JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. - In 2008 he defended his doctoral dissertation. Last year, he defended his country by deploying to Iraq.

For those reasons, Mark Orwat has been absent from the Armed Forces Men's Triathlon Championship for two years. He hopes to make a triumphal return as a member of the All-Army team in the 2010 event, which takes place June 5 at Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu, Calif.

"I look forward to going back and competing with the team," said Orwat, a lieutenant colonel and Network Operations Division chief with I Corps G-6. "It's good to get back with the guys and kind of hang out with them and reconnect with a lot of those folks. They're good people, good athletes."

So is Orwat. The 6-foot, 180-pounder earned USA Triathlon All-America honors from 2002 to 2007. This will be his fifth appearance at the Armed Forces championship. The U.S. Military Academy graduate has finished as high as ninth overall in the swim-bike-run event.

"I'd like to keep going with the Army team as long as I'm capable," said Orwat, "and as long as I meet the grade."

That could be quite a while. As Orwat pointed out, years he spent in his mid to late 20s with 7th Special Forces Group might have kept him from triathlon training, but they also left him with fresher legs.

"Once I got to group, I was deployed all the time," Orwat said. "I had a really intense op tempo from '95 to '99. I really didn't race at all those four to five years. I don't have the mileage that a lot of folks my age do."

Not that his life has gotten less complicated since. Orwat went on to earn a master's degree in his home state at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later added a doctorate in computer science from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. In between, he taught for three years and coached triathlon and water polo at West Point.

Orwat and his wife, Celeste, somehow found time to have two children - Tessa, 6, and Natalie, 4.

His triathlon training ground to a halt when he arrived at Fort Lewis in August 2008. Orwat was in Iraq by December of that year and returned 12 months later. He's been playing catch-up with his sport ever since.

"I don't feel like I've got the base (miles), but all my workouts are progressing well," Orwat said. "Most folks just get more efficient, and I've definitely done that. A lot of the efforts are intense. I'm going without a lot of long rides and without a lot of long runs."

Orwat, strongest on the bike but making strides as a runner, has set his sights on placing among the top five Army triathletes at the Armed Forces event.

"We're going to have a pretty good mix of seasoned guys down to the guys just coming out of different school(s)," Orwat said.

Former Fort Lewis triathlete Heidi Grimm, now a military program consultant to the U.S. Olympic Committee's Paralympic Division, served as coach of the All-Army team when Orwat last competed.

"I have known him for years and have always been impressed with him," Grimm said. "I was always happy when I would see his name on the roster.

"He's a positive force. That's probably the best compliment I can give anyone. He's always smiling, always ready to help out a teammate. He's the guy on the team (who) doesn't make a lot of noise or waves but always gets the job done."

Grimm recalled that it was always difficult to bring together 12 men and six women from around the Army and quickly make them a cohesive unit in an individual sport.

"Having Mark on the team always made that job a little bit easier," Grimm said. "I knew he would give 100 percent of himself every time he toed the line. That's the kind of athlete any coach would want."

Though Orwat plans to continue racing with the All-Army team, he looks forward to moving from Olympic distance (1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike and 10-kilometer run) to Ironman events.

"Short course is all about just red-lining," said Orwat of the all-out efforts involved. "I'm going to transition, I think, into the longer stuff in a couple of years."

At an age when athletes in other sports might retire, Orwat is headed in the other direction.

"You can do this stuff until you're really in the grave, and I encourage people to do that," Orwat said. "It's a good sport."

Bob Reinert is assistant editor of Joint Base Lewis-McChord's weekly newspaper, the Northwest Guardian.