Gene Sullivan was ready to lead a new team when he reported for his first job as a civilian Deputy Operations Officer at the 597th Transportation Brigade at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. in 2008. He was a triple-tabbed and battle-tested veteran who was not going to retire quietly into the night after 21 years of active-duty experience as an infantry-turned-logistics officer.
Sullivan grew up surrounded by the military and learned how to motivate others with phrases like, "Keep Calm and Carry On" and "Stay Steady in your Saddle" from his grandfather, who served on the British side in World War II. His father was a Korean War veteran and his sister joined the Air Force.
He started his career as a cadet in the University of Miami's Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program and commissioned as an Infantry Officer, which was a dream job at first.
He fully embraced all the perks of the infantrymen's life for the next six years: Living in the field, braving cold, wet weather and eating cold, soggy meals, but he started to consider getting a new job when he saw a port operation while in Captain’s Career Course.
"It was like a scene in a D-Day movie, with the huge ships towering overhead and pandemonium down below," Sullivan said.
He had gone to the port to ensure a vehicle was loaded on the vessel, a task fit for an infantryman but that paled in contrast to the bigger scope of the operation.
He marveled at the fact that a young Army captain in the Transportation Corps was making the decisions on how to move thousands of pieces of equipment, while his sole responsibility that day was to ensure his unit’s measly Humvee was loaded.
Then, he looked inside the transportation officer’s tent.
"It had shade, a fan, hot food and a fully-loaded refrigerator with Coca Cola's in it," Sullivan said, “I decided to reclassify right then and there.”
But the rosy vision of the Transportation Officer life was replaced with a more realistic picture during his first week at Transportation School.
“We went out to sea on a little boat for a shift change and pulled up next to the bottom of a 300-foot Jacob’s ladder,” Sullivan said.
He watched in terror as the company commander commenced to climb the sky-high rope over the choppy waters during the ‘over the shore’ operation, one of the most dangerous things in the world of logistics, according to Sullivan.
The experience imparted a tremendous amount of respect for all officers leading Transportation Battalions and helped him prepare for taking command of the 73rd Floating Craft Transportation Company, 10th Transportation Battalion, 7th Transportation Brigade at Fort Eustis, Va.
"It was one of the hardest jobs I had in the Army because it was the largest unit in the Army with 450 Soldiers."
From there, he went on to hold many positions at nearly every strategic level.
He forged a path ahead of hundreds of thousands of Soldiers deploying to the Middle East as a transportation planner in Iraq from 2001-2003.Other memorable deployments include a job as the Assistant Chief of Movement at North American Treaty Organization and deployments in support of Operation Support Hope in Rwanda, Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield in Kuwait, Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti and three tours in Bosnia.
He started his civilian job at 597th Transportation Brigade shortly after he retired in 2008. Back then, his operations team consisted of a few people tucked away in a nook inside the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command headquarters, but it grew over the years and his team now of military logisticians and transportation experts who work behind-the-scenes to move thousands of pieces of cargo annually.
Sullivan said that one of the biggest transformations at the 597th Trans. Bde. was the activation of the Rapid Port Opening Element in 2008, which provided the brigade with a rapid response force capable of deploying to an austere environment within 12 hours.
“Twelve hours is amazing… It’s unbelievably important for our country to have the capability ready to go and to deploy to a damaged seaport and open it up to start a relief effort during the first 90 days of an initial response to a humanitarian crisis,” Sullivan said.
He witnessed the quick reaction force in motion in 2010 when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti and two aircraft touched down at Langley Air Force Base for the unit.
The “no fail” mission required creative problem skills and scrambling to get the RPOE to Port-au-Prince in a race to beat other aid organizations to Haiti. The operations team accomplished the mission by determining that two high-speed catamarans near Fort Eustis would be the fastest method of transportation.
The experience brought the team together and it has been close ever since, according to long-time employee Brian Ridgeway.
“Gene is one of the best leaders out there because he can summarize complex logistical operations and explain the impact that every ship has on the mission. Regardless of what is going on in the world-whether it’s Ebola or a pandemic-Gene has a calming effect on the team,” Ridgeway said.
Sullivan defines a good team as a place where everyone feels like they are contributing and challenges each team member to use their talents and God-given strengths to achieve their personal best each day.
He has maintained a high level of motivation throughout his career and draws inspiration to excel every day from an Uncle Sam poster that he sees every day on the way to work.
“It poses the question: ‘If not you, who?’ Don’t look over your shoulder to the left or right. There is no one else behind you, if you don’t step up to the plate then who do you expect to step up? The country is invested in you.”
Sullivan enjoys physical fitness, the great outdoors and fishing and crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay in his free time. He is looking forward to getting back to barbeques, personal connections and side bar conversations at work and traveling again after the pandemic.