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Bush helps dedicate new veterans home

The state's nursing facility for military veterans in the Panhandle joins five others around the state.

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 22, 2003

SPRINGFIELD - A new state nursing home for military veterans was dedicated Thursday in honor of a soldier, once a homeless black child in the segregated South, who died heroically in combat.

Gov. Jeb Bush recalled at the ceremony how Army Staff Sgt. Clifford Chester Sims threw himself on a hand grenade to save the lives of other troops in Vietnam.

"This is a tribute to a man who symbolizes courage and honor and duty in a way that is truly heroic," Bush said in front of the $11-million, 120-bed nursing home. "We will continue his legacy of protecting our soldiers."

The Clifford Sims State Veterans' Nursing Home in this Florida Panhandle town just outside Panama City is one of six such facilities in the state. Others are in Port Charlotte, Tampa, Pembroke Pines, Daytona Beach and Land O'Lakes.

Sims, who grew up in Port St. Joe, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest decoration for valor. He was 25 when killed on Feb. 21, 1968, near Hue as the 101st Airborne Division battled the North Vietnamese army in combat.

Those at the ceremony included retired Maj. Cleo Hogan, of Park City, Ky., who said he and at least six other soldiers owed their lives to Sims.

"Hand grenades were coming left and right," Hogan recalled in an interview. "Rifle shots were everywhere."

Sims led a 12-man squad sent to aid Hogan's besieged company. Hogan said he was 6 feet from Sims when an enemy soldier popped up from a bunker and tossed a grenade. "Sims yelled "Get back, get back!' and jumped on top of it," Hogan said.

Sims' widow, Mary Sims Parker, of Hopkinsville, Ky., said after the ceremony that he had told her he never knew his father, and his mother was killed after hitching a ride on a gasoline tanker that exploded in a traffic accident.

His stepfather was killed in the Korean War and Sims, then Clifford Pittman, became an orphan at 3 or 4, Parker said.

Relatives took him in for a time but he later became homeless. He made his way to Panama City where he lived in the woods in an old school bus.

At 13 he was adopted by James and Irene Sims of Port St. Joe.

Parker said she met Sims while attending high school. He joined the Army in 1961, they married and had a daughter, Gina Townsend, 39, now married to a National Guard major in Decatur, Ga.

In his closing comments, Bush delighted in telling how Townsend helped her mother, then living in Fayetteville, N.C., search for Sims' old Army buddies on the Internet.

George Parker, who received a Silver Star and Purple Heart for action on the same day Sims was killed, responded last year. Three months later he and Sims' widow were married.

"I love that story," said a beaming Bush. "This should be a made-for-TV movie."

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