On Christmas Day 1965, as folks back home celebrated the holiday with friends and family, a bullet tore through the thigh of Waco native Marine Sgt. Louis S. Sims Sr. during heavy fighting in the Vietnamese city of Chu Lai. He was in command of 35 men at the time, and they helped whisk him away to treatment aboard a helicopter.
Two years later, Sims left the Marines, but not before receiving a Purple Heart, a Combat Action Ribbon, a National Defense Service Medal and a Vietnam Campaign Medal.
“He was my Marine,” said Shirley Sims, Louis’ wife.
She said she thinks about her late husband every day, not just on holidays.
Louis Sims died in October of last year at the age of 73, having suffered from the effects of Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress disorder in the years after his discharge.
“He had multiple health problems before he passed,” Shirley Sims said. “He had been a big man, but he was down to 80 or 90 pounds when hospice came to our home.”
Shirley Sims said meeting the man who would become her husband for more than 40 years was an answer to prayer, one she whispered as she walked to work at the Plantation Foods plant near Gholson Road and Lake Shore Drive that now carries the Cargill name. She noticed Louis, also an employee at the time, and they married two months later.
“God blessed me, and I won him,” said Shirley Sims, 73, a spiritual person who said a higher power guides her path. “I told him many times, ‘God saved you for me.’ ”
She said life with her Marine presented blessings and challenges. She knew he struggled with images and emotions rooted in his time in Vietnam. He seldom talked about war, at least with her, but when he did, he would mention the sound of bullets peppering the ground around him and his men.
“It would bother him. He would hang his head,” Shirley Sims said. “We didn’t know for a long time he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Even with the nightmares of war tugging at his emotions, disturbing his sleep and his sense of well-being, the graduate of Waco’s segregated Moore High School managed to put in more than 30 years at Plantation Foods. He also worked short stints for the city of Waco and a local meat company, Shirley Sims said.
Louis Sims’ mood started to improve with visits to the Veterans Affairs hospital, but he could not overcome the physical problems that plagued his later years.
“He once asked me, ‘Are you going to put me in a nursing home?’ ” Shirley Sims said. “I said, ‘No way, baby.’ I just told the doctors to tell me what to do for him and I did it.”
She said hospice helped her care for her husband shortly before he died, while she continued to pray for him and share Bible verses.
One of her favorites is John 15:13: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
She said she believes that verse applies to her husband and his display of courage on Christmas Day more than 50 years ago.
Louis Sims Jr., 42, said his father served as the backbone of the family despite his battles with PTSD and physical challenges.
“He was the man,” Louis Sims Jr. said. “He made sure everyone was doing what they were supposed to do, held everybody accountable, the girls and me. He could be stern like a commander, but he also was soft-spoken and he could get on your level.”
The girls Sims referenced are Gianna Gordon and Tara Cooper, daughters of Shirley Sims who Louis Sims Sr. helped raise as his own.
Louis Sims Jr. said his father talked more freely with him about the war than he did others in the family, and he often described scenes beyond belief.
“It was a brutal war, day in and day out,” he said.
His father told him of daily firefights and the use of booby traps in the jungles of Vietnam to kill or maim troops.
Even when men sought relaxation and night life in larger cities, they risked having ground glass or animal feces placed in their drinks, Louis Sims Jr. said.
He said his father returned to America fearful of public places and alarmed by the chilly reception he and other Vietnam vets received.
“The last time we went to the Heart O’ Texas Fair, I was 8 years old,” Louis Sims Jr. said. “My father could not stand to have anyone walking behind him. He said it was almost like being back at war. Going to a restaurant was out of the question. He did not like the crowds, and he knew what could be done in kitchens.”
He said his father would describe the jungles of Vietnam as being so black that the darkness rested on men’s shoulders like blankets.
Maybe surprisingly, his father enjoyed watching war movies on television in the comfort, and safety, of his home, Louis Sims Jr. said.
On Christmas Day, the Sims family likely will visit the grave of Louis Sims Sr. in Oakwood Cemetery, as they do on most special occasions.
Shirley Sims will think about her Marine, how handsome he looked in his uniform and the sacrifices he made for others, she said.
She might repeat what she said when her husband was laid to rest last year: “It was an honor what he did: laid down his life for his country. It made him stronger. I would like to salute all veterans and thank them for the courage to fight for this country. I pray for them all. God bless you all.”