Ryan Emma enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at age 19 because he “wanted to do something meaningful and important—and something that was cool—with my life. Something that was worthy of respect.” Emma was impressed in particular by the image of the Marines being “the best of the best.”
“I turned 20 in Afghanistan,” Emma says of his initial deployment with the Marines in 2013. “I had formative experiences with some really close friends that I’m still in contact with today.” He characterizes his time in the country by turns as thrilling and frightening.
Emma was a landing support specialist performing combat resupply operations. “We would run up underneath these big Super Stallion helicopters and rig up a generator or an artillery piece to be flown off to a forward operating base. Some guys were unlucky enough to have to load airplanes, which is working at an airport, essentially. We got to do the high-octane job of flying around in helicopters that were swerving the whole way because they were getting shot at. That deployment was terrifying, but it had really fun moments.”
Ryan Emma, Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, 2014
Photo Credit: Lance Cpl. Scott W. Whiting
In 2014, Emma switched gears to a logistics role on a deployment to the Balkans as part of the Black Sea Rotational Force. There, he was able to put his hazmat certification to work, managing the shipment of ammunition. “Any time munitions were sent around Eastern Europe, I would have to go with the shipments; I would secure the loads and sign off on the documents.”
There was an intangible but still significant aspect of his service. “We were working as, basically, ambassadors of the United States military to these partner nations in the region.” Emma takes a very personal, focused satisfaction in this aspect of his and his team’s duties as Marines. “We represented the United States military capacity.... We had a lot of responsibility; we’re very proud of it.”
A new view of conflict
In 2016, Emma enrolled at Suffolk University, partly at the suggestion of family he’d been visiting in Franklin, Massachusetts. “I’m from Wilmington, North Carolina, which is about as big as cities get in North Carolina. I wanted to live in a city, and they said, ‘You should move to Boston.’ When I looked at a map, I saw that Suffolk was right in the middle of the city.”
Once at Suffolk, Emma turned toward broadcast journalism as a major. “I want to go back to some of these conflict zones” as a reporter, he says. He confesses that this is in part to recapture some of the rush he felt during his time in the Marines; but he is now approaching these regions from a more analytical perspective.
“I’m a big fan of Christopher Hitchens,” says Emma, referencing the late Anglo-American journalist and critic who spent years as a foreign correspondent. “In particular I study a lot of sub-Saharan African conflicts in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe… two places that we don’t pay a lot of attention to in the global community. Those are the places I’d like to go to.”
In addition to his academics, Emma devotes time at Suffolk to his role as treasurer of the Suffolk Undergraduate Student Veterans Organization, or SVO. “I didn’t know anyone when I first moved here, and I assumed that attendance at the SVO was mandatory for veterans.” Though he learned that was not the case, he found the group useful for connecting with new comrades—“a lot of gym buddies,” as Emma puts it.
“I’m thankful for the experiences I’ve had—I got to see the war of my generation,” Emma says. Reflecting on the unprecedented scope of the Afghanistan conflict and his individual role in it, Emma recalls, “I was in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum recently and was thinking: I was eight or nine years old when this war started. And then I was in it. And now I’m in this museum dedicated to the event that started it.” He sees his combined academic and military experiences as offering a perspective on global conflicts that is shared by few others.