From Vietnam War veteran to playwright: The inspiring story of Mike Sulsona

At 17 years old, Mike Sulsona's eyes turned toward the U.S. Marine Corps.

"I went down and I joined. My mother had to sign," he recalled. 

By the age of 18, Mike Sulsona was a Marine.

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"They had a brotherhood. You could tell. Definitely see there's a difference in it. So that attracted me to it," Mike said. 

Several months later, his life would change in ways he never could have imagined. He was headed to Vietnam. There were already signs, even to this teenager, that the military's mission was disorganized and chaotic.

"When I get on the plane, they give us new weapons. M-16's. We didn't know what they were like," he continued. 

Mike said that he hadn't trained and got the weapons that night. 

"A couple of days later, you know, I was out in the field." 

The firefight

Seven months into his tour, Mike was on patrol with his unit when they came under enemy fire.  

During the firefight, he was blown into the air.

"I stepped on a land mine. I went like 20-something feet in the air, flipped around, landed on my back," Mike said. 

"They called a medevac. Chopper came in. The first chopper came in under fire. They got rocketed. They took off.

"Second one comes, lands. It gets rocketed. It takes off. A third chopper comes in. The door in the back comes down.  This time a team runs out with this medic. They picked me up under fire. They bring me in, you know, through, and the chopper takes off."

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Mike's injuries were grave – his legs so badly mangled that a chaplain read him his last rites. 

At just 19 years old, this U.S. Marine faced the unimaginable. His legs had to be amputated. Mike spent about a year in the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia.

FOX 5 NY's Linda Schmidt asked Mike how he adjusted after the hospital.

"I don't know. I just. You know, I think part of it was being, being a Marine and part of it was, 'Yeah, well, I'm alive. So, I'm ahead of the game,'" Mike replied. 

Facing challenges

Sgt. Mike Sulsona was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, but there were even more challenges ahead that he did not expect.

Like many Vietnam veterans, Mike did not get a warm welcome home from fellow Americans after serving in the unpopular war. 

He was living in downtown Brooklyn in a three-story walkup.

"God bless my brother, Frankie.  He used to carry me up three flights of stairs.  Every time I came home, he pulled me on his back and he would take me upstairs.  Three flights," Mike remembered. 

Despite Mike's struggle, he says his neighbors did not offer to help. Instead, they were aggravated at him for parking his car at a fire hydrant, the only open spot close to his home.  

"If I can get on a bus, if I can get on a train, if I had enough money to take a cab, I would do it. I don't want this car, you know, but I needed it. It's like a wheelchair," Mike said.

Heading to Hollywood

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This tough kid from Brooklyn was determined to live a meaningful, productive life.

In the years that followed, he realized he had a talent for writing and graduated with honors with a Master of Fine Arts degree. 

He has written 23 plays, 35 productions and 15 screenplays and has won several awards, including an honor from the Kennedy Center for playwriting.

In the 1970's, he joined a theater company organized by Vietnam vets.

He was featured in a news report on Channel 5 at the time talking about consulting he had done for the Broadway play "Fifth of July."  It starred actor Christopher Reeve as a Vietnam vet. The show also involved a double amputee and Mike had to show him how to walk.

Then came Hollywood. Mike was in the 1989 hit movie "Born on the Fourth of July" directed Oliver Stone and starring actor Tom Cruise. 

The movie details the horrors of the war and the struggles vets faced. 

"After years, I've realized how important that movie was," Mike offered.

Fourth of July

Many years later, the Fourth of July played another major role in Mike's life.

A few days before July 4, 2019, Mike and his wife, Frieda, were gifted a smart home from the Tunnel to Towers Foundation. He was the first Vietnam vet to receive one of the foundation's mortgage-free homes.

And not just his life. As a mentor and service officer, Mike welcomes fellow vets into his home who are struggling and need help.

"I put my name on the dotted line, you know, to be our brother's keeper."

It has been quite a journey, but through it all, this 71-year-old proud Marine did not lose hope. His motto: Never turn your back on someone in need.