Grief for a suffering soldier killed in a standoff with Kansas City police

07/02/2014 6:53 PM

07/02/2014 10:34 PM

More stars and stripes are displayed along the street where Staff Sgt. Issac Sims died than possibly any other in the metro area this Fourth of July.

They aren’t in anticipation of fireworks. The flags are for respect. A soldier suffered and died in a seemingly preventable incident — police were pretty much forced to shoot him dead after he had fired guns in and near his parents’ home before holing up inside.

The Memorial Day weekend shooting followed repeated efforts to get the 26-year-old Sims treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at the Kansas City VA Medical Center less than 2 miles away. That’s why the Sims family lives on this short, sidewalk-less street, tucked away on Kansas City’s East Side. The home was chosen so that Sims’ father — a Vietnam veteran with his own multiple health problems — could get treatment nearby.

The couple never dreamed it would be their son who would desperately need help. And not receive it.

“There are so many gaps that exist between our court, mental health, all the services that veterans need,” said Judge Ardie Bland. “We just couldn’t get him locked into services.”

Bland, as the veterans court judge within Municipal Court, had ordered the PTSD treatment for Sims in exchange for a guilty plea on a domestic assault charge.

Wednesday afternoon, Bland held a memorial for Sims in his courtroom.

“You are never out there alone,” Bland told the dozen veterans gathered there. “If you need help, come to the courthouse.”

Court assistants handed every veteran present a green dog tag to keep close. On one side is the Veterans Crisis Line number. On the other, a number for the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans.

Bland offered condolences to Sims’ parents, who attended, along with two neighbors.

Without a full evaluation, it’s difficult to distinguish what was PTSD from Sims’ two tours of duty in Iraq and what was simply a life falling apart.

His marriage to a woman he had met in Thailand was unraveling. Migraines kept Sims from sleeping. He was eating military rations and dressing in fatigues. The morning of the shooting, he had taken his father’s Hummer, jumping hills and driving erratically in a field. Searching for improvised explosive devices, his mother thinks.

His wife, who was in a domestic violence shelter at the time of the shooting, says he would act out violently and then not remember what had happened. She says his symptoms began to escalate last fall.

Sims went repeatedly to the VA, according to family.

He went alone, then with a friend, then with family members. The last word the family heard was 30 days. Maybe. Maybe a bed would be available. No promises.

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday again offered condolences to the family. The case is still under investigation, so the VA said it can’t comment further. The surging concerns over manufactured wait times at VA centers nationally and the mounting evidence of the agency’s bureaucratic breakdowns are filling the news. Whether any of those problems affected Sims’ delays receiving treatment is unknown.

Police have ended their investigation of the case but suggest that if the family still has questions, it could contact the department’s victim advocate.

So now, more than 30 days after Sims’ death, the facts of his death have turned into a state of surreal suspension for his grieving family.

“I don’t know what I was expecting,” his mother, Patricia Sims, said this week. “Something.”

Her husband, during the ceremony at Bland’s courtroom, summed up his feelings with one word, then tried to elaborate.

“Remorse,” Adrian Sims said. “I thought it would get better. He was my only blood son.”

Widow’s dilemma

Days passed before Sompong Sims found out police had shot her husband dead.

Another woman in the domestic violence shelter where Sims is living pieced the story together from newscasts. The couple met when he had an Army leave for vacation and visited her homeland of Thailand.

After Issac Sims’ death, protection orders complicated the situation. Legally, some family members couldn’t contact others. And there is little communication anyway.

Sompong Sims tried to view her husband’s body at the funeral home, clutching her Thailand marriage certificate for proof of her connection. She says she was turned away.

Issac Sims was cremated and buried at Leavenworth National Cemetery. She keeps a portion of his ashes in a tiny urn. It is among her few possessions of their nearly six-year marriage. She keeps the few photos she has of their life together on a flashdrive.

She would like to stay in the United States, rebuild her life here. Good Samaritans are trying to help her, finding out how she can file for widow’s benefits through veterans programs. Until recently, she had no identification. Her passport, her immigration card, virtually all the original documents are gone.

Her husband destroyed some of them, she says, during his fits. Like his parents, the widow questions why police had to shoot to kill that day.

Pieces of blame are scattered for his mother.

She blames the VA most for its delays in finding her son treatment.

She blames police and struggles to understand why they had to kill her son. She knows part of the answer. Her son was a trained sniper and could have easily shot police, a family member or a neighbor that day.

She blames herself and her husband for not locking the guns in a cabinet. Bullets were kept across the street, in the other property the family owned where Issac Sims lived for a time with his wife. But the handgun and rifle her son scared everyone with that day, they were readily accessible on the gun racks in the living room.

And she blames Sims for the bad choices he made that Sunday.

But even before Sims was released from service in April 2013, she had inquired at the VA about PTSD. She wondered if there was a program, something for family members to learn about the condition, just in case her son had problems. Even then, she suspected that he might. She never learned of any such program. Records provided by a family member show the VA connected both Sims’ PTSD and migraines at least partially to his six years in the service.

A longtime family friend has started a campaign for what she calls Issac’s Law, a decree that no soldier will be denied needed treatment.

Father and mother are still appalled at the mess left after the shooting. Bullet holes in the ceiling, a broken fence and a twisted trailer hitch from the police vehicles. Laundry is being done at a friend’s house. She can’t bear to go to the back of the house, where her son fell, to reach the washing machine.

“Our whole house is Issac.”

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to msanchez@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter at msanchezcolumn.

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