Col. John J. Sullivan story
BEAUFORT, S.C. (FR) – A commanding officer at one of America’s Marine Corps air stations is gaining respect for more than his past aviation honors and his present leadership skills on base. This military leader is taking a bold stand for Jesus Christ, and encouraging his officers and enlisted men to do the same.
Col. John J. Sullivan, who demonstrated enough heroism in the Vietnam War to earn three Distinguished Flying Cross awards, is now bravely challenging the 10,500 people who live and work at the Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station to uphold Christian standards. And although some people see Sullivan’s Christian example as unique, the Colonel sees himself as only a part of a growing spiritual revival that is occurring in the U.S. military. Just at the Beaufort station, several squadron commanders and senior staff officers join him at a weekly Bible study.
God’s work in Col. Sullivan’s life began years ago. His first operational tour took place in the jungles of South Vietnam, flying helicopter gunships in a sensitive area just below the North Vietnamese border near the South China Sea. He was not a Christian at the time, and actually developed a deep bitterness toward God while living in the sweltry jungles of Quang Tri Province. That bitterness became more acute when the only professing Christian in his unit became the first combat casualty.
“I just couldn’t understand it,” explained Sullivan. “Why would God take him? It was only later that I was able to understand that. And thank God He didn’t take me then because I wasn’t ready.”
Human life during that grueling thirteen months in South Vietnam began to lose meaning for Sullivan. All of the men lived together in Quonset huts with no windows and no air conditioning. There were regular memorial services in the nearby chapel tent for men who died in combat, but Sullivan refused to attend. “I was angry with God. We were involved in so much killing – and human life was losing all value. Plus I had no faith. I think that’s the way it was for a lot of the men – we may have started out with idealistic ideas about fighting for our country, but that was gradually reduced to a personal war of vindication.”
After flying over one thousand successful helicopter missions in Vietnam, Sullivan was transfered to Okinawa. There he met his future bride, a Department of Defense schoolteacher, was married, and then returned to the States as an instructor pilot. All throughout this time, his inner turmoil and anger toward God only grew. “My heart was very hard,” he admitted. “We tried to go to church a few times, but I would break out in a cold sweat after the first ten minutes.”
It wasn’t until the Sullivans had two young children that God began to soften the Colonel’s heart and make him more receptive to the gospel. His wife, Bobbi, was still deeply interested in Edgar Cayce and reincarnation, even though they began attending an Episcopal church and leading a Sunday School class for children.
“Over a period of months,” related Col. Sullivan, “I began to yield my life to the Lord. My wife also realized that her ideas about reincarnation were wrong after attending a Bible study. This was the beginning of our walk with Jesus.”
Sullivan’s spiritual life really began to develop in Newport, Rhode Island, where he attended the Naval War College. He continued to grow spiritually after he was relocated to the Pentagon in Washington to serve as an aircraft program coordinator. Besides attending a charismatic Episcopal church in Virginia, Sullivan became a part of a Wednesday morning Bible study for Pentagon officers and civilian employees. That weekly experience, which Sullivan described as “a tremendous boost,” was something that he would eventually duplicate after being assigned to the Air Station in South Carolina.
Sullivan took command of MCAS Beaufort, which is situated in the South Carolina coastal lowlands, in early 1987. As he began to reach out with the love of Christ to the thousands of men and women on the base, and instituted a Wednesday morning Bible study and a Wednesday evening prayer group in his home, his reputation as an outspoken Christian began to circulate among officers and enlisted men alike.
“Col. Sullivan is a rarity,” said Roxanne Cibuzar, whose husband is a squadron commander. “You just don’t find people who love the Lord at the very top.” The Cibuzars attend the Sullivan’s Wednesday evening prayer meeting on a regular basis, and Roxanne also prays for the salvation of air station officers each morning with Bobbi Sullivan.
Lt. Kent Underwood, Officer-in-Charge of the Joint Substance Abuse Counseling Center at the station, is also a Christian and a member of Col. and Mrs. Sullivan’s home fellowship meeting. “Col. Sullivan is a man of unquestionable character and integrity,” said Underwood. “He’s a fine example for all of us Marines to look up to.” Underwood also added that, even though Sullivan is a strong commander who keeps the air station in complete order, he is not afraid to show humility or to openly express the love of Christ to his men. “The Colonel has prayed for me in his office when I had a need,” he said.
Sullivan’s Christian example has not always been appreciated, however. Shortly after he took command of the station, the Colonel decided to order pornography off of the base. Several soft-core porn magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse were being sold in the station’s retail outlets, and Sullivan notified the Marine Corps Exchange that he wanted the publications out immediately.
“It took guts for Col. Sullivan to do that,” said Lt. Underwood. Sullivan was both criticized and applauded by many for his action, but he held fast to the decision and began to seek God’s wisdom about how to convince his men that he had made the right move.
Col. Sullivan explained what he did at that point: “I could have just sat here and dictated what will be sold and marketed at this station – I have that kind of authority. But I felt that to make a unilateral decision in an area of what most people call ‘individual freedom,’ I needed community support.”
Sullivan then put together a presentation on pornography and how it is linked to domestic violence – which at that time was a growing problem at the air station. He then called together a group of the station’s commanding officers and gave them the startling statistics about actual domestic violence problems occurring at Beaufort. Pornography was traced as one of the root causes of the ugly situation, and the statistics verified Sullivan’s premise.
“Most of the commanders, after viewing the presentation, said they had no idea this was going on right here in Beaufort,” said Sullivan. “They were shocked. And after that meeting I began to get support from other officers on my decision.”
Community leaders in the small town of Beaufort are also appreciative of Sullivan’s leadership role in the crackdown on porn. The county leadership wants to take similar action, and state congressmen are supportive of the Colonel’s stand. It has set a precedent in the area which is likely to be duplicated.
Since the pornography decision, Sullivan has created a Community Advisory Group composed of non-commissioned officers, wives’ groups, chaplains, and other service agency representatives. The group is responsible for helping to promote a healthy environment on the base, and to research specific topics which the community thinks might be a problem. They then recommend special courses of action to the Colonel for implementation.
Recently the station’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation office wanted to bring what they called a “Ladies’ Boxing Act” to the base for entertainment. Sullivan’s Sergeant Major looked into the situation, and discovered that the show was nothing more than a thinly disguised pornographic presentation.
Sullivan called in his crew of community advisors. “We got the promotional video for the act, and showed it to the group,” said the Colonel. “I asked them, ‘Is this something that we want to promote at this station?’”
Only one viewer thought that individual Marines should have a choice in the matter, and that the show should be permitted. “Everyone else agreed that to allow such a show – which was so degrading to women – would be detrimental to the pro-family atmosphere we are trying to create on this base,” added Sullivan.
Col. Sullivan and his wife are both outspoken about their views on the family. “Life in the military places a lot of strain on families,” related the Colonel. “Because our squadrons are sent on assignment for six-month periods, there is a greater temptation to be unfaithful. The children also suffer from having their dads gone so much. So we have always made it a clear rule around here: God is first, your family is second, and your job is third.” Bobbi Sullivan echos this sentiment whenever she is given the opportunity to speak to military wives.
The base commander’s ideas have not always been readily received, but many have later consented wholeheartedly to his views after being educated. One exchange officer who had questioned the removal of pornography from the station’s stores later admitted to Sullivan that he “had no idea the problem was so bad.” He also pledged to do “everything he could” to promote a wholesome environment on the base.
Beaufort Air Station’s Community Advisory Group is now looking at the issue of rock music and possible negative influences that the rock culture has on young people. The council has viewed several presentations on the subject, and will be making recommendations on what possible actions should be taken in regards to limiting concert ticket sales on base. “People just need to be educated on a lot of these things,” said Sullivan. He predicts that the advisory group will want to show a seminar on the unreported negative influences of rock music to all the Marines on base.
To the other Christians at the Beaufort station, Col. John Sullivan is a shining example; but Sullivan himself is a modest man who speaks hesitantly about his many military honors and his achievements as base commander. He is especially excited to hear of reports from around the country of other outspoken Christians in the military.
“I know of a Christian brother on a base in North Carolina who has been baptizing men on the beach,” said Sullivan. “There are also many senior officers at the Pentagon who are believers. I was told by a Christian friend that the former Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps had attended a large Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship meeting in Washington. So I know that the Lord is moving among military people all over the nation.”
Although recent news media reports might lead us to believe that the U.S. military is tainted by corruption and self-interest, Sullivan says that the reports concerning the recent Pentagon scandal have been distorted. “Although there are certainly many opportunities for greed and bribery in that environment, by and large, military people working in Washington have very high moral standards,” related the Colonel. “There may be some civilians out there who have given in to the pressure, but my experience with military people confirms to me that this present situation at the Pentagon is not a negative reflection on our armed forces.”
Sullivan added that no active-duty military personnel have been indicted in the weapons procurement scandal: “The men and women in the military believe in what they are doing and are dedicated to preserving our country and our way of life. They’re sure not in this for the money! Military men and women willingly accept sacrifices often required of them, including frequent family separations, long working hours, and, occasionally, grave personal danger because of their love for this country.” Sullivan related that he would like to see more in media reports about the positive contributions of servicemen, rather than the typical barrage of criticism.
With an obvious Christian revival breaking out within the ranks of our military servicemen, we can certainly anticipate more encouraging reports in the future. We can also expect more bold, courageous Christian leaders like Col. John Sullivan to emerge in the military community.
- by Lee Grady
©1988, The Forerunner. All rights reserved.