Death of captain brings shock of war home to Seoul American H.S.
November 18, 2004
YONGSAN GARRISON — When a student at Seoul American High School last year mentioned she was having a hard time caring about the faraway war in Iraq, Michelle Pell decided to make it matter.
Pell, an English teacher, began putting a sign on her door each day to tally the fatalities from the fighting. The latest count was at least 1,186, according to Pell’s door.
But on Wednesday there was a second sign. Capt. Sean P. Sims, a 1990 Seoul American graduate, had died Saturday in Fallujah. Sims’ death marks the first time a Seoul high school graduate has died in the Iraq war, according to research done by current and former teachers.
“I’ve been waiting for this to hit since the war started,” Pell said while sitting in her empty classroom Wednesday afternoon. “It just makes me sick. We’ve got so many students who are there [in Iraq], who are on their way over there. It’s like we’re sitting on the ledge. It’s hard.”
Sims, 32, was a company commander assigned to the 1st Infantry Division in Vilseck, Germany, before going to Iraq in February. His wife, Heidi Sims, taught sixth grade at Vilseck Elementary School. They have a son, Colin Patrick, who is less than a year old. Both of their families live near El Paso, Texas.
The news of Sims’ death spread through the school’s extended community Wednesday with e-mails that crossed oceans and conversations that crossed hallways.
Michael O’Brien, a retired teacher now living in Hawaii, started an e-mail chain about Sims that reached former teachers and friends around the world. Within a few days, he had 40 to 50 e-mails.
“This was really a kind person, a gentle soul,” O’Brien said in a phone interview about the teen who once ran cross country with O’Brien’s son. “Everyone who went to school with him remembers him, even if some of them didn’t know him that well. The president of his class called me this morning and we talked. She cried the whole time.”
By early Wednesday morning, the e-mail reached Denny Hilgar, the volleyball coach at Seoul American who remembered Sims and his younger brother, Thomas. An announcement was made throughout the school; by lunch, librarian Charles Woodruff had made a memorial with Sims’ senior portrait, an American flag and a poinsettia.
As lunch ended, students were talking about Sims’ death and about how young they were in 1990. Most teens in this year’s senior class would have been 3.
But looking at Sims’ senior yearbook, the difference in their ages seemed to slip away. Sims played tennis and soccer. He was on the student council and was voted “prom prince” his senior year, when the party floated on a boat in the Han River and the theme was “Moon River.” There’s a picture of him and a friend wearing glitter-covered sashes and crowns. He’s laughing.
“Most gasp when they hear,” Woodruff said of students who were curious about the memorial. “It hits close to home. Once you’re a SAHS student, you’re part of the family.”
Sims’s brother, Thomas, called his sibling a loving patriot and a proud father.
“Sean loved his country and the ideals it stands for,” Thomas Sims wrote in an e-mail Wednesday to Stars and Stripes. “Although my family will miss him dearly, we are very proud that he gave his life in service of those ideals.”
Sean Sims died while looking for insurgents hiding in Fallujah. In the hours before Sims’ death, he and his company were suffering through the loss of their executive officer, a 28-year-old lieutenant who’d been shot and killed late last week.
“It’s tough,” Sims told a Knight Ridder reporter about the younger officer’s death. The reporter was with the company the night Sims died. “I don’t know what to think about it yet,” Sims told the reporter about the lieutenant’s death. “All of this will be forever tainted because we lost him.”
The news report became a part of the e-mail chain O’Brien sent around. The story described Sims as a quiet commander who never got frustrated when equipment broke down. He made sure his wife, Heidi, sent care packages to a 22-year-old soldier under his command who didn’t seem to get any mail from home.
When Sims was found shot on a kitchen floor in Fallujah on Saturday night, the company’s Iraqi translator had to be held back while he collapsed in tears.
In Seoul, the teachers and students had a shocking grief of their own.
“It’s kind of tough to deal with,” said Hilgar, a coach at the Seoul high school. “I’m sure everyone in the U.S. has their own story. This finally hits home here.”
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Sean Patrick Sims Sul Ross Memorial Scholarship Fund. Send to Texas A&M Foundation, 401 George Bush Drive. College Station, TX 77840.