A Letter from Brian Sullivan
All The Way Home
I was married with three children in late December 1969 when I left Hingham, MA for the 295th Military Police Company, Seneca Army Depot, Romulus, NY. My wife was happy because we had heard this would be a guaranteed two year tour, after which I would leave the Army, help raise our family and pursue a career in secondary education. Little did we know what would happen next.
Part way through my first year at Seneca I was assigned as a Survival Assistance Officer and had to prepare a detail for the burial of a soldier recently killed in Vietnam. We trained well for the mission, wanting to be picture perfect for the grieving family. Things went off without a hitch until I presented our flag to the young soldier’s mother. Before I could render that slow salute on behalf of a grateful nation the mother held my hands beneath the flag for what seemed like an eternity. Right then and there I knew the guaranteed tour was a thing of the past and I would be going to Vietnam.
It wasn’t the smartest thing I’d ever thought. Just ask my wife, who continues to reflect on what a catch she would have been as a single mother of four. In some ways it might have even been irresponsible and certainly, when I look back at what I’ve been fortunate enough to experience while raising my family, we all would have missed so much had I not come home. But….on that day, all I could think of was that I’d been trained as a Second Lieutenant and why, simply because I chose to have a family, should I avoid what I perceived as my duty.
The family was related to the US Speaker of the House John McCormack on my mother’s side. So, when I received orders to go to Vietnam, my father wanted Mom to call the Speaker to see if he would intercede to help retain my stateside assignment at Seneca. My mother, a former Marine, and I would have none of that, so no call was made.
What a position I had put my mother in. If something had ever happened to me she would have been devastated and anguished over a call not placed. My dad was both concerned and furious. By October 1970 I was off to Vietnam, leaving my wife 9+ months pregnant with my fourth child.
I won’t bore you guys with a recap of the next nine months except to say how proud I am to have worn the MP brassard and helmet liner of the 127th MP Company, 93rd MP Battalion, 18th MP Brigade in Qui Nhon and to have also served along with our guys from the 458th Patrol Boat River (PBR) Detachment in Qui Nhon harbor. We had an important mission and we performed it well.
In July 1971 I got a drop to take a prisoner shipment back from Long Binh Jail (LBJ) through the Presidio in San Francisco to the Castle at Fort Leavenworth. Now picture us with our MP brassards and me with my 1LT bar marching prisoners in cuffs and leg irons through the airport in San Francisco at the height of the flower child season. You get the picture. The prisoners were seen as heroes. My MP soldiers and I were derided and even spit upon. This was the “Welcome Home” you so often here about in the late ‘60’s/early ‘70’s.
We got the prisoners to Fort Leavenworth. I was to stay at a BOQ (bachelors officers quarters), but I wouldn’t. I wanted to stay with my men and I did. These prisoners had been dangerous. One threatened to kill himself or me before we made it to Leavenworth. Needless to say, after nine months in Vietnam, that wasn’t going to happen. My MPs and I had accomplished this final mission together and, by God, I would end it together, not at some BOQ.
The next day I flew home in uniform. No one spoke to me. No one offered a word of thanks or welcome back. As a matter of fact, the only person I struck up a conversation with was a Vietnamese civilian flying to Boston. I met my wife and family at Logan Airport, along with our four children, and said hello for the first time to my daughter Marti, who had been born my first week in country
I taught at Rockland High School in Massachusetts the next year. The students, staff and teachers were divided over the Vietnam War, so my reception was divided as well. Little melted toy soldiers would be left on my desk and I was hailed as “straight from the battlefields of Vietnam.” Great, huh? From the cesspool of prostitution, drugs and violence that I’d dealt with in Qui Nhon right to an American high school classroom. What a sudden and shocking transition!
I left teaching after that year and joined the Massachusetts Army National Guard as a full time technician. Guess I began to feel comfortable only in a military setting. 23 years later I retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, Provost Marshal of the 94th Army Reserve Command and now find myself three working days from retirement as a Special Agent in Civil Aviation Security for the federal Aviation Administration.
Much has happened since Vietnam. My baby Martianne traveled to Qui Nhon in the mid ‘90s. She walked the same turf I’d patrolled. She took a photograph on Le Loi and stood on Vung Chu overlooking the city, much like some VC might have done many years ago. It was a nostalgic and meaningful moment for me and created a special bond with my daughter.
Still something wasn’t quite right. Something had been bottled up all those years which usually resulted in unpredictable and irresponsible behavior on my part. The guilt was incredible especially when I’d visit the Vietnam Memorial and around Veterans’ day. I couldn’t explain it and was even embarrassed by it. I went to the West Roxbury VA and participated in a PTSD study and, although I’d seen some traumatic things in my life, was simply considered borderline, because I’d recovered and led a pretty normal, fairly responsible life overall. Still the guilt persisted even after the VA counselor explained that there were many veterans who experienced the same feeling.
While in Vietnam I took unnecessary chances. It was as though I wanted to put myself in harm’s way and, although I was successful at putting myself in precarious positions, nothing ever happened. I was never wounded. It seemed as though the ghost of that soldier I’d buried the year before at Seneca was haunting me, pushing me to put myself at risk. But I never got hurt. Oh, I did some things some people might think brave, but I also did some things which were just plain foolish and stupid. I was crazy to the point of poor judgment. Somehow I managed to survive myself and Vietnam.
I guess God truly does have a soft spot in his heart for drunks and Irishmen because by the time I came home, drinking irresponsibly was well engrained as a an unfortunate part of who I was. I was a problem drinker. And, the guilt, stupid as it may seem, of not being killed or at the very least wounded, was always there, nagging at my conscience.
It wasn’t until this past year that all that came to a bit of closure. Rick Young, a comrade of ours from the 127th MP Company and the 458th PBR, was giving a presentation at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ War Memorial on Combat MPs. I went down to see his presentation and met Rick and Duane Good, another 127th MP. While there I also met Jim Brunotte, Pacific Regional Coordinator for Point Man International Ministries. Jim was with Company B of the 720th MPs, assigned to Outpost #1 near the village of An Xuan in October 1968 when he and PFC Robert Alicea drove over a landmine. Alicea was killed and Jim was severely wounded. Jim shared with me his story and life’s mission. More importantly he showed me his strength and compassion. He seemed to know the guilt which lurked within me. We embraced as brothers, as soldiers, as Vietnam MP veterans. The guilt subsided.
Now I’m simply relieved to have made it home in one piece. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to hold my marriage together and raise a beautiful family. I’m happy to have been able to serve the US Army and Federal Aviation Administration. And, I’m forever proud to have been associated with the fine men who served in the 127th Military Police Company, 93rd MP Bn, Qui Nhon, Vietnam. It was a privilege to wear the uniform and to have been part of that legacy of honor and courage.
My attempt here is to share with you one man’s experience in hopes that someone else out there might find some meaning in all this. Maybe something I’ve said might help another Vietnam MP veteran along his long road home.
God bless you and happy New Year.