Illustration: Milan Cater
Illustration: Milan Cater

Features deputy editor Lara Margaret Guneri sits down with former US soldier Jeff Fiorito to discuss his military career.

On Tuesday 9 October in the Quad Jeff Fiorito, a current PhD candidate at the School of International Relations, gave a talk entitled ‘Views on Humanitarian Involvement from the Military Perspective.’ He had been invited to speak by UNICEF on Campus to speak about his experience as a soldier, and his talk focused on the encounters and challenges he faced while working with humanitarian organisations in various war-torn locales.

The Saint had the chance to talk with him further about his years as a soldier, his perception of the US Army, the hardships of being so far from home, and his current research in St Andrews. Herewith are his memories and insights.

Late ’80s: A start in the Army

“For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a soldier. My uncle was a ranger during the Vietnam War. He was always my hero, so I wanted to follow in his footsteps, and as soon as I was able to I joined the army.

“At the time I joined the army, you couldn’t directly go into the Special Forces ‘from the street’ as we call it. You must do your first round of duty, your first three or four years, somewhere else. You must be experienced to join the Special Forces. So I did three years in the infantry. I volunteered for a Special Forces assessment, and once I was selected I had to go through a month long training. I got selected as a weapon specialist. So I went to Fort Bragg [in North Carolina] for training. I got Spanish training as well.”

1990s: Time in South America

“In South America in mid-to-late ‘90s, we were working on foreign internal defence missions where we were tasked to assist the host nation government in training their military to a higher standard. As part of this package we often gave them human rights training as well. We would also assist them in professionalizing their military. It was a great experience. I travelled to several countries, and I was proud of the work we did there in helping our partner nations to strengthen their military.

“The Peace Corps does a lot of work there. As I described in the talk, there were times where, as a rule, they [the Peace Corps] wouldn’t want to collaborate with us because they wanted to keep their distance and maintain their independence from the military. But there were ways we would find to help each other because we were all… basically working towards the same goal.

“At that time we were very welcomed by the [local] population. I had fantastic experiences. In my first year, in 1993, I was sent to Honduras, and it was a wonderful experience. People were very warm, and the military was hard-working, but they did not have what they needed. The soldiers would try to do what they could but, for example, they didn’t have caps for their water bottles and they didn’t have the proper pins to hold their riffles together. It was very eye-opening, coming from the US military where we have everything that we need to do our jobs, to go work with these people who lacked the basic things they needed to do their jobs.”

2000: Leaving the Army

“I lost my spleen to shrapnel from a 40mm grenade. They said I couldn’t stay in Special Forces without a spleen and – not that I was too good to go back to the conventional army, but I had met my goals there – I was looking to do something else, something more of a challenge. So I aggressively worked on completing my Bachelors degree. In 1999 I completed my degree, and in the summer of 2000 I got out of the army. My plan was to go to graduate school and to earn a masters degree. I settled on a masters program at American University in Washington, D.C. and I graduated in 2005.”

Post 9/11: A soldier’s return

“Although I got out of active duty, I remained working part time as a reserve. The 9/11 attacks happened during my studies, but upon completion of my degree I was granted a commission as an infantry officer. From there on I started deploying again. I stayed in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. I was in the Diyala Province, and again I had a fantastic experience. I was proud of the work we did there.

“In 2006, while it was still dangerous, we were working to help Iraqi people, at least from our perspective. At the same time there were lots of non-governmental organizations doing work in our area… I once again found myself admiring what they were doing with very limited resources in conditions that were very dangerous for them.

“We were working with the Iraqi Special Forces. The aim of the Special Forces is to Train, Advise, and Assist. It’s working with the host nation’s military to accomplish goals and objectives. When we weren’t actively engaged in operations we would also conduct training operations with either soldiers or the Iraqi police.”

2013: Last tour in Afghanistan

“My last appointment for the military was Afghanistan. I volunteered for a tour working for the NATO Training Mission where we worked for a Canadian command that was tasked with training operations within the Kabul Military Training Centre. The objective was to get them trained to work as a cohesive force so that when they were sent out on missions they had all the equipment, training and personnel they needed.

“[The NGOs in these areas] had less freedom of movement compared to the ones working in South America. The Red Cross for example was right at the base with us, so we would work with them. As far as the work they were doing downtown, we had less exposure; we were really confined to the Kabul Military Training Centre. This was very frustrating for us because there was a lot going on, and we felt like we could do a lot more good if we could get out amongst the population. There was work we did on the bases that would support the local population. For example we made heating fuel for the local residences around us. We would also arrange and distribute donated clothes to local families. It was one way we could do humanitarian work within the confines of what we were doing [as soldiers]. It was a less satisfying experience [at the same time] because I thought that there was more we could have been doing, but we were very restricted.

“In Iraq, while they were certainly large fractions of people who were unhappy we were there, the people that we interacted with were thrilled to have us there. This is of course a snapshot from 2006. It may have been very different before, and it may have been very different later. When I got to Afghanistan in 2013, my perception was that we were regarded with suspicion, the perception sort of varied between ‘You’re leaving anyway so why are you here’ and ‘You’re leaving so give us everything you can before you go.’”

Today: A soldier reflects

“I can share this one [story] about a small village in Iraq where we were able to help the Civil Affairs people gain access to the village that had previously been closed to them. That was the result of the basic things we teach about dealing with foreign nations: treat everyone with respect and they will be receptive to that. We gave small gifts to an older gentleman’s young grandson and then he brought his granddaughters out and we gave them small beads and took pictures. It really established a sense of rapport with that family. Unbeknownst to us, the grandfather was the village elder whom the Civil Affairs people had been trying to reach but were unable to. He was later open to access, and the Civil Affairs people were able to do what they needed to do.

“Being away from your home and family [is the hardest part of being in the military]. There was a time where people might have said the sheer conditions were the hardest part, but we’re not like that anymore. We are a very fortunate military; we have everything we need from my perspective. We are fed well, and we are protected as well as can be expected. I have a wonderful wife and three children back home in South Carolina. While I am still away from them here,I can call home whenever I want. In Afghanistan, communication was very limited because the networks weren’t very good. So by far the most difficult thing for me was to be away from my family.

“As a soldier, when you are given lawful orders – I don’t want to say you are not supposed to question them, but you are not. I am a professional, I was given lawful orders and I executed my duties. Upon reflection, I think there are a lot of people now that are questioning whether the steps that were taken in response to 9/11 have made us any safer. It [this kind of reflection] has influenced my decision to come here to study because I want to be better informed so that I can contribute to that discussion. I think there are big questions being asked, and I want to contribute to that discussion, informed by my experiences and by the stuff that I am learning here.

“As we grow old our perspectives change. I started out very idealistic; all I wanted to do was serve my country. As time goes on you develop a perspective that things aren’t always as simple as we see them when we are young. But I was never disillusioned, and I never got to a point where I thought that I had made a mistake joining the army. My perspective changed, but I wouldn’t necessarily say for the better or the worst, just different.”

Arriving in St Andrews

“I had the privilege to work as an instructor for the University of Maryland University College, so I could teach a couple of courses while I was in Afghanistan. I was teaching three courses: an introductory International Relations course, an introductory terrorism course and an introductory human rights course. And through that experience I made relations with a couple of people, one of whom was studying here… When I saw the program here and read about the research going on and the world class researchers they have at the CSTPV, I decided to apply.

“[Through my research,] I want to bring together the experiences that I had in Central and South America in the mid ‘90s fighting narco-traffickers with my recent experiences in Afghanistan with the Taliban being funded by poppy [opium]. [I also wanted to] study the partnership between terror organisations and narcotic traffickers.”

A former soldier looks ahead

“I feel very fortunate to be here, especially at this time. This year is the 20th year of The Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence… It is just a fantastic and exciting time to be here. I would like to continue with my studies, finish this PhD and then I hope to find a way to put it to work, hopefully influencing the discussions in US policy relative to terrorism studies. Although I am not looking to pursue a full time career in academia, I would like to teach as an adjunct faculty. Teaching a couple classes during the semester keeps you up to date with the current trends and allows you to contribute to the discussions the students are having, which I feel is very exciting.”

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