For most people, the "explosion" in one's head at the start of a bleeding subdermal hematoma followed by a craniotomy would be enough trauma and terror for a lifetime.

For Rockport's Francis J. "Kerry" Sullivan Jr., it was more like the tip of the southeast Asian iceberg that was the Vietnam War.

Now 72, Sullivan has endured a combative existence since he was drafted into the Army at 19 and returned from the war in 1969, whether fighting his own demons or those he views as "institutionalized hypocrisy."

To call him a scrappy Irishman would be apt, he admits. He crusades against those who bully, whether in the school yard, the probation office or a war zone amongst the U.S. military.

The beginning of a trilogy he has authored, "A Long Triage —Part One: Welcome to the War," was recently released.

Sullivan never intended to write a book, but the trilogy had its genesis decades after the war, as he responded to questions in weekly cognitive behavior therapy sessions. In following years, his missives took a new direction.

"The writing of the book became more like a James Joyce experience of free association streaming," Sullivan said.

"The psychiatrist at the VA (Veterans Administration) was reading my responses to the structured homework and he said, 'Mr. Sullivan, what you really should do is write your story,' " he recalled. "And that's what I've been doing exactly since that day in 2011, a year after my open heart surgery related to Agent Orange that sent me into a tailspin. This book is about my struggle with the long-term effects of the invisible wounds of war."

'Groundbreaking' book

As a teacher in Gloucester public schools for 16 years who later became an attorney, writing was something Sullivan was accustomed to doing. The effort to bring this book to life was sustained, in part, by his involvement with the Cape Ann Veterans Writing Workshop, a cooperative effort of Cape Ann Veterans Services and the Gloucester Writers Center, which began in 2013.

"This book is a groundbreaking and an important contribution to American literature," said Dorothy Shubow Nelson, facilitator of the veterans writing group. "Years ago, history was written mainly by the winners of war and the generals. The door has been opened during the last few decades to hear all the stories and slowly the military stories that have not yet been told are emerging."

Nelson, who has taught writing and literature as a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Boston and other colleges, noted that for many veterans, their trauma is not over when they return home.

Sullivan endured that pain through a suicidal episode in 1999. "They called it 'delayed reaction syndrome' before they called it PTSD," he said. 

Nelson, who has worked with UMass's Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, said this book can be an important part of healing.

"It's about the recognition that the physical, mental and emotional harm cause repercussions that can last a lifetime," she said. "Suicide among veterans is very real, and as a society we have to be conscious and aware. The more that books like this get published, the more encouraging it is to other veterans and alerts the rest of society to this reality." 

On another level, Nelson noted Sullivan's work is fresh and his reflections courageous.

"He talks about the class differences and marginalized groups within the military," she said. "I haven't heard these particular stories. He is speaking frankly with integrity and dignity and authenticity." 

After the war, disenchanted with the United States, Sullivan went to Australia, a period he explores in his writing. 

When he ran out of money, he returned to Cape Ann and finished college at Salem State. Then at 38, he entered law school. 

'The truth of your own self'

No matter his profession, Sullivan was plagued by psychological "triggers" that mined his mental wounds, often resulting in outbursts. Once, he suffered a flashback in the recovery room after heart surgery.

"That one was so bad I thought I was back in 'Nam. It was so vivid," he recalled. "There were many times I was as close as five feet to some explosions and likely unconscious with 80mm rocket-propelled grenades and 122mm rockets exploding right next to me, diving to the ground and having people land on top of you, and fragments raining down on you like a shower. I'm sure it is related. I think there are many kinds of incidents in my life that triggered my PTSD." 

"It's been a struggle to write and really get at the truth of your own self. I think you have ups and downs and you find out things about yourself that maybe you never really wanted to face. But in the end, you really do need to face yourself. I know how the book is going to end and I don't like what I have to admit about myself but I feel relieved that I have come to certain realizations."

The trilogy's second book is "Welcome Home," and ends with "Before the Draft," and there is an epilogue about his return to Vietnam 50 years after the war and its impact. He traveled with his wife of almost 50 years, Patti Nelson Sullivan, a Gloucester artist, his daughter and 14-year old grandson. Essentially, the entire trilogy is written, but the subsequent books to "A Long Triage," are in the rewrite phase. 

Sullivan said at the very least, he hopes his book will inspire others to pay attention to the fight against hypocrisy and bullyism.

Even though he was able to write a book, Sullivan understands how difficult the process is for countless others.

"I do not pretend to speak for all veterans, some do not want to talk about their war time experience, and I respect that choice," he said. "Hopefully, my choice to speak out will also be respected."

Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-675-2706, or at gmccarthy@gloucestertimes.com

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