Editorial: On a cold Sunday morning, a Vietnam vet stands tall

On Sunday morning, a group of men and women took their seats in front of a podium set up outside Southold American Legion Post 803. They were there in honor of Veterans Day, which was once called Armistice Day and marks the end of fighting in World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.

One of those seated in the folding chairs was George Sullivan, who is 74 years old and is Southold’s long-serving tax receiver. A cold wind was blowing, temperatures were in the 40s under a bright sun and Mr. Sullivan was wearing a light jacket and his Legion cap.

Legion posts across Long Island are suffering from sharply dwindling memberships, as the older generation of veterans, particularly those who served in World War II, have died off. Mattituck Legion Post 861 has several dozen members; Burton Potter Post 138 in Greenport has barely a handful. This feels like a tragedy, that somehow, as the numbers diminish further, we will forget the names of these brave, small-town veterans. 

Post 138 is named for Potter, a Greenport native, who died in Europe during World War I. How many people who go roller skating there know this? How many people who drive Main Road past the Southold Legion post know that the monument in front of it was erected in the 19th century to honor the town’s Civil War veterans?

Mr. Sullivan sat quietly during the ceremony. He stood when the color guard brought in the flag and doffed his hat for the national anthem. When taps was played, the look on his face made clear he had heard this heart-wrenching tune under far different circumstances. He was the picture of a man who served his country, older now, who came home from war to continue his life — and serve his town — and continues to remember his fellow veterans on days like Nov. 11.

The Southold American Legion’s Veterans Day ceremony. (Steve Wick photo)

In 2016, The Suffolk Times wrote this about Mr. Sullivan: “As a young man serving in the Marines during the Vietnam War, George Sullivan envisioned a career in the military. A mission to help rescue the crew of a downed helicopter altered that path, changing his life forever.

“Stationed in Dong Ha as a member of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Mr. Sullivan was wounded during a long firefight on the rescue mission. He was hit by enemy fire at least seven times but managed to survive. He was transported to Saigon, then flown to Japan and later, Alaska, to return to the United States … After several operations to save his left leg … doctors were forced to amputate.”

Mr. Sullivan was awarded a Purple Heart and the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest military decoration. And there he sat, on a cold Sunday morning, in a folding chair in front of the Legion, honoring his fellow veterans.

The Vietnam veteran did not get the praise and respect other veterans of our wars have received. The World War II vets have been rightly called the greatest generation. It’s long past time that this accolade also be given to Vietnam veterans, and to men like George Sullivan.

Thank you, Mr. Sullivan.

Photo caption: George Sullivan on the day of his retirement from the Marines in 1967, when he was awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest decoration. He was 23. (Courtesy photo)

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