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Vietnam War vet lost right hand and sight in left eye, but not his zest for life

Chuck "Sully" Sullivan has a hook instead of a right hand and he can't see out of his left eye.

His injuries serve as reminders of the cost of the Vietnam War on the anniversary of the last U.S. combat deaths there.

But instead of discussing the enormity of what the war cost him, Sullivan prefers to talk about the politicians. He says they ordered American troops into the war and then "hung them out to dry" for fear they would lose elections if they did not end the unpopular war.

On April 29, 1975, the last two of more than 58,000 U.S. service members were killed in Vietnam in a rocket attack one day before the fall of Saigon and the final helicopter evacuation of the U.S. embassy. President Richard Nixon had made his "Peace with Honor" speech two years earlier. On March 29, 1973, most American combat troops had been withdrawn.

The war ended far short of victory.

"The only reason we lost this war was because of the politicians. They got us in there and then they hung us out to dry. We were kicking the enemy's ass. We had the firepower and the enemy had nothing left. But the politicians were only interested in getting re-elected," Sullivan said.

Don't mistake the 74-year-old disabled war veteran for a bitter man, however.

"The Army gave me a prosthetic right hand, but it's useless. I only wear it twice a year for weddings and funerals. It's for show," he says with a laugh. "I can do much more with my hook. I couldn't get along without it."

Yet the Amherst resident finds no amusement in the fact that so many Americans gave their lives for a war that turned into a political fiasco.

Nor do other local veterans wounded in Vietnam.

In the distant jungles of Southeast Asia, more than 500 Western New York soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War.

Chuck "Sully" Sullivan, 74, cuts a piece of cedar in his woodworking shop at his Amherst home on April 18, 2019. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Patrick B. Kavanagh, an Army medic and Purple Heart recipient, says time and history have helped him to let go of the anger he felt over how returning service members were mistreated by anti-war protesters.

 

"We have a volunteer Army now and whenever I see them I stop and thank them for serving," said Kavanagh, who assembled a digital book with images of local veterans who died in the war.

But have we learned anything from a war that divided America?

"The first thing that the country learned was to separate the war years from the politics. What I mean by that is that the American military are implements of a policy dictated by politicians in Washington," said Patrick W. Welch, a former Marine who spent two years in a military hospital recuperating from war wounds.

Welch, also a Purple Heart recipient, said he came to terms with the massive casualties in Vietnam by taking a broader look at what brought America initially into Vietnam.

"Prior to Vietnam, the Soviet Union doctrine of communism had a policy of taking over developing countries, but after Vietnam only one or two other countries succumbed to the Soviet doctrine and 14 years later, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union all collapsed," Welch said. "It took me a lot of years, but that's how I reconciled all the deaths of my friends."

•••

Chuck “Sully” Sullivan, 74

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army

Rank: First lieutenant

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: Drafted Aug. 13, 1965 – Sept. 14, 1969

Most prominent honors: Army Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service medals, National Defense Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Presidential Unit Citation

Specialty: Combat engineer

•••

Sully's journey to war

After graduating from Amherst Central High School in 1962, Sullivan said he pursued a college education and worked for a time at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna.

He was 18, in the midst of transferring from Jamestown Community College to a four-year college in Florida, when he received a draft notice. Unlike some who were doing all they could to avoid the Vietnam War, Sullivan said he opened the letter from Uncle Sam with enthusiasm.

"I wasn't registered at the college in Florida when the draft notice arrived and I really wasn't that excited about going to college. I wanted to go into the Army," he said.

The Army spotted potential in the teenager and sent him to Officer Candidate School, where he graduated as a second lieutenant. At 19 years old, he arrived in Vietnam in late October 1966 and knew right away that he was in the middle of some serious business.

He soon was given a rifle and a handgun, but his job spared him firefights with the enemy. As a combat engineer platoon leader with the 27th Engineer Battalion, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, he focused on the infrastructure of war.

“We built a lot of bridges, widened highways, constructed base camps and airfields and dammed streams and rivers for water purification. The water was filthy over there,” he said.

Experiencing war's horrors

Chuck "Sully" Sullivan in a photo from his Army service from 1965 to 1969 during the Vietnam War. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Sullivan)

Sullivan quickly came to realize that the enemy did not distinguish between infantry soldiers and combat engineer soldiers. In the first of many enemy attacks he experienced, Sullivan said incoming mortars directed at his camp nearly scared him to death.

 

“It was at night and everyone ran out of the tents to the bunkers. Everyone had their flak jackets and steel helmets on and their weapons. I had on my underwear and that was it. Our company commander said, ‘Lieutenant, the next time at least bring your weapon.’ ”

From that point on, Sullivan says he slept with his gear close by.

And while he was spared firefights, he witnessed the aftermath, encountering the remains of Viet Cong guerrillas.

“I’m not going to get into what I saw, but let’s just say it wasn’t politically correct,” he said.

How he was maimed

Combat engineers were also called upon to dispose of enemy munitions.

After combat troops had claimed a complex of caves that had been inhabited by the enemy, an ordnance disposal team headed by Sullivan was ordered to gather up weaponry left behind and destroy it.

“We had cleaned out the cave complex and were destroying all of the munitions when we ran out demolish detonation cord that we’d wrap around the munitions and then set off the cord," he said. “There were only two or three grenades left and I was picking them up and throwing them into a pit. One of the grenades had no delay. It went off instantaneously, about an inch from my right hand.”

When the smoke cleared, his right hand was gone and his left eye no longer worked.

Two other soldiers suffered minor injuries.

"My hand had shielded them," said Sullivan, who described himself as fortunate.

“The enemy grenades weren’t nearly as strong as ours. If they had been, I would not be talking to you right now,” he said, adding, "Don't make me out to be some hero because I'm not."

The mishap occurred on Oct. 27, 1967, a few weeks before he was to leave Vietnam, though he had already volunteered to return for a six-month tour.

Back home

When Sullivan returned to the United States, he spent about a year at a military hospital in Valley Forge, near Philadelphia, where he says was fitted with a prosthetic hand and a hook. The doctors also wanted to give him a glass eye, but he refused.

“I said I have too much artificial stuff already. When they said I would one day scare my grandchildren with my blind eye, which looks a little funny, I told them, ‘I want to scare them,' ” he laughed.

In 1969, he returned home to Buffalo and was honorably discharged.

Because of his injuries, he says, people were able to deduce he was a wounded war veteran. "People treated me pretty well," he said, noting his experience was different than what some other returning war veterans encountered.

Sullivan said he also suffered from post traumatic stress, but said he is no different than other veterans who have seen action: "All war vets struggle. It's just different degrees."

Sullivan was determined to make a normal life for himself. About a year after his return while at a neighborhood nightspot in Snyder, he met the former Laura Lipowicz.

She says she was impressed by his friendly personality and how well he appeared to be dealing with what life had thrown his way.

"He was just so personable," she said of why she decided to become "Mrs. Sullivan."

She also said she was impressed with how ambitious he was. Though the military had declared him 100 percent disabled, he worked for a relative who ran an industrial painting company and still continues to do odd jobs when the opportunities arises.

Together, they raised a family of four children.

The couple's oldest son, David, served in the Air Force.

"He had a civilian pilot's license and joined the Air Force so he could fly jets," Sullivan said. "He loved to fly."

Known as "Grandpa Chuck," Sullivan says he is looking forward to the birth of his sixth grandchild, scheduled to arrive in May.

As for that long-ago quip by doctors that he would scare his grandchildren with his blind left eye, he is happy to report that has not been the case. His hook, he says, is merely an object of interest.

"My young grandchildren are twins and they are just fascinated by my hook. My older grandchildren, they just accept it," he said.

Vietnam War veteran Chuck "Sully" Sullivan holds his two twin grandchildren, Reilly Sullivan, left, and Hudson, both 18 months old, at Sullivan's home in Amherst on March 5, 2019. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Besides working over the years, Sullivan also took up hobbies in his pursuit of a normal life.

“I do woodworking. I play a lot of golf. I go snowmobiling and I used to ski,” he said.

When he does encounter a challenge requiring two hands, Sullivan says he calls upon the help of his wife.

"My wife is my right hand. She helps me do a lot of stuff. Like if I put brakes on my car, I couldn't do it without her."

And what about strangers when they happen to notice that a hook has replaced his right hand? Does that bother him?

"It is what I got. It is what it is," he says.

But he says the war does live on in his mind.

“I think about the war every day. Anybody who has been in combat does.”

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