NEWS | July 8, 2021

A Split-Second Chance

By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jacob Sippel

Master-at-Arms 1st Class 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.
 
The situation required a split second decision.  
 
Fifteen years in the Navy is a long time for the average Sailor. MA1 Sullivan is closer to the end of her career than the beginning. She’s looking ahead to retirement – and back at a mostly successful career.
 
Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, she’s had a few great jobs. Always choosing to re-enlist, she has pushed hard through each step of her military journey, one which began in 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,” said Sullivan, recalling her days as a 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, promised I’d stay busy, and told me I’d 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.”
 
Sullivan 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 — I was 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 physical readiness test.”
 
Making a difference came naturally to Sullivan. Her mother is an advance registered nurse practitioner and her grandfather served in 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 cleanup. 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,” she said. “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 from 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 for me 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 treat everyone equally. My time there also taught me to have thick skin and remain calm under pressure.”
 
In 2010, Sullivan transitioned to the Navy Reserve 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,” she said. “We offer construction classes, college, outpatient treatment for addictions, and GED classes.”
 
Sullivan remembered her days as a tough junior Sailor, using her own personal growth to highlight the patience, faith and attentiveness required to both lead Sailors and manage inmates.
 
“I haven’t always been the greatest Sailor, and this job has taught me sometimes second chances make all the difference in the world,” she said. “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 back up, 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’s calmness under pressure — a quality cultivated in the chaos of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, sharpened by two years in the heat of the Iraqi desert and tested daily at Polk Correctional — allowed her the mental space and clarity necessary to make a life or death judgement call.
 
Sullivan, eyes wide-open, assessed there are times when deadly force is absolutely necessary. This wasn’t one of them.
 
With her pistol still aimed directly at the man, Sullivan took a deep breath, and — 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, in a split second, Sullivan quickly decided to give the man a second chance.
 
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. Button hook 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. 
 
“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 MA1 Sheana McAnerny, who works closely with Sullivan.  “Her courage and leadership prevented an international incident and ensured the safety and security of Camp Lemonnier.”
 
After the fact, Sullivan humbly took it all in stride.
 
“At the end of the day, I was just doing my job, and protecting the Sailors I serve with,” she said. “I got their six and they’ve 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. We 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.