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Bob Kerr: Honoring Gunny Sullivan

Rhode Island Public Radio columnist Bob Kerr, who spent two years in the Marines in the 1960's, reflects on the shootings at two military facilities in...

The gunnery sergeant insignia features two rockers.

Rhode Island Public Radio columnist Bob Kerr, who spent two years in the Marines in the 1960's, reflects on the shootings at two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee. One of the victims, Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Sullivan of Massachusetts, will be laid to rest on Tuesday.

Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Sullivan will be buried on Tuesday with all the honor and respect and tradition the Marine Corps bestows on its own.   Sullivan was a casualty of a war that is no longer somewhere else. He was murdered along with three other Marines in a shooting in Chattanooga, Tennessee by a man gone to the dark side.

I cried when I heard the news - cried for the senselessness of it and for the loss of someone who in so many ways stands at the very heart of the Marines. For Sullivan was the gunny, and the gunny is the wise man of the Marine Corps.  Spend some time with Marines and there is a very good chance you will eventually hear one say to another, “better go ask the gunny.”

The gunny is just two steps from the top of the enlisted ranks. He still hangs out with the troops. He is the guy a smart officer will trust and rely on. He is probably a lifer, committed to a life where settling down is never an option.  He has been to a lot of places, seen a lot of things, learned a bunch of hard lessons.

Gunny Sullivan, who was from Springfield, Massachusetts, had two combat tours behind him and two purple hearts. And when he went down in July, a heap of rich, salty wisdom went with him. His loss is the loss of a teacher and of a man who helped get Marines where they needed to be.

My time in the Marines was brief - two years of active duty after washing out of Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Va.  But it was enough. It was enough to give me a lifetime of conversation stoppers. 

“You were in the Marines?”      

Yup, I was - lefty, peacenik me. I even got to be a sergeant. And I acquired a deep appreciation for that kind of mad defiance that seemed to define the Marines in the 60s and 70s and probably forever. It wasn’t about Vietnam then, its rightness or wrongness. It was about signing up for trouble, flying in the face of all that was safe and sane and numbingly predictable.

It was one of the best things I ever did for myself. It let me meet people I would meet nowhere else. Some were in the Marines instead of jail. Some were in the Marines to show someone back home a thing or two.  And some, like me, were in the Marines to find our badass selves. It didn’t always work.

But we have the Marines now and we always will. We have them as our time apart from the rest of our lives, when we went off to be demeaned and belittled and made over. We have them to drop into those conversations when something unexpected is called for.

And we have them, must have them, when bad things happen, as they happened in Chattanooga. We feel the loss more deeply, more personally. It’s part of signing up. We’re in it for the long haul.

Hearing the news from Tennessee took me back to a morning in 1983 when I sat in my den in Fall River and flat out sobbed at the news of more than 200 Marines killed in the Beirut barracks bombings. Then, as now, there was no sense of military mission, no good answer for “why?”  There was, again, blind, fanatical hatred and no way to fight back.

But this time, with the deaths in Tennessee, there is the gunny to think about too. It was reported that Gunny Sullivan got some people to safety then ran back toward the shooting rather than away from it.  He was being the gunny.

I thought of other gunnys, in other times and places.  They had stories to tell. There was one who talked to us one morning in a field not far from the barracks at Quantico. He told us about Vietnam, where he had been. He told us what to do, what to look out for, how to stay alive.

Then the gunny told us to turn around and look at the Virginia hills which were showing their autumn colors on that morning in 1967. He told us we should always take the time to stop and take in the natural beauty around us.

He took us by surprise. He took us from the harsh lessons of Vietnam to the natural beauty of Virginia.

The gunny was teaching us again.

After two years in the marines, Bob Kerr went on to become a beloved columnist at The Providence Journal. He now lives in Fall River and writes the occasional essay for Rhode Island Public Radio.

Bob Kerr: Honoring Gunny Sullivan
Bob Kerr: Honoring Gunny Sullivan