Casualties of war

With one son already dead from a shooting in Oak Park, this local mom won’t feel right until her other son returns safely home from Iraq

Amelia Albano’s son Santino Sims (pictured in wooden frame) is serving a second tour of duty in Iraq. “It’s almost like having a kid who has cancer or something,” she said. “You don’t know if they’re going to make it or not.” Albano’s other son, Sergio (in the photo she’s holding), was killed in a local drive-by shooting.

Amelia Albano’s son Santino Sims (pictured in wooden frame) is serving a second tour of duty in Iraq. “It’s almost like having a kid who has cancer or something,” she said. “You don’t know if they’re going to make it or not.” Albano’s other son, Sergio (in the photo she’s holding), was killed in a local drive-by shooting.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Amelia Albano avoids reading the newspaper and watching the TV news because evading the daily news keeps her from hearing the soldier-casualty counts from the war in Iraq, where her son Santino Sims is serving his second tour of duty. Her self-imposed news blackout began about three years ago, after her son shipped out with the Army infantry to Iraq on his first tour. At first, the North Highlands resident felt obligated to watch the news every day to keep abreast of the latest developments in the war.

“I thought, ‘Well, I should watch CNN every night, right?’ So, like an idiot, I’m watching it every night because I felt like I should—my kid’s over there in Tikrit,” she said. But a particular CNN news report traumatized her so badly that watching or reading news about the war became unbearable from then on.

About a week before the story aired, she had spoken with her son by phone. In that conversation, Sims told her about his day-to-day life patrolling the dangerous streets of Tikrit, and he expressed concern that his four-man unit had just been reduced to a three-man unit, putting additional stress on the small band of brothers. But he told his mom not to worry about him.

Several days later, Albano, 56, was dutifully watching the news on CNN before she went to bed when it reported that a three-man patrol unit in Tikrit had been killed in the fighting. She remembers that the story featured green-tinted night-vision footage of the three unnamed American bodies being loaded onto a truck. “I thought for sure it was him,” she said. The fear of losing her son was especially agonizing because 11 years ago, Sims’ younger brother, Sergio, was a bystander victim of a drive-by shooting in Oak Park. Sergio was 17 years old when he died from a bullet that entered his forehead, and the murder remains unsolved.

“You know how your mind takes off,” explained Albano.

“I thought about when Sergio died, and I thought I was going to go through it again. I really kind of lost it.” The next morning she tried desperately not to think about the CNN report and forced herself to go to work. But before she got there, she stopped for coffee at a Starbucks and picked up a newspaper that she didn’t initially realize had an article about the three dead soldiers. But then she saw the story. “I had to go to my car. I was sick,” she said. “I went back home. I couldn’t even make it to work.” Needless to say, she was relieved when her son called several days later to check in and let her know he was all right.

She has avoided the news ever since.

“I have to stay away from it and just try to be positive and go to work every day, or I’ll be a basket case,” she said. “It’s a day-to-day thing, almost like having a kid who has cancer or something. You don’t know if they’re going to make it or not.”

In 1995, Sims graduated from Valley High School, where his mom said he was a good student who stayed out of trouble. He was a senior when his little brother was killed, and the tragedy impacted him deeply. “He was devastated; they were almost like twins,” she said. “It was pretty bad for all of us, and I don’t know how he kept going.” About two years after high school and after bouncing around several jobs, trying to decide what he wanted to do in life, Sims enlisted in the Army. “These kids get out of high school, and they really don’t know what to do with themselves, so they join the Army,” Albano explained. “He didn’t join to save the country or anything.” Her son was assigned to the infantry and did a stint in Korea but spent most of his service time in Fort Hood, Texas, where he fell in love and got married. He was honorably discharged in 2000.

Sims quickly learned, however, that the infantryman skills he was taught by the military weren’t in high demand in the civilian employment market. Without real-world job skills, and with a new family to support, the re-enlistment financial incentives and job security offered by the Army after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center prompted Sims to rejoin the service. He hoped that he would qualify for a non-combat role in the war with Iraq, but the Army had other plans. “He’s in infantry, and if you’re in infantry, you’re going [into combat],” Albano said. “It goes with the territory.” Sims began a one-year tour of duty in Iraq in 2003 and came home for a year. He is now back in Iraq and will finish his second tour on the front lines in December.

Albano said that at the beginning of his first trip to Iraq, her son was upbeat. “Reality hadn’t kicked in yet, and he had some positive things to say about the children. I’ve got pictures of him holding babies,” she said. Albano said Sims had a special affection toward the children of Iraq because he has two young sons and quickly saw that the war was hardest on the civilian women and children. But as time passed, and the insurgency grew, even they became hostile to American soldiers. “They would drive on patrol, and the kids would throw rocks at them. One hit him in the helmet one time, and the women with the veils over their faces flip you off,” Albano said. “And his attitude changed. He started seeing the real deal. He said it was a mess over there.” And although she avoids the news, she still gets updates via e-mail from her son that would be hard to characterize as entirely reassuring. They usually leave her with a sense of foreboding, and pride.

In a June e-mail, Sims was hopeful at the realization that he only had a few months to go before he would get to return to his family for a year or so. But he wrote that staying alive for a few more months might be easier said than done, and he described an encounter with an Iraqi family he had while on patrol:

“Each mission I go on I just focus on making it back in one piece. I always think of where and when we could get ambushed and stay ready to shoot if needed. Got to be on your toes literally or else your dead, plain and simple. … I am always nice to the women and the kids because I know they are scared when we come around…We went to question these people at a house once and they asked us to look at their baby. I said I would do it … they were very poor. It was a little baby girl, they said what her symptoms were and I told them she was dehydrated … I had them give her some stuff like Pedialyte in a bottle [and] I was right, she drank at least four bottles of it. Told them to give her a little formula after about 30 minutes. Felt good to help them out.”