Command chief retires after three decades of service

  • Published
  • By Ed White
  • Air Force Space Command Public Affairs
Chief Master Sgt. Michael T. Sullivan retired Feb. 14 after 31 years of service. His position as Air Force Space Command's command chief master sergeant has given him the ultimate opportunity to do what he loves best - serve his country, advise his commander and mentor his Airmen in a command that covers 13 time zones, 160 units and over 48 locations worldwide.

At a balcony call at the command's headquarters just days before Chief Sullivan's retirement, Gen. Robert Kehler, AFSPC commander, said, "General Eisenhower used to say that sergeants are the Army. I think you could say the same thing about the Air Force - Airmen and NCOs are the Air Force.

"So let me say thanks on behalf of all of Air Force Space Command. Thanks for all you have done, and thanks for the leadership you have provided," he said.

The retirement ceremony was held in the base museum's hangar where family and friends gathered to pay tribute to the chief. Col. Darryl Burke, senior military assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force and one of Chief Sullivan's former commanders, described him as "a leader in the true sense of the word. He is the best chief I have ever worked with ... period."

Colonel Burke added that the chief is known for two things - his moral courage and the fact that he just likes to lead Airmen.

Chief Sullivan enlisted in the Air Force Dec. 29, 1976, at 5:15 p.m. - a Friday - because he wanted to get the Vietnam era GI Bill benefits. Those benefits were no longer offered after Dec. 31.

"I came in to get the college benefits," Chief Sullivan said. "I had the intention of doing my four-year enlistment, getting out, getting my degree and going to be a teacher. After being in for a little bit I thought, 'Well, I'll get out, get my degree and come back in as an officer.' I never got that far."

In his first assignment after technical training, he was a crew chief on a DC-130 aircraft at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona. It was there that Chief Sullivan began to see the real Air Force.

"There was a guy on the flight line, a tech sergeant named Richard Smith," Chief Sullivan said. "He was just a stand-out guy from a professional aspect. He had a way of interacting with us as Airmen that kept us on the right path, and he didn't hesitate to tell us when we were out of step. We all wanted to be like him."

Over the years Chief Sullivan has deployed and changed homes many times, sometimes with his family and others without. He credits Donna, his wife of 25 years, with holding the home front together.

"She chose me, and I got lucky enough -- blessed enough -- to say yes," Chief Sullivan said. "She truly held the place together and took great pride in what I was doing. She kept me going at times when I thought I had had about enough.

"I had been passed over for senior (master sergeant) four times. I was ready to quit as a master sergeant. I had been an (Airman Leadership School) commandant, an (Airborne Warning and Control System) flight engineer, been to some beautiful places, seen some great things and had a great career, but she said, 'Oh no, you are not quitting!' So, here I am today."

Chief Sullivan has had many interesting and challenging assignments, whether flying AWACS on the Saudi-Kuwait border, serving as the superintendent of flight engineer training or working with NATO forces, he always brought his unique knowledge, skills and abilities to his jobs. However, during his time spent as an Air Force recruiter, Chief Sullivan had one of those rare life moments that he believes still has not been repeated in the Air Force. He got to enlist his father.

"Not only did I get to enlist my own father," he said. "I enlisted him for the exact same position on the manning document that I vacated to become a recruiter. So, he inherited my headset, my checklist and my toolbox. They didn't have to change a name on anything."

Whether he was directly mentoring Airmen or setting the standard through his example, Chief Sullivan has always known that the Air Force is measured by its people. He took a hand up from the generation he followed and has always offered the same to those who will follow. For those coming behind him up through the ranks, Chief Sullivan has some advice.

"Never write an Airman off. Always develop them, invest in them and make sure that they are ready to take your place," he said. "If you see one going the wrong way, get a hold on him and put him back on the right course."

Sullivan's plans do not include sitting around and watching the grass grow. The service ethic is too strong within him. In fact his plans have come full circle from when he originally enlisted.

"I will probably go out and complete my degree," he said. "I will get a certificate and get to teach and continue to invest in generations elsewhere."

Summing up his career, he identified the best part of his 31 years of service.

"The best part of serving in the Air Force has, by far, been the people," he said. "Everywhere I have been I have come across people who are wonderful patriots. They have great work ethics. They care about the people they work with. They tend to be morally a cut above the rest of society and I enjoyed their company. They gave me a reason to be better. They lifted me up when I needed it."