Making his comeback

Making his comeback

Maybe you saw Nick Sullivan a couple years ago on the push-up brigade, one of the kids in camouflage pants and T-shirts lining up to do push-ups after every Illini football score.

The political science major admits the workout was not too difficult.

"A couple of times, my arms and chest were sore at the end of the fourth quarter," Sullivan said. "We didn't win a lot of games when I was there, but it was a lot of fun."

This weekend, you'll be seeing him on the field in a different role.

It's been a long week for the University of Illinois alumnus; the severely-wounded officer just met Gov. Pat Quinn, and will toss the coin at Saturday's Illini homecoming game.

He's also here to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the UI Armory, where he often drilled.

After earning his degree and serving in ROTC here, Sullivan was eager for active service.

"I don't know that I'm particularly patriotic or that my job was more or less patriotic than other jobs, honestly," he said.

"I wanted to be an Army officer for as long as I can remember. For me, being an infantry officer in the Army was just what I wanted to be. I love the Army, but I'm sure the guys in the other branches feel their branches are the best, too."

But challenges were ahead. The lieutenant's team deployed to Afghanistan this past January.

They were assigned to Forward Operating Base Apache in Kandahar province. On May 28, while his unit was supporting an Afghan National Army outpost, his helicopter crashed on the Pakistan/Afghan border.

A friend, Pfc. Jacob Wykstra, was killed in the crash. The life-threatening injuries Sullivan endured included the loss of 28 teeth, a broken neck, a shattered jaw and a ruptured carotid artery.

He was stabilized at a field hospital, then transferred through Bagram Field Hospital to Landstuhl in Germany and finally to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

Because of brain bleeding and swelling, he endured major surgery on his skull, a craniectomy, at Brooke.

With help of Quinn and Sen. Dick Durbin, he's back in the Chicago area, where much of his family lives. Other relatives are in Champaign and the Paris area.

Sullivan has some trouble talking, but he wants to get back to his work.

"I would love to return to active duty, but I'm not sure that is in the cards for me," he says.

'Great place to be a kid'

His father, Jude Sullivan, describes this summer as a test of character for the whole family.

On the Fourth of July, the officer was in a VA polytrauma unit in San Antonio. On his 24th birthday, Aug. 27, he was in the ICU at BAMC. But this fall, he has been working at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to continue his recovery.

The family saw his early progress; at first, Sullivan was completely paralyzed on the right side. He could not speak, and his movement was very limited.

But he has recovered some use of his right leg and is much more verbally expressive. In a newspaper interview, he gets his points across.

"He spends a long time watching movies he knows close-captioned, and reading poems on his computer," his father said.

"He's rebooting his own hard drive."

Jude Sullivan said he has had to stand by and watch his "son receive the last rites on his way into brain surgery, and I have cried in frustration and sorrow as I watch Nick struggle to speak and do other things he's done on his own since he was 2 years old."

The officer says he hates the rehabilitation process.

"It sucks. Physically, I don't have complete use of my right side and I'm facing some vision challenges, but other than the vision in my right eye, I seem to be progressing well.

"Neurologically, I have what is called an aphasia, which in my case makes it very difficult for me to communicate verbally or in writing, although I comprehend most of what I see and hear. Knowing exactly what I want to say and not being able to say it is the most frustrating thing I have ever experienced."

But he said he continues to progress and could go on to graduate school — at Illinois, of course.

"It depends on how well I recover my communication skills. I wouldn't mind picking up an advanced degree and teaching history or military history somewhere at some point," he said.

He said he considers central Illinois a home, not just for the UI, but for growing up with cousins in Edgar County.

He spent summers with his central Illinois relatives.

"It was a great place to be a kid. We fished, tubed and knee-boarded, shot guns and bows and arrows and played paintball, saw movies at the dollar movie theater and did pretty much any fun thing we could think of," he recalls.

'I'm a soldier, not a hero'

According to his aunt Ramona Sullivan, senior staff attorney at the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation in Champaign, he has always been a strong family member.

He gave his aunts rides and watched her children. Later, in Afghanistan, he wrote reassuring letters to family.

"I don't know how many kids in Afghanistan write frequently to their grandparents," she said. "He had us pretty convinced that he was safe."

Attending the UI was a no-brainer in his family.

"My parents, aunts and uncles all went to the UI. It was the only college I ever really wanted to attend and I was lucky enough to be able to go to Illinois," he said.

He calls Afghanistan "very sad and very complicated."

"The Afghan people are a great people caught in a horrible situation, and I can't speak for the whole Afghan Army, but the Afghan National Army units working near us in the Kandahar Province were serving at great danger to themselves to maintain control of that region in impossible conditions," Sullivan said.

How does it feel to be a hero? Sullivan moves the question to a close friend lost in the crash.

"I'm a soldier, not a hero," he says. "I signed up to do a job and unfortunately I got hurt very badly doing that job."

He said Pfc. Jacob Wykstra, killed in the crash, was a real hero.

"Not so much for what he died doing but for how he lived as a soldier," he said. "No matter how hot or cold or wet or dry or unpleasant a place or a task was, Jake was always enthusiastic and committed, and he was the kind of class clown who could crack up the whole mess line."

Sullivan said he'll be back to Champaign.

"I loved attending and living at the UI, and if I came back as a graduate student — I'd probably just have my mail delivered to Murphy's," a Campustown bar, he said.

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