There was a moment five years ago when Elliot Ackerman (MALD ’03) found himself and his U.S. Marine Corps unit in Farah, a very violent and rugged Afghan province on the western border with Iran. As a Marine special operator, he was helping train a group of Afghan commandoes, the equivalent of the U.S. Army’s Rangers. Ackerman says that while there, he had a flashback to a book he read years earlier, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” while taking one of Professor Richard Shultz’s legendary Fletcher courses on the conduct of war.
“We were walking through the same passes, the same river valleys that we had read about, the ones the mujahedeen used to ambush the Russians,” he says. “They’re unchanged, still being used, still dangerous.”
He explains that the book, and the entire course with Shultz, professor of international politics, “gave me the ability to appreciate tactics and strategy on an academic level and also on a professional level. It’s the difference between academic knowledge and applied knowledge.”
Ackerman has taken his Fletcher experience and run with it, in a still evolving career that has sent him to Iraq, Afghanistan and now deposited him at the White House where he has worked for the past year as a White House Fellow.
The son of Peter Ackerman, the longtime chairman of Fletcher’s board of overseers, Elliot Ackerman’s first direct exposure to the Fletcher community came as a Tufts sophomore when he petitioned to take one of Shultz’s renowned classes, “Role of Force in International Politics.” He later enrolled in a unique program that allows undergraduates to get both a bachelor’s degree from Tufts and a master’s degree from Fletcher in five years, instead of the normal six. He says he was amazed at the experiences of his classmates: one, for example, had fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“Fletcher offers you learning as much from the other students as from the faculty. That’s what it was when I was there, and I’m sure it’s even more so now, as the students have become more competitive,” he says.
His Fletcher thesis examined how Britain used local, native troops in its colonial imperial holdings. He says William Martel, associate professor of international security studies, and Eileen Babbitt, professor of practice of international conflict management, were very influential, and his praise for Shultz, his thesis advisor, is unequivocal.
“He’s a guy who cares deeply about the subject matter and the students,” Ackerman says. “He’s able to take vast swaths of history and weave them into an intellectual framework that aids in understanding history, but also current events.”
Having participated in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps as a Tufts undergraduate, Ackerman immediately was commissioned as a Marine infantry officer after graduating in 2003. “It was a pretty interesting time to be joining the Marines,” he says.
Ackerman saw combat in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, including the second Battle of Fallujah, and also was deployed in 2005 to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, he served in the Mediterranean, helping to evacuate U.S. citizens from Beirut during Israel’s war with Lebanon. In 2008, after a tour in Afghanistan, he was discharged from the service as a captain, and he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency from 2009-2011 working on counterterrorism in Southwest Asia.
In 2011, he joined a nonprofit organization spearheaded by his father called Americans Elect, whose mission was, among other things, to encourage an independent presidential candidate to run in the 2012 national election.
Last year, he was chosen as one of 15 people to participate in the prestigious White House Fellow program, where he focuses on veterans’ employment issues, specifically how to train veterans in entrepreneurship and get them access to capital to start up small businesses. With the conclusion of the year-long program this summer, he is preparing to join the Syrian Research and Evaluation Organization based in southern Turkey that is monitoring the ongoing civil war and working to assist in humanitarian initiatives.
His study at Fletcher not only deepened his ability to think and analyze complex international situations but it has also opened up doors as he’s discovered alumni in incredible places and positions around the world. Not the least is his wife, Xanthe Scharff Ackerman, who received her PhD from Fletcher in 2011 and now serves as chairman of the board of Advancing Girls Education Africa, a nonprofit organization that helps provide educational opportunities for women in Malawi.
“I see Fletcher people abroad and you know once that connection is made, everyone goes above and beyond to help each other out,” he says.
“I’m continually stunned to find out how many folks have gone to Fletcher, the depth of that network and how that only increases with time,” he adds. “At Fletcher, you don’t just get an education; you get a community.”
--Mike Eckel (F13)