SPRINGFIELD — For nearly two hours, the US military prison in Iraq came under heavy fire, with rocket-propelled grenades blasting its western walls. But Marine Sergeant Thomas J. Sullivan was unfazed, dashing from tower to tower to check on supplies, even cracking jokes to ease the tension.
When he reached one guard tower during that 2004 battle, he broke out laughing: The floor was littered with so many spent shell casings it was like walking on jelly beans.
“He was just everything that a Marine should be,” said Lance Corporal Michael David Bizzoco, who served with Sullivan in Iraq.
The man known as “Sully,” who grew up in the Springfield area spending long hours in the family pool, who won two Purple Hearts, and survived two tours in Iraq, died Thursday in the country he had served for nearly two decades.
“The reason we go there is to stop it from getting here,” Bizzoco said. “But it’s here now.”
The 40-year-old gunnery sergeant was one of four Marines killed Thursday in an attack by a lone gunman on two military sites in Chattanooga, Tenn., military officials said.
His death touched off an outpouring of grief in Springfield and nearby Hampden, a small town where Sullivan and his family are well-known. At Nathan Bill’s Bar & Restaurant in Springfield, whose owners include Sullivan’s brother Joseph, a large American flag hung from the facade, bracketed by Marine Corps and Irish banners.
“Anyone who went to Holy Cross School, Cathedral High School, or grew up in the East Forest Park knew who Tommy was,” read a message posted on the bar’s Facebook page. “He was our hero and he will never be forgotten.”
Sullivan’s family declined comment and requested privacy as they mourned. Family friends said Sullivan’s death was an immense loss.
“It’s just a great family, and they don’t deserve this,” said John Jackson, who worked with Sullivan’s father at a car dealership in West Springfield. “It’s a very, very sad day.”
Sullivan, who had been stationed at the combined Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Center in Chattanooga, where he provided administrative and logistical support, had recently visited his family, Jackson said. Friends said Sullivan was unmarried and had no children.
Those who served with Sullivan recalled him as a quintessential Marine, a natural leader who kept his composure amid terrible chaos, and helped less experienced Marines find their way. He would often take on extra duties, including dangerous missions under fire outside the military prison, so others could get more rest. And after battles, he made a point of talking to everyone under his command.
He had wanted to be a Marine from a young age, even thinking of his high school track workouts as preparation for basic training. He joined the Marines in 1997, three years after graduating from Cathedral High School.
Tim Hourihan, a high school classmate, said Sullivan was a popular, dynamic presence on campus who rose above teenage cliques.
“Everyone knew Sully,” he said. “Just an all-around awesome guy.”
Hourihan, who ran track with Sullivan, said his classmate aspired to military service from a young age.
“He was destined to be a Marine,” he said. “It was his calling.”
Sullivan’s fellow Marines described a quick-witted, empathetic leader known for always checking in with junior Marines to see how they were holding up under the strain of combat. He was always cracking jokes, even in the most challenging situations.
“He used to always say, ‘I’m just a cartoon character,’ ” said Mike Ursery, a former Marine sergeant who was stationed with Sullivan at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in 2004 and 2012.
Sullivan was forever doing impressions, sometimes adopting an Irish or German accent, sometimes impersonating other members of the unit, Ursery said. He had a generous spirit, and was always willing to share advice.
“They would just take in everything he said,” Ursery said.
Sullivan’s Purple Hearts were received during a deployment to Abu Ghraib, a notorious prison outside Baghdad. He received the first after his truck was hit by an improvised explosive device, Ursery said, and the second after a 2005 firefight, when he sustained a shrapnel wound to his wrist.
During that battle, Sullivan seemed to be everywhere all at once: firing back at the insurgents, checking on his men, swinging past the base hospital to help with the wounded, Bizzoco said.
The next day, Sullivan addressed a group of his men, many of whom were still in shock. Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Holmes recalled Sullivan saying this: “If there’s any shred of childhood innocence left in any of us, it’s now gone. And we are all forever changed.”
Then 21, Holmes didn’t quite understand what Sullivan meant. But in time, he realized.
“He’s the guy that I think about trying to be, as a leader of the Marines,” Holmes said.
On Friday, Holmes spent a long time looking at a picture of Sullivan and thinking about what they had survived together.
“It’s just like losing a brother,” he said.
In Springfield’s East Forest Park neighborhood, residents mourned the loss of a native son. John Basile, 69, teared up as he spoke about Sullivan. He didn’t know him, but has a son in the Air Force.
“There’s no reason to go after innocent people,” he said. “It’s really the suffering of the innocent. I don’t like that at all.”
Jackson, a family friend, said Sullivan’s father often spoke proudly of his son’s military career.
“He was overseas and then he gets killed in the States,” he said. “This world has gone to hell in a handbasket.”
Tricia Cole, 66, lived next door to Sullivan when his family lived in Springfield, and remembered when his parents brought him home from the hospital.
“He was this cute, little blond-haired, blue-eyed kid who was just the sweetest thing in the world,” she said.
Growing up, Sullivan shared a bedroom with his brother Joseph and spent hours swimming in the family’s pool, riding bikes, and running around.
Cole hadn’t seen Sullivan in some time, but when she saw his picture on the news, she instantly recognized him.
“He had the same smile,” she said.
As the Springfield area mourned, political leaders extended their condolences to the Sullivan family.
“Terror comes home to Massachusetts,’’ Governor Charlie Baker said. “God Bless Tom Sullivan and his family and friends.”
On Facebook, hundreds sent their condolences to Sullivan’s family. The Dropkick Murphys, one of Sullivan’s favorite rock bands, posted a picture of Sullivan standing under the band’s logo, and said their prayers were with the families of those killed.
“My brother would love this,” posted Sullivan’s brother, Joseph.
Read the post from Nathan Bill’s Bar & Restaurant below: