Remembering Tommy

Once upon a time, well over 30 years ago, I was a primary school student at Holy Cross, a Catholic parish and grade school in Western Massachusetts. On one random day, I got into a schoolyard brawl with some goofy smart-mouth kid named Tommy. To this day, I don't recall what that particular fight was about, just that it was the first of several knock-down, drag-out, schoolyard scuffles that would repeatedly land both of our asses in the principal's office.

Whenever Tommy and I were sent to the principal, we would sit side-by-side outside the office, on a tacky green office couch, waiting to be scolded by the top nun in the joint. Thankfully, this was in the years shortly after nuns had permanently holstered their rulers. Each time Tommy and I were sent to the principal's office, we would just sit petulantly, semi-supervised with no choice but to be civil towards each other while we waited for our scolding and were forced to make up. Over the course of numerous visits to the office, our petulance would turn into conversation, and the rapport that grew from civil conversation lead to less trips to the principal's office, because eventually, there were no more fights. Instead, over time, two knuckle-headed little Irish kids on the schoolyard at Holy Cross, who initially annoyed each other, gradually developed a bond and became good friends.
In the years that followed, me and Tommy had an awesome friendship full of classic eighties kid memories involving comic books, cookouts, bicycles, fireworks, Transformers, G.I. Joes and sticking up for each other from time to time. As time went on, Transformers and G.I. Joes gave way to video games and pumping iron, and bicycles eventually gave way to cars and trucks. But be it junior high school, high school, summer vacations, community college, studying martial arts at the same dojo, or whatever, Tommy was always somewhere in the picture. Whether he was doing something crazy like jumping off a roof bare-ass naked into a swimming pool, or taking a moment out of his day to do something noticeably kind for an elderly or handicapped person; from preteen into adulthood, he was always there, just being Tommy.

Then on one sunny day in the late nineteen nineties, after years of working numerous unremarkable jobs, Tommy submitted to his true calling and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. I went along with him to the Marine recruiter for moral support. The recruiter even tried to sign me up as well, but as I politely explained to the man, “No, sir. You don't want me. I'm way too difficult. Tommy here is your guy.”
As a United States Marine, Tommy was able to see far off lands and experience things that a simpler life in Western Massachusetts would never offer him. He got to operate multimillion dollar military equipment, teach martial arts, and of course, shoot big guns and blow stuff up. In Japan, his adventures included visiting temples and other sites, as well as climbing Mt. Fuji more than once. He served multiple tours of duty in the Middle East, earning two Purple Hearts in Iraq while demonstrating courage in combat. Over time, he rose to the rank of Gunnery Sergeant while gaining something of a reputation for bringing his Marine brothers home alive.

However, after years of surviving sand, scars and brave military service in the post 9-11 world, Tommy eventually thought it was time to serve his country and the Corps in a less life-threatening manner. After significant consideration, he decided to get involved with Marine recruitment. After all, here in America, something stateside involving a desk would be much more safe, right?
On July 16, 2015, a mentally disturbed gunman named Mohammod Abdulazeez attacked a military recruitment site in Chattanooga, Tennessee. According to people who were there, Tommy and another Marine were about to enter the site when they were warned about Abdulazeez. Upon being warned, they ran to a number of other Marines who were outside climbing over a nearby fence to get away from the attack. Tommy and the other Marine were the last two soldiers who needed to jump the fence to escape to relative safety. The other Marine scaled the fence before Tommy, and when he looked back, Tommy was gone. Rather than escape as well, Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Sullivan ran back toward danger to aid fellow Marines that were wounded, before sustaining fatal injuries and dying at the hands of the disturbed gunman, who himself would be killed in a gunfight with police later that same day.

Now, my friend is gone forever and it is so surreal.

Celebrities and politicians on Facebook and at live social events offer their kind condolences to Gunnery Sergeant Thomas J. Sullivan and his loved ones. Journalists and pundits have called him a hero, although sometimes as a shameless segue before whining about gun control, or fear-mongering about terrorism. There are all manner of memorials both online and offline, including some folks even selling T-shirts in his honored memory.

...And as I finish writing this, I'm psychologically preparing to fly 2,900 miles to attend his funeral at Holy Cross, where this narrative all started. 
It is so surreal.
Over his life, people called him “Sully”, “Gunny”, “Bulldog”, simply “T” and other nicknames that aren't coming to my mind at the moment. Actually, given some of his antics, I'm put in mind of the heavily recycled comedy routine that goes something like, “until a certain age, I thought that my name was Jesus Christ and my brother thought that his name was Dammit.” But honestly, if you really think about human character, it usually doesn't matter what you call someone. My friend was a very real and amazing person, and like many of us, he was several complex and wonderful things to different people. He was a loyal friend, a brother, a son, an uncle, a cousin, a comic book fan, a student, a teacher, a traveler, a joker, a martial artist, a diligent worker, an exercise nut, a shark week enthusiast, a risk-taker, a giver, a guy who could take a punch, a soldier, a brave hero, and most simply, a guy named Tommy.


TJ said…
Thank you for sharing this with us all.
Kimberly kspust said…
What a wonderful tribute to your friend. Although I've never met either one of you I have read every article that I've seen with his smile attached to it. I am so sorry for the loss of your lifelong friend. I hope that he is looking down at you today and helping you to grieve his loss. I am sorry that I'd never known him because your story tells me that he was a great friend, son, brother to his marines and a gift from god that was taken back too soon.
Kimberly kspust said…
What a wonderful tribute to your friend. I honestly have never met him but have read everything that I have seen with his smile attached to it. I am certain that he is looking down to you and helping you to grieve his loss in some way because that's what angels do when they return to heaven. I am so sorry for your loss I am hoping that the people of Massachusetts will line the streets to bring Tommy home today. May he rest in peace. <3
EmmaPeel said…
Just as I remember him. Thanks for writing this... I've been learning so much more about him as an adult this past week!
Modoc said…
I did not know Tommy, but many of my closest friends did. As a veteran myself, it pained me to learn of this tragedy as it unfolded. Rest in peace Marine, your watch is over, we have it from here!
Christine said…
I live in Western Mass., my sister and her family live one street over from where your friend grew up, and all the kids in my family attended Cathedral High. I am so, so, SO very sorry for your loss! I am writing this while watching Tv22 's coverage of Tom Sullivan's return to is 6:12pm on Friday, July 24. So many here are so heart sick, but it is nothing compared to what you, his other friends, and especially his family must be feeling. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone who cared for this hero. May God hold him in his loving arms for all of eternity.
Anonymous said…
Seriously, dude. Tears to my eyes. That's the way I remember Tommy, too!!
Unknown said…
Beautiful tribute. Thank you and thanks for your service Tommy
Debby dowers said…
That was beautiful and I'm sure your friend Tommy was proud to call you his friend God bless him and all he did to keep our country free God bless his family and God bless America
Thanks for this wonderful tribute to this man
Anonymous said…
Beautifully put, Chris. I'll bet Tommy would've blushed, told you it was sentimental, bought you a Guiness and then shared it with everyone he knew :) Semper Fi!
CHS '64 USMC '66-'69

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