12 January 2010

We Stick Together

On Jan. 12, 1943, Thomas Sullivan was going to work when a U.S. Naval officer, a doctor, and a chief petty officer arrived at his Waterloo, Iowa, house. The officer told Thomas he had some news regarding Sullivan's sons, who had enlisted with the request that they serve on the same ship. "Which one?" asked Thomas, recognizing that such a visit usually meant notification of a service-member's death.

"I'm sorry," the officer replied. "All five."

Fighting in Guadalcanal Campaign in November 1942, the light cruiser USS Juneau was repeatedly struck by Japanese torpedoes. The ship was eventually sunk. Although 100 crew members survived, multiple communications mistakes and poor command decisions resulted in delaying for days any rescue attempts. Of the 100 or so sailors who survived the initial incident, only about 10 were rescued. Because the campaign was on-going, and the loss of the Juneau a secret, the Navy did not notify the Sullivans of the sons' deaths until the following January.

The story of the Fighting Sullivan Brothers--George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al--would later be celebrated in movies, books, and documentaries, and in the christening of ships, museums, convention centers, and schools. There's even a mid-1990s rock song about them. (You can listen to it at iTunes.)

While the deaths of the Sullivans may have caused each U.S. military branch to review and revise its policies regarding the service of family members, the practice of siblings, spouses, and other family members serving side-by-side is a proud and continuing tradition in the National Guard.

The Iowa Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry, is headquartered in Waterloo, home of the Sullivans. The news program 60 Minutes shadowed the "fathers, sons, and brothers" throughout the battalion's 2007 deployment to Iraq. Check it out to see multiple examples of the Sullivan family spirit, played out in modern day. (And--before anyone takes offense at the gender-specificity of the "fathers, sons, and brothers" title--remember that female soldiers are not allowed to be assigned to U.S. infantry units.)

One of the great strengths of National Guard units is that they have roots (and, to extend the family-tree metaphor, branches) within the communities they serve. Because they are geographically dispersed--and inherently familiar with local governmental, environmental, and other factors--they can react quickly to supplement and support first-responders in the event of natural or man-made disaster. Because they are composed of citizen-soldiers--people with whom friends and family, co-workers and customers--have daily contact, they also offer a more-immediate connection between "We the People" and the use of our nation's military might.

Named after Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams, the post-Vietnam War "Abrams Doctrine" was designed to require the use of the Total Force (both Active Duty and Reserve soldiers) in any larger-scale conflict. The Abrams Doctrine is/was driven by a number of motivations, including cost-savings (reserves are theoretically cheaper to maintain in large numbers). The one I like the most, however, is the sentiment that it's impossible to "ignore the war" when your neighbor, co-worker, or friend packs up and moves out in the name of God, Country, and American policy interests. Suddenly, war isn't something that just happens over there, on the Internet, or on the nightly news. The stakes are higher. All war becomes local.

And, having real skin in the game, communities indirectly share the risks their soldiers face. In 2005, for example, the U.S. Marine Reserves' 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines based in Brook Park, Ohio, lost 48 personnel in the Battle of Haditha and other Operation Iraqi Freedom efforts. It's not easy to watch, but if you want to see things Up Close and Personal, check out the "Combat Diary" documentary on the unit. There's also a noteworthy traveling memorial project honoring the unit.

The Sullivan family motto was, "We stick together."

Stick with us.

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