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By JOSHUA COFFMAN
FORT KNOX — If Mike Sullivan’s eyes are open, he’s on the range.
Overseeing 101,000 acres of firing ranges, tank courses and untouched wildland, the former soldier and Fort Knox employee often arrives to work as early as 4 a.m. and sometimes does not leave until midnight, after the final training exercises are conducted.
For two years in a row, Sullivan and his staff have been recognized by the Army, last year winning the Sustainable Range Program’s Installation of the Year and this year he won the individual award.
It marks the first time either award has been given to staff at Fort Knox. Sullivan will be honored by the Army this week in San Antonio, Texas.
The man who eats, sleeps and dreams Army training hangs much of the credit on his staff. But those staff members commend his unique leadership.
“There is nobody who loves what they do, and loves soldiers, more than Mike Sullivan,” said Stuart Holder, who manages the state-of-the-art Wilcox Range. “You always know he supports you. There’s never a question, never a doubt.”
Around noon Tuesday, Sullivan received a call of some old munitions found on the construction site of the future Human Resources Command Center of Excellence.
He rushed to the area in a four-wheel drive truck, bouncing over gravel trails and dirt hills. Meeting with staff on the ground, they decide to establish a 100-foot perimeter and call in an Army explosives unit from Fort Campbell.
It marked the second time that encased shells have been found on the site. The first time, the shells were ruled to be non-threatening — and Sullivan and others expect that to be the case this time, too, merely generations-old, sand-filled dummy bombs. But they chose not to take any chances.
Sullivan said his line of work brings a lot of pressure and stress. He oversees the use of 63 live-fire courses and 18 tank maneuver areas used by 1.3 million troops annually.
“We joke a lot,” he remarked on dealing with the high stakes. However, he said he has never thought about taking a sick day, though the range is open every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Part of what the Army has recognized the range for is in how it has morphed for its changing duties while adding little in cost.
At Donnelly Range, originally built so tank drivers and gunners could learn how to move and shoot, three-dimensional buildings have been set up that can be entered and cleared, simulating an urban environment like often encountered in Iraq.
Such a training course built from scratch would cost $2.3 million. Sullivan and his crew made the transformation for $411,000.
Sullivan worked as a soldier and civilian in designing and implementing the Zussman Urban Warfare Training Complex, a life-like course at Fort Knox.
Such facilities have made the grounds a prime commodity for the military. About 40 percent of the range’s clients come from outside Fort Knox, including Navy Seals and Army Rangers.
A multi-post simulation known as Fort Kentucky involves other installations, including Fort Campbell, in which Fort Knox serves as Baghdad because of its central proximity.
Airborne soldiers can fuel up, fly in and perform a mission without touching the ground from the same distances they would in Iraq.
“We’ve done something that years and years of pulling the trigger won’t do,” Sullivan said.
In his job, the range chief also must plan for the future role of the grounds.
Whereas it now is used as a training course by the Armor School, the incoming infantry brigade combat team will use it to conduct mock warfare.
Sullivan and his staff must accommodate these different uses of the same land in a seamless fashion. It is for this reason that the range has received back-to-back awards.
“Something that is unheard of,” he said.
Lt. Col. Lanier Ward, commander of the 2nd squadron, 16th Cavalry Regiment, is a frequent client of the range. He said many outgoing commanders mention Sullivan by name in their outgoing ceremonies, somewhat of a rarity for a civilian worker.
He said he admires the range chief for being stubborn not only to commanders, as Sullivan’s load also includes booking the busy ranges and tank courses, but to finding a way to make something work out.
“It’s so much easier to just say no,” Ward said. “It’s a lot harder to work with folks and help them meet their expectations.”
Sullivan said his reward comes from the end result of knowing a soldier has trained successfully.
“I don’t produce a product; I produce an environment,” Sullivan said.
He described the job’s reward: “If a soldier can go into combat and come home to their family and say, “I did a good job.’ … (That) some of these soldiers trained on our turf and made the round trip.”
Joshua Coffman can be reached at (270) 505-1740.