A Split Second Chance
by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jacob Sippel
July 8, 2021
Caitlin Sullivan gripped the M9 service pistol. The scorching hot sun beamed down as sweat rolled down her face. She pushed off the safety, touched the trigger, aimed and readied to shoot a real person who had come over the fence. This wasn’t training anymore. It required a split-second decision . . . and she chose not to shoot.
Fifteen years in the Navy is a long time for the average Sailor. Sullivan knows – as a successful Master-At-Arms, First Class, she’s looking ahead to retirement – and back at a mostly successful career.
June 15, 2021 - U.S. Navy Master-at-Arms 1st Class Caitlin Sullivan, attached to Camp Lemonnier’s Security Department, stands in front of her patrol vehicle. Camp Lemonnier is strategically located in Djibouti, close to the Bab al-Mandab Strait, at the south end of the Red Sea. Camp Lemonnier helps U.S., allied and partner nation forces maintain security in Europe, Africa and Southwest Asia. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jacob Sippel)
Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, she’s had a few great jobs. Always choosing to reenlist, she has pushed hard on her military journey since 2005, when she first enlisted in the Navy.
“As odd as it sounds to say this now, when I joined -- I was a bit of a rebel and one that didn’t like authority.” She recalls herself as a young adult and junior Sailor. “I originally wanted to become a Hospital Corpsman, but the wait was too long. So the next choice was Master-At-Arms. The recruiter told me it was an active job, I’d stay busy, and carry a gun all the time. I said ‘sign me up.’ And that’s what started my personal growth from rebel to the person I am now.” She remembers the times when she really needed a second chance herself.
“My second chance came in 2014 when I wasn’t the best Sailor. My performance was suffering, failing at physical readiness standards,” said Sullivan. “The Navy kind of dragged their feet a little and that allowed me enough time to get myself together and pass the next one.”
Making a difference came naturally to Sullivan. Her mother is an advanced registered nurse practitioner. Her grandfather served World War II as a Navy radioman. Shortly after enlisting in the Navy, Sullivan started making a big difference in other people’s lives.
“My first real big assignment was providing aid in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,” explained Sullivan.
Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States in August, 2005, causing over 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damages -- requiring years of clean-up. Sullivan and her unit, based in New Orleans, stepped in to help immediately.
“Those citizens of 7th and 9th Ward of New Orleans lost everything. We were able to provide medical supplies, food, water, and help with the cleanup and FEMA trailer placements. We helped bring a sense of “home” to them.”
Not long after her Hurricane Katrina relief assignment, Sullivan started making a difference on the other side of the world, in a very different environment. She served at Camp Bucca Iraq in late 2008 through early 2010 working with Naval Provisional Detainee Battalion Six.
“We housed detainees accused of war crimes against the United States and Coalition Forces, said Sullivan. “It was an eye-opening experience as a third class petty officer. Working with detainees can be very difficult. Some of these detainees were accused of very serious crimes, but I didn't want to know. I wanted to treat everyone equally. My time there taught me there to have thick skin, and remain calm under pressure.”
Sullivan, with her pistol still aimed directly at the man, took a deep breath -- in the heat of the day and wearing a 40-pound armored vest – holstered her weapon. Although she had every right to use deadly force, Sullivan quickly decided to give this man a second chance.
In 2010, Sullivan transitioned to the Navy Reserves and began her professional career as a civilian. Now a sergeant with the Florida Department of Corrections, she works at Polk Correctional Institution. It’s a re-entry camp where all the inmates have less than five years of their sentence left.
“We try to reintegrate them back into society. We offer construction classes, college, outpatient treatment for addictions, and GED classes,” said Sullivan.
She remembered again her days as a tough junior Sailor. “I haven’t always been the greatest Sailor, and this job has taught me sometimes second chances make all the difference in the world. Maybe if one person would have cared for these inmates, things may have turned out differently for them. This is kind of the attitude I take with me when leading my Sailors now.”
On April 21, 2021, at approximately 1442, Master-at-Arms 2nd Class Arturo Figueroa reported an unknown person holding a plastic bag on the flight line at Camp Lemonnier. Figueroa made contact with the male suspect and immediately requested backup. The suspect became aggressive and started to flee on foot.
“When I heard Figueroa call for backup, I immediately responded. I got nervous when we didn’t hear back from him,” explained Sullivan. “When I arrived, I drew my weapon. According to our pre-planned responses, we treat a perimeter breach like a high-risk traffic stop.”
Sullivan, eyes wide-open, assessed there are times when deadly force is absolutely necessary. This wasn’t one of them. In a split second, she decided that this situation could be controlled without deadly force. After she holstered her pistol, the suspect took off running.
“Me and Figueroa got in our vehicle and pursued. I said ‘Fig, I’m gonna bail out and try to grab him. Buttonhook in and cut him off with the vehicle,” explained Sullivan, using her hands to demonstrate. “We were joined by Master-at-Arms 2nd Class Tyrone Mills and we boxed him in.”
Sullivan got out and pursued on foot. She quickly closed the gap with fast feet.
“I went to OC spray him and then we started wrestling. I threw the OC on the ground and tackled him,” said Sullivan. “We quickly put him in cuffs and contained the suspect. It felt almost like a training evolution, it was just executed flawlessly from beginning to end. Nobody was seriously hurt, everything was okay.”
After the man was detained, the rest of the security team stepped up – following protocol to ensure that the man Sullivan stopped was the only one.
Sailors train for years for a scenario like this. It went off without a hitch. But those who work with Sullivan know that there’s a human element in this success. A person can have the knowledge but not have the gut instincts to execute the mission flawlessly – all while making good decisions and saving lives. Sullivan had those instincts. She chose not to shoot – and was able to control the situation quickly and safely.
Master-At Arms First Class Sheana McAnerny works closely with Sullivan.
“Sullivan has discernment on how to use the least amount of force necessary to stop the threat. Using her training and experience as a law enforcement officer, she made the decision to detain the individual instead of using deadly force,” said McAnerny. “Her courage and leadership prevented an international incident and ensured the safety and security of Camp Lemonnier.”
After the fact, Sullivan humbly took it in stride, “At the end of the day, I was just doing my job, and protecting the Sailors I serve with,” said Sullivan. “I got their six and they got mine. You have to make a split-second decision out there. The crew that I’m on, Bravo Section, we work really well together, we communicate really well together, talk about situations just like this. So when it happened, everyone knew their role.”
Maybe it was the training or maybe it was the person? Maybe it was the right person with the right training, the right mindset and the right opportunity, who did the right thing at the right time. In a life full of second chances, Sullivan made a split second chance decision.
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