St. Mary’s alumnus uses military position to mentor others

Arts and Humanities
May 31, 2024

Military mentor

by Nathaniel Miller

Most students hope to get a good grade when submitting assignments online. U.S. Army Capt. Joseph Puntoriero (M.A. ’20) was hoping just to get his assignment submitted.

An anxious Puntoriero sat in a military base in Lebanon with shaky Wi-Fi in December 2020 with the deadline looming. He was serving in a humanitarian role after the Aug. 4, 2020, explosion at the Port of Beirut.

U.S. Army Capt. Joseph Puntoriero talks to a group of high school seniors during the United States Senate Youth Program Military Mentors.

Making matters more difficult, the Army would soon place him under a communications blackout, a time of no personal messages while preparing for his next deployment.

Luckily, Puntoriero quickly received good news: his exam landed in his professor’s inbox. He would, after all, graduate from St. Mary’s University with his master’s degree in International Relations. The degree aided his journey to become a mentor to future leaders.

Now a deputy director with Special Operations Command Central in Tampa, Florida, Puntoriero said St. Mary’s offers a welcoming community, even when students can’t physically be on campus.

“The camaraderie and sense of community that St. Mary’s has is phenomenal,” he said. “It’s something that I hope anyone going through the programs gets to feel.”

The beginning of service

A native of Buffalo, New York, Puntoriero originally aspired to become a history teacher. He attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and earned a bachelor’s in Sociology and History while running track.

In July 2013, he enlisted in the military, completed basic training and attended Officer Candidate School. He was then deployed to South Korea as part of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission to monitor the 151-mile Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

“Working with a coalition of United Nations officers, getting to walk through the DMZ, seeing that whole process really got me thinking that I want to be involved in international relations,” Puntoriero said.

Joining St. Mary’s University in 2015, he had to pause his academic studies when he began training for the Civil Affairs Division for Special Operations Forces — a requirement of the division.

After resuming his studies in 2017, Puntoriero said Associate Professor of International Relations Michael Sullivan, Ph.D., helped him get back on track.

“If we were merely a traditional on-campus program without our diversity of online offerings, we might never have met and shared in the success of exceptional public servants and military leaders like Joseph Puntoriero,” Sullivan said.

Volunteering for opportunity

The St. Mary’s experience is part of what inspired Puntoriero to guide others.

When given an opportunity to pick an area of volunteer service alongside his military duties, he requested the United States Senate Youth Program’s Washington Week in 2023.

Serving as a mentor to a group of a dozen high schoolers from across the U. S., the focus of the program is to give an in-depth look at how the government works among the different branches and departments.

“I love the feeling I get from helping someone progress forward in new ideas. It makes me feel better knowing that I may have been able to leave a lasting impression on someone.”

Joseph Puntoriero

Rejoining the program this year, but as an Assistant Senior Military Mentor, Puntoriero will oversee 15 mentors as they take on a group of their own high schoolers who were accepted into the competitive program.

He calls mentoring “selfish,” but only because he feels joy while interacting with those eager to learn.

“I love the feeling I get from helping someone progress forward in new ideas,” Puntoriero said. “It makes me feel better knowing that I may have been able to leave a lasting impression on someone.”

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