Justin Sullivan’s resume is impressive. During combat tours in Afghanistan, the Navy information systems technician first class was credited with saving two lives. He has received a number of awards for community engagement, including the President’s Volunteer Service Award—twice. He is in line for a promotion to chief petty officer and is weighing the option of becoming a limited duty officer, a commissioned officer designation for Navy members who are considered very highly skilled.
Now Sullivan, who holds a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity from University of Maryland University College (UMUC), has added another prestigious honor to his resume. The Military Times named him Service Member of the Year. The coveted award is given annually to a member of each branch of the military.
Sullivan is just 27.
In a keynote address at the July 12 awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, herself a retired Iowa National Guard Lt. Col., described the Military Times award winners as leaders.
“Inspiring organizations, making them better because they want to be, not because they have to be—that is what leaders do,” she said.
“The award ceremony was amazing,” said Sullivan, who was introduced by the surgeon general of the Navy, Vice Adm. Forrest Faison, and escorted on stage by members of Congress. His wife and children—a 2-year-old daughter and an infant son—were in attendance and, as Sullivan put it, the children “made themselves known.” His parents flew in from Wyoming.
Recipients of the Military Times award are selected because they have shown a high level of professionalism, a concern for fellow servicemembers and a commitment to community service. Sullivan is credited with helping U.S.-Afghanistan relations by saving the lives of two Afghan soldiers in 2012 and 2013 when he was stationed at a remote base assisting Navy SEALS as a radio operator and in supporting medical evacuations.
Sullivan joined the Navy after high school because of its education benefits. “Originally, I was just a four-year guy but then I was convinced to stay in,” he said. “It will be 10 years in September.”
He started studying online through UMUC during his first year in the service. “I’m more of a classroom-type person. I like being able to raise my hand and get a response, but I finished the course,” he said. He continued studying when his deployments and schedule allowed and completed both an Associate of Arts and Bachelor of Arts in December 2016.
Sullivan said the credit he received from UMUC for his Navy experience was key to earning his degrees. “The cybersecurity degree was challenging because I got it in policy management and there was a lot of writing,” he explained. “I had to balance work, family and having two kids. And I’m a procrastinator.”
When Sullivan retires from the military, as early as 10 years from now, he said he plans to “capitalize” on the degree he received and the experience the Navy gave him, to “pursue a career that falls in line with cybersecurity.”
In addition to Afghanistan, he has had Navy assignments in Trinidad and Tobago, and Italy. In Italy, Sullivan chalked up more than 1,400 hours as a volunteer coach for the Naples Tiger Sharks, a swim team made up of school-age children of military personnel. That off-duty volunteerism earned him a Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal.
He received a second volunteer service medal while stationed with Naval Special Warfare Group Two in Little Creek, Virginia. “We went into local schools. We tutored in math, English, answered questioned the students had,” Sullivan said.
At his current post at the Information Warfare Training Command at Florida’s Corry Station, Sullivan volunteers as a teacher, mentor and safety observer with the Naval Sea Cadets Corps, an organization that teaches teenagers about the Navy, leadership and community service. It is for this work that he received bronze and silver President’s Volunteer Service Awards.
Although Sullivan ended up with a career in the technology area, in high school he had considered becoming a teacher.
“I still think teaching young folks is the key to our future,” he said. “Being able [as a volunteer] to ensure that a few children are able to grow up with mentorship and guidance is great. If I put just one on the correct path, then I’ve accomplished that.”