It was about as different a scene from a kiddies’ birthday party than could be imagined.
Sullivan wanted to be with his wife and sons. But he knew he had to be with his fellow soldiers. And he was with them because that was also what he wanted.
That’s the way it is in the army reserves. It’s never simple. And there’s never a good time to be called up. But Sullivan knew that when he signed on.
“I spoke to my sons, Sean and Jack, and my wife, Debbie, told me that they had cake all over their faces,” Sullivan said Monday.
After two days “in the field,” Sullivan, who is 31, was nursing a nagging cough. There was cold comfort of sorts in his isolation from his family. At least he would not be passing the cough on to the boys back at the family home in Marine Park, Brooklyn.
But the Jersey bug would be traveling nevertheless. Sullivan’s departure for operations overseas, he knew, was imminent.
He could not say where he is being sent, but, really, there are no prizes for guessing. It will certainly be a warmer place than New Jersey in February.
Captain Sullivan, when in uniform as opposed to a suit, commands the 623rd Transportation Company. The 623rd is not for the faint of heart. Its primary task is to carry bulk petroleum for forward combat units.
“We carry a very volatile explosive cargo,” Sullivan said with a matter-of-fact calmness. “The 623rd is a unique unit.”
The company was a little more impressive on paper than in reality when the call-up recently came. It had been rundown and was, according to Sullivan, woefully understaffed.
But that’s all changed. And, in a sign of the times, it has changed with startling speed.
The revamped 623rd is now up to full strength, with 165 members from six states driving three kinds of trucks. Thirty-five in the company are women. All in it are ready to go where the orders take them.
“We’ll get orders to get up and going and we’ll do just that,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan, like reservists in all branches of the military, could see that something was coming down the pike in recent months. He only had to read the headlines and listen to the news.
This is Sullivan’s first call to active duty and he’s been waiting close to nine years for it. He reckons he’s ready.
“This is why I joined the reserves,” he said. “I wanted to be ready when needed. I wanted to be a citizen soldier.”
That he did join is not entirely surprising. It’s something of a family tradition.
Most Americans have at least heard of the five Sullivan brothers who perished when their ship was attacked and sunk in World War II. The “Fighting Sullivans” forever changed the rules with regard to family members serving together in the military. Their story became a movie and a destroyer currently serving in the U.S. Navy bears their name.
“A couple of us went to the commissioning of the ship,” Sullivan said.
But the brothers of World War II are not the only fighting Sullivans. Tom is one of seven brothers, the children of John and Ursula Sullivan of Marine Park.
Five of the brothers attended military boarding school. Two went on to West Point and one of the two, 36-year-old Timothy, is still serving full time in the army as a major in the 101st Airborne Division.
The brothers Sullivan are likely to find themselves in the same part of the world in the next few days, even if they are in different units.
There is a whiff of friendly sibling rivalry between captain and major, full timer and reservist, older and younger brother.
“Right now it looks like I’ll beat him there,” Sullivan said, laughing, again without speculating as to where “there” will be.
While Timothy studied at West Point, his younger brother opted for financial studies, but with a military twist.
“I was in the ROTC during college at Mount Saint Mary’s in Maryland,” Sullivan said.
While he could have fully served his time in the reserves by now, Sullivan was never in for the minimum.
“I’ve always wanted to shoot for the 20 years and it is possible to rise in the reserves to the rank of three-star general,” he said. “Either way, they’ll have to carry me out kicking and screaming.”
While this is the first time that Sullivan has been called to active duty against the backdrop of a possible war, it is not the first time that he has faced hostile forces at close quarters.
Sullivan’s civilian job is with the financial firm Fiduciary Trust. On Sept. 11, he was on the 95th floor of the World Trade Center South Tower.
He had just told his boss that his wife was expecting twins.
“I saw the first plane hit,” he said. “I was looking out the window north toward the Empire State Building. All of a sudden there was this big orange fireball.”
Sullivan had another job with Fiduciary Trust. He was the deputy warden and “searcher” on the floor charged with organizing an evacuation in the event of an emergency. With upper floors of the North Tower engulfed in flames, Sullivan began searching for colleagues on his floor and ushering them out. Luckily, he directed them to an empty stairwell.
Sullivan was the last to leave his designated section on the 95th floor. He was about 30 floors lower down in the tower when the second aircraft struck.
“I do feel like I’m lucky,” he said. “I remembered on that day what my father used to tell me about not standing around and just watching things. I also like to think that my military training helped.”
As the laws of coincidence would have it, Sullivan is preparing this week for posting overseas at the same army post where his dad served in the army during the 1950s.
Fort Dix has been wound down by the army in recent years, but Sullivan is of the view that it might return to full operational status because of the situation that the United States now faces around the globe.
“It’s certainly been very busy around here in the past few days,” he said.
Being posted overseas will mean tightly restricted communication between Sullivan and his wife. Letters will be the primary means of keeping in touch. The continued fear over anthrax, meanwhile, has led to restrictions on packages from families to loved ones serving in the field.
“I don’t know when or how much I’ll get a chance to phone home once I get where we’re going,” Sullivan said. “It’s not easy for Debbie, and the uncertainty gets to everybody.”
Of considerable importance to every reservist is the understanding of an employer. Sullivan has nothing but words of praise for Fiduciary. “They have been just wonderful, they have gone above and beyond,” he said.
Companies are required to hold a job for employees in the reserves but not necessarily the precise job they were doing at the moment of call-up. Sullivan’s own job will be waiting for him when he returns from duty, and that’s a big load off his mind. It further allows him to focus on his unit and what it needs to do to be fully ready.
Sullivan is proud of his unit and how it has shaped up in such a short time. “We’re getting to know each other quickly,” said. “It looks like we’re going to work together extraordinarily well.”
And that’s important. It’s fair to say that the reservists can take a bit of stick from the full timers betimes. This us-and-them ethos, in turn, doesn’t sit easily with citizen soldiers like Sullivan.
“We have to do everything they have to do with less money and resources,” he said. “My experience with my active duty counterparts is that they don’t always fully appreciate that we are fully trained and all over the place too.”
Sullivan acknowledged that it’s possible such rivalries can be smoothed over, at least to a degree, after full-time soldiers and reservists come through an operation together.
He will soon have the opportunity to find out.
The eve of departure for what is likely to be an active theater of war is apt to bring out the philosopher in any soldier. Tom Sullivan is no different.
“I absolutely made the right decision,” he said of his signing up for and continued membership in the army reserves.
“You don’t choose where you go or when. You may not even agree with the reasoning behind the mission, but you do it anyway.”
In the case of what is likely to be his upcoming mission, Sullivan, the civilian and soldier, did not hesitate.
“I happen to support it one hundred percent,” he said. “It’s very important for the public to understand that we don’t choose what we do. But we are here willingly and we just want to serve our country and its people.
“We need their support. Not even their appreciation. Just their support.”