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From Connecticut To Swarthmore—Via Kandahar

By Carol Brévart-Demm


After five years in a Marine non-combat unit—including service in Afghanistan—Tommy Fortuna is pleased to be at Swarthmore, taking courses on happiness, non-violent conflict resolution, philosophy, and cosmology; playing rugby; and participating in the Dare to Soar program, Model United Nations, and volunteer fire fighting.

Even as a young boy growing up in Hamden, Conn., first-year student Thomas Fortuna says he was moved and disturbed by news reports of atrocities occurring in various parts of the world. He began to envision himself as an officer in one or another branch of the Armed Forces, running a special operations group to help combat genocide. Adamantly against killing, he was encouraged and intrigued by reports of new research in the non-lethal weapon development industry, such as that being explored by the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University, U.K.

In 2005, during the summer after Fortuna’s junior year of high school, at a time when reports of mass executions and other acts of violence against the Iraqi civilian population were flooding the national news, the 17-year-old signed up to join the Marine Corps after finishing high school.

“I joined up in the hope of becoming a firefighter, helping to save lives and contributing to the stabilization effort,” he says.

After enduring three months of boot camp, instead of firefighting, he was assigned to aviation ordnance, for which he spent eight months training, followed by almost two years in Yuma, Ariz., as an ordnance technician up- and downloading ammunition to and from aircraft guns and troubleshooting problems with planes. Within his first 18 months of service, he received three merit promotions and attained the rank of corporal.

Two years into his five-year stint as a Marine, Fortuna decided to apply to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, but shortly after sending in his application, he was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he served as a work center supervisor for a weapons ordnance shop.

“I worked 14 hours a day in the center. Sometimes I slept there,” Fortuna says. “Days run into each other—you work, you sleep, that’s all. That’s the life of a support Marine.”

He’d been in Afghanistan for only two months before being accepted by the Naval Academy and was sent back to the States early to attend the Academy’s Preparatory School. “By the time I was ready to actually go to the Naval Academy, though, I’d decided to apply for conscientious objector (CO) status,” he says.

“It’s a very long process,” he adds, “so, while they dealt with my application, I was sent to Okinawa, Japan.” Fortuna spent a year in Japan, including participation in the tsunami relief effort in Iwakuni. One month before his five-year contract with the Marines was up, his CO status was approved.

“Thinking back on my decision to join up,” Fortuna says, “I’ve been using the analogy of Don Quixote—someone who believes he’s going to change the world, then slowly realizes that it’s much more complex than he thought. I’m still trying but in a different way.”

Seeking an intellectual environment with an emphasis on social and ethical responsibility, Fortuna found his way to Swarthmore, where, he says, he’s had an easy adaptation. “I absolutely love it,” he says. “This is where I should have been from the beginning.” And yes, he’s finally training to be a volunteer firefighter.

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