Miracle Man: Army veteran with 'recycled' heart redeems trash from run route
May 23, 2013
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Now that the snow has melted and this year's winter has made its final and discourteous exit, there's a unique addition to the northern New York landscape here that many community members may have noticed.
Self-dubbed the Recycling Runner, Fort Drum resident Joe Sullivan runs behind a double stroller for at least six miles a day on and off post, picking up every piece of trash he sees along his route. Later, he empties the items from his backpack and stroller storage basket to sort, recycle and donate all cash redemptions to the American Heart Association. In addition, the multitasking wizard happily serves at his new full-time post in life -- caring for his 7-month-old twin sons, Jacob and Joshua.
"Joe is an amazing husband, father and friend," said his wife, Maj. Adrian Sullivan, 10th Mountain Division (LI) transportation officer. "He is quiet, hard-working and talented, yet so humble."
Sullivan's conscientious efforts are a mishmash of passions, but none so compelling as the one that gave him his stride. Aside from recycling -- which recently attracted the sponsorship of a multibillion-dollar corporation -- the bearded, thin-framed Army veteran really runs to live.
In 2004, upon returning from his service in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Sullivan suffered a massive heart attack. In the five years that followed, he endured a long and difficult journey, but one not without silver linings.
'It was for my son'
Sullivan was an artilleryman with the New Hampshire Army National Guard for six years before going active duty in 1995. The following year, while stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., his son Nathan was born.
He gained full custody of Nathan three years later, when they lived in Fort Carson, Colo.
Of those early years, Sullivan said, "Nathan was my life."
"There was nothing I did that did not involve him," the soft-spoken 43-year-old recalled.
But in 2002, while serving with the 68th Corps Support Battalion at Fort Carson, Sullivan was tapped to deploy to Arifjan, Kuwait. Nathan, who was 6 at the time, went to live with Sullivan's sister in Maine.
In Kuwait, Sullivan worked on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense missions that led up to and lasted through the first year of the Iraq War. He said it was during this time that he first began noticing something was not right with his health.
Shortly after redeploying to Fort Carson in 2004, Sullivan took his physical fitness test. He did not feel well after running and headed to the troop medical clinic for an IV.
"If I hadn't been right there at the TMC, I probably would have died that day," Sullivan said of the heart attack he suffered in the TMC doorway.
It turned out that the lower descending artery of his heart was completely blocked, a medical condition known as the "Widow Maker," his doctor told him. The 34-year-old staff sergeant's escape from the deadly blockage earned him the nickname "Miracle Man."
Months of intensive rehabilitation and medical boards at Fort Carson turned into years. Sullivan watched as his old unit deployed again to the Middle East. Doctors refused to let him even consider running. He said getting better for Nathan's sake became his one and only enduring inspiration.
"It was for my son," he said of his passion to make running a part of his recovery. "I didn't want my son to be without a dad. I didn't want him to lose his father like I did at such a young age."
"Joe didn't let his heart attack beat him, or bring him down," said Adrian Sullivan, who married him in 2006, the same year he medically separated from the Army.
Coming to terms with the fact that his heart problems were inherent, Sullivan made drastic changes to an already healthy diet and quickly developed what would become a lasting passion for running.
"Unfortunately, I will be forever fighting heart disease," he said. "But I swore to myself to change whatever I could. I wanted to work very hard at staying fit, along with professional help from the best cardiologists I could find."
To stay in top shape, Sullivan has run in many half and full marathons around the country since leaving the Army. He said his "come-back race" took place in 2010, when he joined some friends from Fort Lee, Va., and ran the Army Ten-Miler in 74 minutes.
When he arrived at Fort Drum last summer, he signed up and ran in the 18.12 Challenge in Sackets Harbor. This year, he will participate in the race again, this time pushing the twins.
Running for a 'good cause'
The idea for recycling items littered along his running route originated in Virginia, when his family was stationed at Fort Lee in 2009.
"We lived off post, and I ran everywhere," he said. "One day, I just got tired of seeing this one trail covered in trash. So I started filling my backpack with whatever I could. I felt I was really just doing it for myself, because these were my running routes."
As he cleaned up his small piece of the planet, Sullivan realized his actions could potentially influence others. But it wasn't until he arrived at Fort Drum that his running and recycling efforts really solidified and became something more.
"There wasn't a run I went on that I wasn't picking stuff up," he said. "So I became the 'Recycling Runner,' the project that I call myself.
"My whole thing is to just collect whatever I see and redeem it," he said. "I donate the money to a good cause, since heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the U.S."
Sullivan caught the attention of some community members, but his influence really grew when he opened a few social media channels and gained a strong following in the greater running community.
He said everything culminated when the refuse and recycling giant Waste Management took note late last year. The company offered to match up to $500 of every donation that was placed in Sullivan's account at the American Heart Association.
"It just blew my mind and made me want to run so much more," said Sullivan, who also works as a freelance concept artist. "I thought I was going to have a go at this all by myself. I thought I'd just keep picking up cans, letting people think I was maybe crazy or whatever."
The campaign with WM, which kicked off Jan. 1, will end on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
Since January, Sullivan has recycled 514 aluminum cans, 222 plastic bottles, 34 glass containers and 713 "nonrefundables" -- trash or recyclables without a redemption value. Even though his running had to wait for the snow to melt, he already has closed in on the $500 maximum, meaning his goal of $1,000 by Veterans Day has been nearly met.
"I have been very fortunate," he said. "I thought I'd be going 5 cents at a time and it would be a big struggle between now and November to make $500 on my own. To have people backing me so quickly to get me this close to $500 has just been mind-blowing. I feel like I owe it to them now to run more and recycle more."
From cleaning the environment and being a good neighbor to overcoming a health catastrophe and being the best father he can be, Sullivan's example provides inspiration to a lot of people, many of them strangers, his wife said.
"Joe doesn't just inspire me," she said. "He inspires people he doesn't even know with his story and motivates people to be healthy."
Individuals who wish to contribute to Sullivan's campaign can do so by visiting http://amha.convio.net/site/TR?px=36342915a5d474f8331258773d5239870ae1a9b56a1b515741528ae54e92d9b153bbdf0d2630dc9a952938d729defce41a52526aef646006268afa441dda1e8f4dd3689fr_id=11505a5d474f8331258773d5239870ae1a9b56a1b515741528ae54e92d9b153bbdf0d2630dc9a952938d729defce41a52526aef646006268afa441dda1e8f4dd3689pg=personal