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Clyde Sims wipes tears from his eyes as he recalls the time in Vietnam when his buddy lost his life during a surprise ambush.
“I won the bronze star and he died,” relates Sims. “The fact of the matter is that I was a young, scared guy that was under fire.”
Sims, a Grand Rapids native and peer support specialist from Touchstone Innovarre, believes it was his soldier’s experience during the Vietnam War that started his battle with mental illness and substance use disorders.
“The deep part is, some things happened in Vietnam that I ask, ‘Did that really happen?’ It was that bizarre in my mind. It was that traumatic,” says Sims.
A lot has happened since that time and Sims’ life has come full circle. Sims currently works for Touchstone Innovarre on their Street Reach team. The team is dedicated to assisting people that are dual diagnosed and homeless. They often work in shelters, missions, and under bridges. He was originally asked to join the Street Reach team because of his ability to relate to others that are going through similar experiences as his. Sims has been in recovery from both mental illness and substance use.
“That was 24 years ago and I haven’t had a drink or a drug and I haven’t been on psychotropic drugs since,” he says. “When I stopped drinking and drugging, I was able to handle the survivor’s guilt, the guilt and shame, and those voices that were coming in.”
Sims was born and raised in Grand Rapids, the second of nine children. He describes his upbringing as a “dream childhood” experience.
“I had both parents, was on the football team, number one in wrestling, started on the baseball team. The high school years were good. It was a good upbringing,” relates Sims.
Sims was briefly enrolled in college but soon found he wanted to pursue a life in the workforce. During that time, the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was growing and soon young men were drafted for the war. Sims was soon drafted himself.
“Being a competitive guy, I will say now in retrospect, I was kind of naïve about war and the ‘cons’ of going to war,” he says.
Sims believes the psychological and mental preparation to go to war eventually caused him great emotional damage.
“They trained us to be killers,” he relates. “We had to say things like, ‘I am a killer, sir! I am a killer, sir!’”
After preparation and training, Sims was put with a fighting unit and sent on his tour of duty to Vietnam.
“As soon as I got there, everybody was shaking their heads and saying, ‘Oh, so they tricked you too?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and one said, ‘Man, now that you’re here, we just want to you know that you’ve got to take care of yourself.’”
Sims was in Vietnam for about three months before he was wounded during the ambush that took his follow comrade’s life. He was a machine gun assistant and his buddy was the operator.
“My buddy got shot. He flipped over and almost shot me. Then I got shot in the leg and we were both laying out there for a lot of hours, crying for help.”
His buddy didn’t make it. Sims was eventually transported out of the conflict by helicopter.
“The guy grabbed me, cut bamboo to make a stretcher, and then ran two or three clicks (military jargon for kilometers) and got us back to where the helicopters could pick us up. Those were heroes. The guy I was with was a hero.”
Sims describes the “survivor’s guilt” he later experienced. He still feels that guilt, especially after recalling the time he was honored as a hero.
“Now, I accept the medal after years of hiding, but when you’re up in a hospital and here come some colonels and generals and people coming up to your bed and reading all this great stuff and putting a medal on you, you don’t say, ‘Hey, it didn’t happen like that.’”
After two years in hospitals, Sims began to feel the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“I didn’t know I had a mental or emotional problem. I didn’t get deprogrammed and they had not named PTSD at the time,” he says. “In 1971 or ’72, I had a nervous breakdown and ended up in Kent Oaks Hospital for the very first time. That’s when I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and later on with manic depression and the post traumatic stress.”
Sims recalls how his life became an experience of being on and off of meds. He also used and became addicted to substances like alcohol and illegal drugs and was unaware of the dangerous effects they could cause.
“I ended up having a bizarre incident with a guy,” he recalls. “On a day that I was tripped out – earlier he put a gun on me and we had had two or three arguments – but on the day it happened, I was hearing voices and really thought I was hearing from god.”
Sims was sentenced to prison for the incident and was to receive psychiatric treatment during his time there.
“I did almost seven years,” he says. “That’s no time for the crime, but that’s exactly what happened. No one talked to me about my mental health or emotional problems until about a year before I came out and it was just an interview. It wasn’t even with a real psychiatrist.”
After prison, Sims returned to a life of substance use and was frequently in and out of mental health treatment. He was later approached about participating in Michigan’s contribution to the traveling Vietnam memorial. Sims then realized he needed to face his survivor’s guilt and make amends to his fellow comrades that died in Vietnam.
“When it came time to bring that exhibit, they wanted to interview some vets. Guilt and shame came over me,” he recalls. “I had to get on my knees and tell my buddy and my friends ‘forgive me for not speaking out about exactly what happened.’”
Now, years later, Sims dedicates his life to help those in need and describes the motivation for his passion.
“I am very regretful of some of the things that my mental illness and substance abuse had me a part of in doing,” he says. “That’s why I have a passion for helping people with their mental health and substance abuse so we can make this a society where people won’t have to go through the things that I’ve gone through.”
Sims is now a dedicated part of the Street Reach team through Touchstone Innovarre. The Street Reach team is funded through a federal grant and has existed for approximately five years. At times they will meet in different locations, set-up coffee, and mingle with as many people as they can. Often, they will organize motivation groups that meet twice a week and can have as many as twenty-five people in attendance per meeting. As part of the Street Reach team, Sims assists with finding homes and shelter for people.
“One older European guy, he just got in a place three months ago. He’s just so happy, man,” beams Sims. “Putting people in homes and giving them real support. With our team we let them know, we’re with you, and we prove it because we go to their homes. We go wherever we have to go to find them.”
Recently, Sims was voted onto the network180 board of directors. He would like to see all people receive the services they need and wants to make sure the consumer’s voice is being heard.
“I’ve learned to work with the system,” he explains. “They are doing great work. I just want to see everybody get help because I’ve received so much help. I just want to make sure that we are remembering that. Another meeting, another statistic, the bottom line is people need tender loving care.”
Sims sees himself within a peer support movement; a movement that he considers a revolution.
“The peer support movement is about inclusion and network180 has proven that. Like, by hiring people like me, including us, not just by putting us on an advisory team, but including us.”
Sims hasn’t forgotten about the issues he has dealt with and the lives that have been affected along the way. He carries this as motivation and fully accepts responsibility for his past.
“My crimes happened right here in this city,” he says. “I preach. I do a lot of speaking but I never get up before people without them knowing that I ask the community to accept my apologies for any hurt I’ve brought to anyone.”
Sims is proud of his community and would like to see it reach its potential as a place where people can find wellness, trust, and support. As a peer support specialist, a network180 board member, and advocate, Sims shows no indication of slowing down.
“I always tell people, each one reach one, each one teach one. Each person has that power.”