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Commanding officer of the USS Whidbey Island has a family link to the ship she leads

Cmdr. Jean Marie Sullivan is the senior officer aboard a ship that has a history that is remarkably intertwined with the history of her family. (U.S. Navy photo/Anna Van Nuys)

Navy Cmdr. Jean Marie Sullivan didn’t realize her family’s connection to the ship she was picked to command until she Googled it.

But there it was, written on the USS Whidbey Island’s Wikipedia page: Operation Sharp Edge.

In spring 1990, Sullivan was a middle schooler living in the Liberian capitol of Monrovia. Her parents, Dan and Barbara Sullivan, were foreign service officers assigned to the U.S. Embassy. Her life in the developing west African country was simple and pleasant. Sullivan said her family lived on a compound and spent time swimming at the beach. There were no phones; everyone on the compound communicated by hand-held radios, using call signs. Sullivan was “Juliet” and her father “Seahawk 3.”

“I would call my dad on the radio and I’d be like, ‘Seahawk 3, Seahawk 3 … the cook wants you to bring milk home,'” Sullivan said, laughing as she told the story while sitting in the commanding officer’s cabin aboard the dock landing ship at Naval Station Norfolk. Everyone knew everyone’s business, even “what you were having for dinner.”

But a bloody civil war in the country was intensifying. Sullivan, her mother and four siblings evacuated around May. Her father stayed behind as essential embassy personnel.

“I could keep the generators going,” Dan Sullivan said in a phone interview from his home in Charleston, S.C. “That was why they wanted me to stay.”

The violence continued, with bullets flying around the embassy, isolating the Americans inside, Dan Sullivan said. Food began to run low.

“For weeks, all I remember eating, we had canned pork and popcorn and scotch,” Dan Sullivan said. “That was it.”

In early August, he said, a man came to the embassy with a note for the ambassador threatening to surround and shoot all the Americans the next morning.

That’s when Dan Sullivan learned that the Navy and Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C. had been patrolling the coast. According to a 1990 story in the Daily Press, the amphibious assault ship USS Saipan, transport dock USS Ponce and tank landing ship USS Sumter had been on their way to the Mediterranean on a deployment from Hampton Roads when they were diverted to “Mamba Station,” a reference to the embassy’s location along the coastline at Mamba Point.

Sullivan and others worked through the night converting a basketball court into a landing zone for Marine helicopters.

Around 5:30 the next morning, “I heard the chug, chug, chug, chug,” he said.

“It’s one thing you never forget,” he said. “You know, you’re thinking, this might be it, the last day of my life, and all of a sudden, 250 Marines just show up out of the sky. It was very beautiful.”

The Saipan helped with evacuations and reinforcements. When Dan Sullivan finally left for a visit home to the U.S., he said he first flew to the Saipan. By the time he returned to Liberia, the Whidbey Island had taken over as the flagship.

“Whether it would have been another Benghazi, I have no idea,” he said, referring to the 2012 terrorist attack in Libya that left four Americans dead, including an ambassador.

His daughter took over the Whidbey Island five months ago.

Jean Marie Sullivan had previously served as executive officer on the Norfolk-based guided missile destroyer USS Gonzalez. She was attending commanding officer’s training in Newport, R.I., when she learned her mother was ill so she gave up command of Gonzalez to move to Charleston, S.C., to help care for her.

She was back in Newport when she learned she was being considered to lead the Whidbey Island.

After that initial Google search, she picked up the phone to call her father.

“Wha-a-a-t?” she remembered saying.

“The connection with my father, my parents, just sort of made it amazing,” she said.

Back then, the Whidbey Island was only a few years old. Three decades later, Jean Marie Sullivan is seeing it through a maintenance period with plans to get underway in the fall.

“It’s going to be awesome,” she said. “We’re not going to get any sleep and it’s going to be great. The ship needs to get underway and the sailors want to. It’s really true — people will rise to your expectations and I think they really want to be challenged.”

Dan Sullivan, who said he served three years in the Navy in the 1950s, was there when his daughter took command of the ship. When she met the crew for an all-hands call a few days later, she talked about her family’s connection.

“All these ships are over the horizon but they are out there sailing, doing this work that isn’t seen but yet has impacts, such as saving my dad’s life,” she said. “If those ships hadn’t been there, if the Navy hadn’t been able to respond, then my whole life would have changed and all of those lives would have been different.”


© 2019 The Virginian-Pilot