MERIDIAN VILLAGE, Ill. — You don’t believe Max Sullivan when he tells you that the U.S. Army decided to give him his Silver Star “for a little blood loss.”
It's the way his wife Joann didn’t quite believe him when he sent her those letters during his year in the Quang Ngai Province in northern South Vietnam.
Joann is sitting beside him on the couch at their apartment at Meridian Village, where the couple has been living for a couple of years now.
Max is nearing 80.
For 16 years he served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army, one of which was spent in northern South Vietnam. On most days, Max would go out into the field and spend a day and a night tending to the emotional and spiritual needs of the soldiers.
“I was kind of a morale officer,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Be as positive as you can. Listen to their stories. Their fears, their wants.’”
Today he continues to speak in the calming manner of a chaplain, not a man who, under bitter fire from North Vietnamese Army soldiers, risked his life one day to administer first aid to a wounded soldier, pulling him up on his only good leg, and helping carry him to an evacuation helicopter 400 meters away.
And yet there it is up on the wall by the front door. Col. John W. Donaldson is standing face-to-face with Max, pinning a Silver Star on his army fatigues.
“His indomitable will and personal courage were an inspiration to the men of the company as they repulsed the numerically superior enemy force,” Donaldson said. “Captain Sullivan’s personal heroism, professional competence and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself.”
It happened around 1 p.m. on June 10, 1969. The afternoon heat was sweltering. Alpha Company, part of the 1st Battalion, 20th Regiment, in the 11th Infantry Brigade, had been involved in intense firefights with the N.V.A. for several days. By the afternoon of June 9, the company was pretty badly cut up. Walt Bertels wrote those days in a letter he sent to Max.
The unit had lost a number of men, including all but one of their medics, he said. They were hoping to avoid contact with the enemy as they walked in the pitch-black darkness of the night. No moon. Impossible to see. They needed to rest, regroup and resupply if they had any hope of being effective in any kind of operation.
“We were exhausted and discouraged,” Bertels wrote. “No one was telling even bad jokes about our situation.”
The men moved in single-file, one arm extended to hold on to the man in front, to keep from wandering off and getting lost. After a while, they stopped and set up perimeter around a hill.
When it was Bertels’ time to pull guard duty, he crept into place a few yards from where he had been trying to sleep. His gut was tight. He remembers trying to hold his breath so he could hear better, though he was fearful his breath would give away his position.
The next morning, the unit moved out. At some point, Max joined them. He had been with them earlier, holding services and giving communion to the men. Seeing Max again, and hearing his ever-friendly voice, was always encouraging, Bertels recalled.
Around 1 p.m., they came under intense small-arms fire: AK-47s and captured M-16s and M-60 machine guns. At one point, he was pinned down by fire. Many of his comrades were wounded, as was Bertels. Blood spurted from his left thumb, blood drenched his legs and stomach. He felt no pain, but couldn’t seem to move anything but his arms.
Two or three minutes later, an American soldier emerged from the bushes and he realized it was Max. “I don’t remember my exact thoughts on seeing him, but I remember being impressed that there was this minister coming out to get me, like the angel of God!,” Bertels wrote.
The N.V.A. were everywhere, and Max told him they had to leave right away. Soon a soldier from another platoon emerged from the bushes to help. Max picked up Bertels’ M-16 and began firing it into the bushes.
“I distinctly remember wondering how a minister of God could be firing an M-16!” Bertels wrote.
Max and the soldier grabbed under Bertels’ arms and the three made their way through the brush. When they finally laid him down, Bertels discovered that he had been hit in the belly and upper legs; Max encouraged him and assured him he could still have children.
It seemed to take forever, but soon the chopper whisked the injured soldier away.
Bertels says he thinks about that day a lot. Max put his life on the line to save him. He had been respected by the men in the unit, and he lived out the words of Jesus, who said “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Max grew up in Murphysboro, with four older brothers and a twin sister.
When Max was still an infant, his father died and his mother was left to raise them. After high school, he served four years in the U.S. Air Force – from 1952-56 – and when he got out he decided he would become a minister.
Max attended Southern Illinois University for a couple of years and finished his degree at Carthage College. In 1965, he finished studies at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, then was ordained by the Lutheran Church of America.
For three years Max was in Cape Girardeau, Mo., where he developed a mission church.
At the age of 35, he entered the Army as a captain. “I was an old man,” he quips. “Trying to keep up with those guys was a little tough at times.”
One day the “hootch” – a half-sphere mud hut about six feet high – where he was staying was blown up by mortar shells, he recalls. When the siren went off, Max ran out the back. Seconds later mortar shells came through the front. “It blew the shack away just as I got out,” he recalls. “So that was a little close.”
The great thing about being chaplain was that soldiers appreciated him. And no one told him what to do. Commanders mostly left him to do his thing. And with his previous experience in the service, Max had an idea what the soldiers were going through.
After the war, Max became a senior chaplain at Arlington Cemetery. On Nov. 13, 1982, he spoke at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Constitution Gardens, in Washington, D.C.
He and Joann also spent five years in Germany. There were other stops along the way in New York and Oklahoma.
His Vietnam experience was “very memorable.” The important thing was to be there for the soldiers.
“That’s all I really thought about,” he says. He glances at his wife. “But I kept writing home and telling her how safe it was.”
Joann smiles. Did she believe it?
“For a while,” she says. “That didn’t last long.”