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Obituaries / MILITARY DEATHS

Army Sgt. Shawn Adams, 21, Dixon, Calif.; killed while on patrol in Iraq

August 12, 2007|JACK LEONARD | Time Staff Writer

Shawn Adams was always seeking the next rush. As a slim, sinewy kid growing up in Vacaville, Calif., he loved the thrill of roller coasters, the roar of drag racers at a nearby racing strip and cruising around on Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

At 17, he enlisted in the Army and found more thrills as a paratrooper, throwing himself out of airplanes and flying in helicopters.

The night before his first parachute jump, he called his mother, Laura Gillis, at her home in Dixon, Calif.

"He said, 'Mama, I'm going to call you on my cellphone on the way down,' " she recalled. "I said, 'Oh, my gosh! You call me when you're safe and back on the ground.' "

The jump went off without a hitch -- and he didn't call while in free fall.

"He was just incredible," said his mother. "He never had any fear in his life."

In mid-July, Adams was nine months into his first tour in Iraq. He called his mother to say that he was holed up in a military base south of Baghdad. While fellow soldiers enjoyed the respite from fighting, finally able to shower and relax, the 21-year-old Army Ranger longed for action.

"He was bored and he wanted to do a job, go out on a mission and do what he was trained to do," she said.

It was the last time they talked. Adams was killed July 22 after an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle while he was on patrol near Owaset. The date marked his first wedding anniversary.

Adams came from a military family. His father and grandfather served in the Navy, and Adams' father recalled that his son showed a warrior's spirit from an early age.

At 5 feet 10 and 160 pounds at his heaviest, the blue-eyed, blond Adams played center in his junior year for Vanden High School's varsity football team, often out-muscling larger opponents during a winning season.

"He wouldn't back down. He wouldn't give up," said his father, Darcey Adams.

Father and son took trips together to watch drag races at what was then Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma County. At around 9 years old, Adams was allowed to drive mini-dragsters. He became hooked on the sport.

Adams also was a fierce patriot. As a teen, he was deeply affected by the Sept. 11 attacks. He enlisted less than three years later. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, Ft. Richardson, Alaska.

Adams rose quickly through the ranks, making sergeant within 2 ½ years. One of his company commanders described him as a "cut above" his peers. "He was a great soldier -- very, very hard-working," Capt. Ed Arntson said. "A very motivated young man."

In 2005, Adams volunteered for Army Ranger school. There, he often spoke of his love for California -- the weather, the mountains, the food. Last year, they noticed him spending more time with a woman he'd met in Alaska. In the summer, he brought her home to meet his family. "He had never brought any girls home, so we knew he was up to something," his father said. The elder Adams demanded plenty of notice if his son decided to marry.

"They left Sunday," his father recalled, "and then they called Friday night. 'We're getting married tomorrow!' "

He told his family and fellow soldiers of his plans to return to the state with his new wife once he left the military and to start work as an auto mechanic and raise a family.

In October, Adams began his first tour in Iraq. He complained to his family about missing home and his wife. It was too hot. Too sandy. The open sewers stank. But he also saw his assignment as a chance to fight terrorism, to give "a little bit of payback for 9/11," his father said, and to help Iraqis get back on their feet.

The work could be frustrating. During one patrol in Baghdad, Adams handed some children a chocolate bar. They threw it on the ground, spat on it and shouted, "Americans, go home!"

But he loved the military life. Sgt. Kristian Jorgensen, who served in Iraq with him, said he could see the excitement in his friend's face whenever they were about to fly in a helicopter.

"His eyes would light up," Jorgensen said. "He didn't like being back at garrison."

On New Year's Eve, Adams was shot in his right leg while working guard duty on a base east of Fallujah. He was treated and sent back to duty.

"He was brave," his father said. "He was a hero. He will always be our hero."

Adams is survived by his wife, Wilhelmina Elizabeth Adams; his mother and stepfather, Laura and Robert Gillis, and their two daughters, Lacy, 15, and Samantha, 13; and his father and stepmother, Darcey and Gaye Adams, and their daughter, Mary, 8.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

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