We would call him ‘Little Napoleon.’”
Stephen Toumajan spent most of his professional life as an officer in the US Army — but these days the country he serves is not the US but the United Arab Emirates. He is a major general for the Emirati military, according to his own statements and a UAE government website.
He commands the UAE’s military helicopter branch at a time when that country’s forces are fighting one of the world’s deadliest conflicts: the brutal war in Yemen, which has left over a million people with cholera, 8 million people at risk of starvation, and 5,000 children dead or wounded. The UAE and its partners in the war have been accused of atrocities. Toumajan says he is not involved in that war.
To be a UAE general is a step up for Toumajan, who left the US Army as a lieutenant colonel and once had a side gig running a women’s bust–enhancement business in Tennessee called Breast Wishes.
More importantly, it represents a marked escalation of the role US private military contractors play in foreign conflicts. While military contractors have become deeply entwined in warfare all over the world, they traditionally have stuck to strict limits: advising, training, and supplying foreign armies — but not actually serving in them. It’s the distinction between being a contractor and a mercenary. Toumajan’s role blurs that distinction.
A UAE government website proclaims that “His Excellency Major General Staff Pilot Stephen A. Toumajan” is “Commander” of the UAE’s Joint Aviation Command, which, according to experts on the UAE’s military, operates most of the nation’s combat helicopters. The website says he is responsible for training, combat readiness, and “execution of all aviation missions.”
“I’m the commanding general for the Joint Aviation Command in UAE,” he says in a video on a US Defense Department website. “The UAE is a very small country,” he continues. “We” — meaning the UAE — “don’t have the landmass that you” — the Americans — “have for these types of training events, so we certainly appreciate the hospitality that you’ve shown the United Arab Emirates and to my soldiers.”
His business cards also proclaim he is a UAE general. Reached by cell phone in Abu Dhabi, he answers in an authoritative voice: “General Steve.”
Yet he also insists he is not actually in the UAE military. “I’m a major general for the United Arab Emirates,” he testified in a child custody hearing in Florida. “I hold the duty, rank, the responsibilities of a major general.” But in the very next breath, he stated, “I’m not currently in their armed forces.”
In WhatsApp messages to BuzzFeed News, Toumajan, who retired from the US Army in 2007 after 20 years of service, said: “Stephen A. Toumajan has not sworn allegiance to the UAE nor is he in the UAE military.” He added, in a slightly ungrammatical message, “Stephen A. Toumajan is a civilian contractor whom has the trust and confidence of the Deputy Supreme Commander whom asked him to form the UAE Joint Aviation Command.” He said the forces fighting in Yemen are not under his command, and that his activities are authorized by the US government.
The US Army says it is currently reviewing Toumajan’s situation. The State Department said the law bars it from discussing specific cases, though it says it has never authorized any contractor to provide “direct command functions” to a foreign army.