Part one of a four-part series
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The tattered brown house on Lawndale Avenue bears the scars of a distant war that Issac Sims survived until he returned home. Slivers of glass from broken windows lie beneath walls pocked with bullet holes. In a corner of the garage, a faint stain on the concrete floor has turned the color of rust, time darkening the blood that emptied from his body.
Sims was killed here May 25, Memorial Day weekend, a year after his discharge from the Army and thousands of miles from Iraq. He endured two tours there only to die at age 26 in his parents’ home on Kansas City’s decaying east side. The fatal shots were fired not by insurgents but by police. The distinction may have eluded his damaged mind.
During his second tour in 2010, Sims sustained a mild traumatic brain injury while riding in an armored vehicle that struck a roadside bomb. The former sergeant moved back to Kansas City from his unit’s base in Alaska in April last year, and struggling with migraines, insomnia, anxiety and depression, he visited the city’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center. His symptoms suggested post-traumatic stress disorder.
His erratic behavior made clear to Patricia and Shawn Sims that their son had left the war without the war leaving him. He swerved through traffic when driving to avoid bombs that he imagined were buried in the road. Walking the tree line near their property, he searched for enemy fighting positions and threw punches at phantom militants. He sometimes rushed into the house and announced, “You know I just saved your lives, don’t you?”
“He thought he was back in Iraq,” Patricia said, sitting in the couple’s living room, where dozens of photos on the walls and shelves trace her son’s life from newborn to soldier. A triangular wood case holds the folded American flag she received at his funeral. “It was hard to understand who he was. He wasn’t Issac.”
Sims pleaded guilty to domestic assault on April 30 this year after an altercation with his estranged wife. A municipal court judge ordered him to enter a VA treatment program as part of his probation.
He sought to enroll multiple times in his final weeks. His last attempt was May 23. An intake worker told him a bed might be available in 30 days.
Forty-eight hours later, he was dead.
Upset after arguing with his father that Sunday morning, Sims fired five or six rounds from an AK-47 outside the house. Shawn called 911 and asked that police take his son to the VA. Officers claimed they heard shots from inside the home after arriving. They cleared residents from the area and surrounded the property.
Efforts to persuade Sims to surrender ended when the former soldier, standing in the garage’s back doorway, pointed the rifle at members of the police tactical team. One or more of them opened fire.
A constant shadow
The circumstances leading to that moment raise a pair of related concerns about the treatment of veterans with PTSD. Sims’ futile attempts to gain access to VA care mirror the experience of former servicemembers across the country, while the standoff parallels a series of shootings between police and veterans in recent years.
Demand for mental health care from the VA has surged as an estimated 20 to 30 percent of the 2.6 million troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. Delays in treatment may explain, in part, why their arrest rate more than doubles that of other veterans of the two wars.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina and the VA found in a 2012 study that, among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with PTSD and “high irritability,” 23 percent had committed crimes. The figure fell to 9 percent for those without combat trauma.
A follow-up study published earlier this year showed that 36 percent of veterans with PTSD and alcohol problems had engaged in an act of “severe violence” in the previous year, compared with 5 percent of those without the conditions.
Most former servicemembers plagued by mental trauma do not commit crimes, and only a small fraction of encounters between law enforcement and troubled veterans turn violent. But Sims’ death and similar confrontations, some in which officers have been shot, expose how delays in VA care increase the potential for risk and magnify the need for specialized police training to handle veterans in crisis.
“When we help vets sooner, we don’t put police in these situations where they don’t know what’s going on inside the vet’s head,” Ardie Bland said. The municipal judge, who runs Kansas City’s veterans treatment court, sent Sims to the VA for counseling. “Was he in the middle of a flashback that day? Maybe he wasn’t seeing police officers. Maybe he was seeing Iraqis.”
In a broad sense, his unraveling lays bare the difficulty of deciphering the most extreme, self-destructive actions of veterans with combat trauma and provokes questions about the line between individual responsibility and the nation’s obligation to its returning troops.
More intimately, for Patricia and Shawn, his absence is a constant shadow. The couple has retained an attorney as they consider filing a wrongful-death lawsuit. They believe that, after war stole his mind, a federal agency sentenced him to die and the local police executed him.
“We were begging the VA, ‘Please just get Issac into treatment,’ ” Patricia said. “They didn’t, and then he was slaughtered by the cops. Is that how we honor the soldiers who defend our country?”
‘I’m never leaving’
A photo of Issac Sims on the day of his basic-training graduation shows him wearing his green service uniform and holding up his hands in mock surrender. He is 19, a young man, but in that moment he looks a decade younger, blue eyes shining with a boy’s glee above a Christmas morning smile.
Patricia and Shawn traveled to Georgia for the ceremony at Fort Benning. It was summer 2007, and in the weeks since their son finished high school, his body and mind had awakened. His lean, 5-foot-3 frame had begun to thicken with muscle. His imagination bloomed with the possibilities of his future. He reveled in his new identity.
“This is my tribe — I’m one of them,” he told his parents. “I’m never leaving.”
The Army pulled him away from Kansas City yet provided the stability and sense of belonging he craved. Issac and his younger sister, Shawnda, had spent their earliest years growing up in campgrounds and trailer courts from New Mexico and Texas to Missouri and Maine.
Patricia reared them as Shawn chased electrician jobs. Issac, shy and curious, bonded closely with her, a constant in his life amid the blur of towns and schools and classmates. She recalled watching a Fourth of July fireworks display while floating on an air mattress with the kids on a lake outside Dallas. “That sounds like the biggest Jeff Foxworthy joke in the world,” she said, laughing. “But we had fun.”
Around the time the children reached middle school, Patricia insisted that the family stop roaming, and they moved into the house on Lawndale Avenue. By his mid-teens, Issac, bored with school, preferred talking with military recruiters to listening to teachers at Lincoln College Prep. He wanted to emulate his father’s Army career.
Shawn volunteered during the Vietnam War and served as an infantryman and helicopter gunner for most of three years. Framed citations for his two Bronze Stars and four Purple Hearts hang in the living room. The certificates omit mention of his hearing and vision loss caused by a grenade blast, the bullet wound in his foot that left him with a limp, the lingering post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When I got out of the war, I went a year and didn’t talk to anybody,” Shawn said. At 65, he is thin and weathered, and more than four decades after his final flight out of Vietnam, nightmares carry him back. “I still don’t trust people.”
Even so, he supported Issac’s decision to enlist, and attending his son’s graduation from boot camp roused happier memories of military camaraderie and kinship. “When he got in the Army, it kind of helped Shawn,” Patricia said. She is 54, with the bright smile she passed on to her son, a smile that dims in brown eyes ringed with grief. “He reminded his dad of some of the good things.”
Lost to himself
Sims deployed to Iraq in January 2008 as a gunner with the 82nd Airborne Division and returned for a second tour late the next year. Superiors lauded him as an exemplary soldier; peers valued his good cheer. Across the miles, he kept in touch with his family through emails, Facebook chats and occasional phone calls.
In December 2009, Sims sent them a holiday video greeting from a base in Ramadi, 80 miles west of Baghdad. At one point, he stumbled over his words, and in his sheepish smile Patricia and Shawn glimpsed a reassuring innocence. He appeared whole.
Some weeks later, they noticed a change. Their son’s emails were shorter. He shared less on the phone. They guessed he was fatigued; he promised them nothing was wrong.
The couple learned the truth only after his tour ended in summer 2010. A bomb had exploded beneath the armored truck in which Sims had been riding as his platoon’s convoy rolled through a village outside Ramadi. He suffered a concussion and ruptured eardrum that forced him out of the patrol rotation for several days.
He denied there were lasting effects. Patricia doubted him. She saw in his eyes what she had perceived from afar. “Issac wasn’t so happy-go-lucky anymore,” she said. “It was like he’d aged a bunch of years in a few months.”
His traumatic brain injury preceded a string of setbacks over the next three years that culminated in his discharge from the Army.
The most damaging incident to his career occurred after he transferred to the 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson in Alaska. Shortly before his unit deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, Sims received a drunken-driving citation on base and scuffled with a military policeman. His commanders ordered him to stay behind. “That crushed him,” Patricia said. “He was in disbelief.”
His personal problems festered. Sims had met and impulsively wed a Cambodian woman a decade his elder while on leave in Thailand in 2009, and the couple seldom knew peace. In fall 2012, three men attacked him outside a bar, apparently after an earlier argument, and beat him unconscious.
His job performance declined. In April last year, nudged by superiors, he mustered out to avert a dishonorable discharge.
Sims and his wife moved into a two-story house that his parents had bought across the street from their own. He came back to Kansas City six years after he enlisted, stripped of his Army dreams and the order of military life. He had left behind his closest friends and guiding purpose. He was lost to himself.
Part two of this series: Reeling from PTSD, Issac Sims tries unsuccessfully to get help from the VA.