving wife, Niambi Stearns; supportive and doting parents, Tim and Margie Stearns; and two loyal dogs, Dude and Beau Stearns.

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