William “Billy” L Sullivan
328th General Hospital
19th Special Forces
Unlike my dad, Billy spoke of his military service often and most the time I would either be laughing or rolling my eyes with a smile. With the time lapse of service between my dad and Billy it meant that there were more stories, pictures, paperwork, and the two things I treasure most, his combat boots and dog tags. The way I choose to honor Billy is through my memories as a wife of a military member.
In my mid-twenties, I was set up on a blind date by a good friend, it was a date that left a lasting impression on my mind and heart. The day I met Billy, one of the first things he shared with me is that he had served in the Army and he was very specific about his time served, eight years, six months, and five days. He LOVED being in the military but an incident after his last jump led him to believe he needed to separate instead of making a career like he intended.
The same curiosity and pride that I had when I found my dad’s military picture, arose only this time my heart skipped a beat. I thanked him for his service and I distinctly remember his look on his face as he lowered his head and humbly said your welcome.
As our date continued, he started sharing stories from his time with the 19th Special Forces Unit. I believe he thought they would be the ones that impress me. This was the beginning of stories that would make me either laugh or roll my eyes with a smile. The very first story he shared was his time right before he joined the Army at age 17. He proudly stated “I learned to fly an airplane before I could drive a car and when I could do that I thought I was a badass so a year later I joined the Army so I could jump out of airplanes and blow shit up” (insert eye roll with a smile). He had various positions and two different units after basic the 328th and the last being the 19th Special Forces.
One of my favorite stories, the one that won my heart, at the end of the date his toned changed once again as I thanked him one last time for his service. He said “When you have enough to give, you give, I had plenty of life at age 17 to give so I did.” As I got to know Billy more these are words he lived by every day.
The first layer of stories came as we started seriously dating and he decided he wanted to leave the IT industry and pursue a career in the medical profession. I believe this was his final “test” to see if I was marriage material, when he chose to come work in the same ER I was currently working at (insert another eye roll with a smile). This is when I found out about his first unit 328th General Hospital. He still never really shared a lot regarding this unit. On his first day he saw a nurse he served with, I saw great joy between two “brothers” who had been reunited after some time of being apart.
Over the next year two of them were often seen exchanging stories which often resulted in my reactions as I walked by of either laughing or an eye roll with a smile. I believe the stories that were exchanged over this time helped heal both their hearts. So the need to share was fulfilled.
Later that year he proposed and in the spring I became the wife of a military member. At the time, being young and in love I didn’t fully understand the depths of valor that would come with it.
The second layer were stories of his “adventures” from his 19th S.F. group. He learned to scuba dive, become an expert rifleman, jump out of airplanes, and pranks. I recall the day he told me about the time he was scuba diving in Puget Sound. He was in the dark depths when something went wrong with his weight belt and all the weights dropped. He rapidly started ascending towards the surface and I recall him saying “I had the longest exhale ever” Never have been diving I didn’t understand so he explained that when you learn to dive you can’t descend or ascend too fast but ascending too fast can kill you so he looked seriously looked at me and said “Babe, I should’ve died” This was a story that made hug him a little tighter and my honor for him grew.
The deepest layer of stories came in the 10th year of our blissful marriage when he became ill. This is when my love for our country and those that serve, in ANY capacity, deepened more than I could ever comprehend. As I saw firsthand the strength, resiliency, and commitment to live the military had helped install in him. The first time he fell ill was when he was out of town on business in Chicago. Two nights before he was scheduled to come home he had told me the last time we spoke he was not feeling well and might come home early. The next two days I didn’t receive my nightly call. The first night, I didn’t worry. Mid-afternoon on day two when no phone call or texts came in I began to worry. While we married I never had to experience a deployment but I believe this gave me glimpse into what military spouses go through while their loved ones are deployed. My heart sank deeper and deeper as I took the steps to try and get in touch with my husband. Police weren’t an option because it hadn’t been long enough, due security restrictions at the hotel, car rental and airfare could not confirm or deny checking in or out. His original flight, flight 1017, was scheduled to land in Salt Lake City at 4:11 p.m. That night still no phone call and my worry turned to fear which resulted in a sleepless night. The following day, I had packed my suitcase because if he didn’t come off that flight I was booking one to Chicago. This is where the distinction and my respect is deeper for those that have experienced deployment because getting on a plane to look for their loved one is not an option.
As I anxiously awaited for the plane to land Billy called asking where I was, my heart was overjoyed to hear his voice. As I approached, my heart was racing, and I saw him standing there my eyes filled up with tears and my heart was finally able to rest. Until he got in the car and he did not look well, I asked him if I could take him to the ER but he sternly declined and said he is just tired from flying. Sleepless night number two as I closely watched him and he steadily became worse. By early the next morning he was taken to the ER and admitted to the ICU where he was intubated and in multi organ failure. My brave solider was in the fight of his life. Over a short period of time the resiliency and strength shone through and he woke up asking where he was. I explained what happened and he was in disbelief. He asked if he finished his training in Chicago which lead me to question what he remembers over the course of the two previous days. He said the ONLY thing he remembered was boarding the plane to come home. He never recalled the last two days in Chicago if he went to the training, how he got to the airplane and how he was got to the hospital. This gave him an opportunity which became his last story he would ever share. He explained the reason I was able to get home is because of the eight and a half years of training I received from the military. They drill into you to get home no matter what. He never returned to the same after his trip from Chicago.
This took us down a road of many visits to various doctors until discovering his condition to be a rare disease, most likely from chemical exposure while in the service. Which meant getting deferred to the VA or we thought. When Billy applied and was later denied the betrayal he felt when his “own” would not be able to help him was heart wrenching for me to watch but and can only image how he felt. I was ready to make phone calls, write letters, or walk into the VA admin building to get him the help he not only deserved but he needed. However, Billy held his head high and told me not to worry about it and repeated the words he lived by “If you have enough to give than I can give, and I still have a life to give.” Billy, lost his final battle on Sept 11, 2016 this is when my honor grew to valor.
The final layer of his stories came to fruition after he passed. I was finally able to open two bins that were marked Bill and was never allowed to open. There were pictures to go along with the stories he had told me over the last 10 years. There were books, paperwork letters he received from his family and friends he had received while in the military eight years, six months, and five days. At the bottom of this bin is where I found his combat boots and dog tags. Billy, I honor you.
We honor you, William “Billy” Sullivan