MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Our theme today is communication. And in this part of the show we're going to focus a bit on life lessons and how we communicate them to others. We begin with the story of Silver Spring native, Dan Sullivan and his brother Tom. Tom was the kind of guy who ran at life full force. He was constantly making snap decisions and always finding beauty in even the most frightening moments.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
But when he was just 30 years old Tom died of a strange disease. And Tom's death made Dan reconsider his own more cautious attitude toward life. Dan recently visited Tom's grave in Virginia with Raphaella Bennin, who brings us his story.
MR. DAN SULLIVAN
The gravesite's over in that direction there. Let's go see the grave site.
MS. RAPHAELLA BENNIN
Dan Sullivan and I step out of his car and onto the grass of Arlington Cemetery.
It took me awhile, actually, to come here, to see the headstone. It just makes it that much more real when you see the name, you know, Thomas Joseph Sullivan, Sergeant U.S. Marine Corps, Iraq, December 22, 1978 to February 16, 2009. I mean in some ways it's beautiful, but this is just not a site I ever imagined.
Tom joined the Marines in 2000. He had always been the brother to make quick decisions. And he was constantly telling Dan to stop being a wimp and just go out and do things.
He just went it full force. I mean he went into boot camp. He got through boot camp. He loved the Marines. He actually had the opportunity to quit before he was sent to Iraq. And he believed so strongly that the Marines was what he was destined and wanted to do, so he re-upped.
So Tom went to Iraq, but while he was deployed, he started to feel sick. He came back to the U.S., but he kept getting sicker.
The thing that started to get obviously wrong was the gastro-intestinal problems. And it was very debilitating. He would literally miss three or four hours a day having to be on the toilet. And then he started having pain. And they started prescribing things, heavy-duty painkillers and steroids for the inflammation. The doctors were just not able to conclusively diagnosis. And his doctors didn't recognize that this illness was kind of part of his sacrifice.
Tom was dying of something called post-deployment illness. Doctors still don't really understand what causes it or how to medicate for it. The main theory is that while Tom was in Iraq he was poisoned by toxins in the air from explosions or burn pits, the byproducts of war.
As he was going through all of this, he just kept living his life as fully as he could.
He got married. He had a daughter. And then, in February of 2009, Tom died without a concrete diagnosis, but the autopsy showed the bad shape his body was in.
His heart was severely damaged. His brain was swollen. His kidneys were exhibiting signs of failure. His heart was also enlarged. His lungs were full of fluid and the medical examiner thought that the actual thing that ended up being the final cause of death was this pneumonia.
It was Dan who found Tom's body. He had gone to his brother's house to check on him.
The moment that I found his body and I was alone at the time in his house, and realizing that the sum total of everything that I feared was basically right there. I don't know. I just had a sudden shift in consciousness. There was almost a moment where I kind of thought he was kind of like, all right, Dan. Now go out there and stop being a wimp.
That was a critical turning point for Dan, a final push from his brother to pursue life as decisively as Tom had. Dan and his family decided to start an organization, The Sergeant Sullivan Center. They organize meetings with doctors, government agencies, non-profits and patients to increase education and research around post-deployment illness.
It took ten years after the Persian Gulf War -- 10 years or so -- for there to be a statement that in fact Gulf War vets were sicker at a higher rate than the average population. I think the answer is we don't need to wait ten years. We need to take the information that's available and use it to the best possible benefit of those who are sick. And that's a step in the right direction.
Now, it's been almost four years since Tom died. Not surprisingly, Dan still thinks about his brother all the time. Particularly about these conversations they had as teenagers. They used to sit on their parents' back porch, drinking boxed wine and smoking cigarettes.
Nobody ever seemed to know what we were doing. So I remember very vividly him saying to me, I know that you're gay and if that's what you want, just own it and do it, you know. And then he asked me if I was afraid of AIDS. And I said yes. And that's when he said, have you ever considered that if you got AIDS maybe you might learn something from the experience and be better for it? I thought he was crazy.
But Dan says that now he understands what his brother meant.
I mean, there's a lot of horror and beauty in all of this stuff. And I've met a lot of people now who have a serious illness in their lives, really, really sick, suffering in awful ways. But boy, when we all get together and when we talk to one another, there's an energy and a force and a commitment to living and to making this illness make sense, and make things better for other people. That is beautiful, that coming together in the face of devastation.
Dan says that the devastation and the coming together and the horror and the beauty all seem to go hand in hand. I'm Raphaella Bennin.
This story first came to our attention through the storytelling group Speakeasy D.C. To learn more about the Sergeant Sullivan Center or Speakeasy D.C. head to our website, metroconnection.org.
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