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Navy Commander Leads Warship that Played Key Role in the Rescue of Her Father

By Alvin Plexico, Navy Office of Community Outreach 

NORFOLK, VA – Cmdr. Jean Marie Sullivan is the senior officer aboard a ship that has a history that is remarkably intertwined with the history of her family. 

 Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Anna Van Nuys

Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Anna Van Nuys

“My parents served in the State Department, and my family and I were in Liberia during the 1990s,” said Sullivan. “My siblings, mother and I were evacuated earlier, but my father was required to stay. The civil war worsened, and the rebels surrounded the embassy, sending notice that they planned to kill all Americans in the embassy. U.S. Marines rescued my father, and those Marines came from the USS Whidbey Island. It’s hard to believe that nearly 30 years later I’m serving aboard the ship that delivered my father’s rescuers.” In the summer of 1990, Sullivan’s family lived in Liberia, where her parents worked at the embassy as part of the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service. According to U.S. Navy historical records, USS Whidbey Island was ordered to Mamba Station off the coast of Monrovia, Liberia, to serve as the flagship for evacuations as part of Operation Sharp Edge. That part of history is interesting; however, what makes the story truly remarkable is that the U.S. Marines ordered to rescue her father, and others, from the embassy were from the same ship that Sullivan commands today. 

Today, a key element of the Navy the nation needs is tied to the fact that America is a maritime nation, according to Navy officials, and that the nation’s prosperity is tied to the ability to operate freely on the world’s oceans. More than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water; 80 percent of the world’s population lives close to a coast; and 90 percent of all global trade by volume travels by sea. 

Sullivan is playing an important part in America’s focus on rebuilding military readiness, strengthening alliances and reforming business practices in support of the National Defense Strategy. 

“Our priorities center on people, capabilities and processes, and will be achieved by our focus on speed, value, results and partnerships,” said Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer. “Readiness, lethality and modernization are the requirements driving these priorities.” 

Sailors’ jobs are highly varied aboard this ship. About 300 men and women currently make up the ship's crew, which keeps all parts of the ship running smoothly, from handling weaponry to maintaining the engines. An additional 400 Marines can be embarked, and the ship is capable of transporting these Marines and landing them where they are needed using helicopters and landing craft, air cushion (LCAC) vehicles. 

When asked how she views her role as commanding officer, Sullivan replied, "Every day I am amazed by the men and women of Whidbey Island. Their steadfast devotion to the ship, mental toughness to overcome any challenge and complete commitment to their fellow shipmates truly inspires. Whidbey Island Sailors are why we can answer the call and go where it matters, when it matters." 

As a member of one of the U.S. Navy’s most relied-upon assets, Sullivan knows she is part of a legacy that will last beyond her lifetime providing the Navy the nations needs. 

"Serving in the Navy brings meaning to my life because I'm serving something bigger than myself,” Sullivan said. "It's not just serving the nation, but more importantly serving my sailors who come from different backgrounds and experiences. There's something very powerful in that. It's very American." 

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