Cold War / Iraq

Thomas J. Sullivan

Cold War / Operation Iraqi Freedom Oral History 
New Jersey Army / Air National Guard
Date: September 19, 2018
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Amanda Macchia


BG Thomas Sullivan

Thomas J. Sullivan was born in September 1946. His father, Richard F. Sullivan, served in World War II, and then the New Jersey Army National Guard, and later became the Administrative Chief of the Draft Board in Newark, New Jersey. Richard Sullivan encouraged his sons to join the National Guard. Thomas Sullivan joined the New Jersey Air National Guard in 1967.

Sullivan was trained to be an aircraft mechanic. In addition to his Guard job, he got a civilian job as a temporary technician at McGuire Air Force Base. During Sullivan’s time at McGuire, the Army National Guard advertised a job opening looking for a full-time mechanic to work on their helicopters. His experience as a technician landed him the job; and, he switched from the Air National Guard to the Army National Guard, where he worked as a helicopter crew chief.

During his time as a technician, Sullivan was also pursuing an Associate’s degree in Business Administration from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Community College. After graduation, he transferred his credits to Trenton State College, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree. In 1974, Sullivan attended the New Jersey National Guard’s Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Sea Girt to gain a commission as a second lieutenant. He would later recall that he was, “very proud of my eight years of enlisted service, and I am sure it made me more aware of the enlisted soldiers’ needs.”

For the next 31 years, Sullivan moved up the ranks, serving mostly as a full-time National Guard technician, or Active Guard Reserve Soldier (Full-time Guardsman).  In 2001, he was Chief of Staff of the New Jersey Army National Guard. In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, Operation Respect was initiated as a mission to coordinate support, and to recover any survivors after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. Sullivan thought he was doing a recovery; yet, once he arrived on the scene, he realized that nothing was left to recover. In 2002, he was assigned as NJ National Guard Assistant Adjutant General; and, then he was assigned to be Deputy Commanding General for the 42nd Infantry Division.

Sullivan was told he would be stationed in Cuba; and, then his orders were changed, and he was sent to Iraq instead. To prepare for duty in Iraq, Sullivan was sent to Fort Dix for ten days training. He then moved on to Fort Drum in May, where he remained until October, when he flew to Kuwait, then on to Camp Speicher, Iraq. In an interview upon his retirement, Sullivan recalled that “I never thought I would be called to active duty as a National Guard General Officer at age 57 and sent off to war.”

BG Sullivan in Iraq.

Sullivan described being in Iraq as like living in ancient times. Women were viewed as inferior and sat in the back seats of cars, not next to their spouses. He also noted a lack of bathrooms, and few porta-potties.  In his camp, they had air-conditioned buildings, and an internet connection with families at home. However, if there was a casualty, the internet would be shut down, until the family was formally notified. While in Iraq, Sullivan followed the same routine: he would wake up at 0600, do some reading, prepare a briefing for the day, and then have a tele-conference. In Kuwait, he himself never experienced intestinal issues caused by water, but he knew of people who did face these issues.

Sullivan did not have his own interpreter, although one was assigned to his unit. To ensure that the Iraqis did not try to blindside the Americans, the interpreter’s identity was kept a secret, and the citizens and government officials were not informed that there was an interpreter with the group.  Sullivan believed that the Kurds appreciated the United States presence. He was present when the first president was elected, and things looked promising. During Sullivan’s deployment, he was able to visit his wife briefly several times. One of his trips to the US was for his son’s wedding. He flew back to New Jersey on a Friday and went back to Iraq on Sunday.

Thomas Sullivan at the Museum.

When Sullivan retired from the military, he worked for General Dynamics, as the Director of Operational Training for eight years. After being on active duty for twenty-one months, he retired in 2006, at the rank of Brigadier General. Sullivan was happy that he got to see positive progress with the irrigation system and schools while he was in Iraq. He served as President of the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey.

Brigadier General Sullivan was profiled upon his retirement in Guardlife.