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Marty Sullivan
Posted May 19, 2017 | 2:51 PM

He's Waited 64 Years to Take This Walk

Korean War Veteran will don high school cap and gown

A high school diploma is something Marty Sullivan thought had passed him by. After all, when you're 83, and the school of life includes such experiences as surviving a sea full of enemy mines while in service to your country, you pretty much figure you've got all the qualifications you need.

But on Friday, May 19, this Korean War veteran will depart from his daily routine, don a cap and gown, and walk with the members of the Joe E. Newsome High School Class of 2017 as proud supporters cheer on graduation day.

Sullivan had just completed his sophomore year at East Boston High School in 1951 when he and two friends hitchhiked to a U.S. Marines recruitment center to sign up for the Korean War. Turned down for being too short - he stands 5-foot, 4 inches - he went next door to the Navy's recruiting center, where he was deemed 7 pounds too light. Undeterred, he put on the weight he needed to go to boot camp.

"On Jan. 2, (1952), I was on a ship. And I had never been on a ship," he said. "And here I am in the North Atlantic, in the winter."

As a fire control technician, the young man who had dropped out of high school worked a highly technical job, supporting the gunners by controlling range-finding gear, and solving ballistics calculations to control the firing of the guns. The USS Strong (DD-758), an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer, carried six Mark 12 5-inch/38 caliber guns, and he remembers their details to this day.

"The beauty of being on board a ship, as compared to land, is you're getting shot at, but from far away," he says with a smile.

Still, there were perils: enemy fire, floating mines, and cyclones and typhoons, to name a few. So after a three-year tour, and four more years in the reserves, civilian life beckoned. He worked in the Boston shipyards, then at the Green Shoe Manufacturing Co. and Gillette factories. Sullivan met his wife, Alice, on a blind date, and they raised sons Martin and Patrick. Retirement and the lure of warmer winters opened a new chapter in the couple's life. They came down to Seffner to visit Alice's two brothers, and bought a home in a Valrico active senior community that Alice loved because everyone was so friendly. Sullivan joined the local chapter of the Korean War Veterans, volunteered with the Sheriff's Office S.A.L.T. (Seniors and Law Enforcement Together) Council, and learned how to live on his own again when Alice died of cancer in 2002.

A member of the Veterans Council of Hillsborough County, it was through his work as an avid volunteer at the Hillsborough County Veterans Memorial Park and Rear Admiral LeRoy Collins, Jr. Veterans Museum that he learned that he qualified for a high school diploma. Hillsborough County Consumer & Veterans Services staff helped him with the paperwork, but one missed experience remained: the pomp and circumstance that only a graduation ceremony on a grand scale can deliver. So Consumer & Veterans Services staff contacted Hillsborough County Public Schools. Employees and students at Newsome High School in Lithia enthusiastically signed on.

After all these years, does getting a high school diploma still mean something?

"Oh yes it does," Sullivan said. "I have a place for my diploma all picked out in the middle of the mantel. Maybe I'm older and smarter now."

But what he really wants every veteran to know is the importance of visiting a County Veterans Service Officer. These certified officers assist veterans and families with compensation claims, pensions, health benefits enrollment, education programs, homestead exemption enrollment and more.

"No matter where you are, find a Veterans Service Officer," Sullivan urges. "Stop by. Just sit down and talk to them. You'll be surprised what you find out."

The State of Florida offers a standard high school diploma to any eligible, honorably discharged military veteran who left high school in order to serve our nation's armed forces. Family members may also apply for a diploma posthumously. For information or assistance in obtaining this or other military benefits, contact Hillsborough County Consumer & Veterans Services, go to HCFLGov.net/Veterans, or call (813) 635-8316.

Photo information: (1st photo) Marty Sullivan was 17 when he left high school to enlist in the U.S. Navy and serve in the Korean War. (2nd photo) (plaque) Sullivan's plaque on the Korean War Memorial at Hillsborough County Veterans Memorial Park shows the USS Strong, the destroyer on which he served.