Just over nine months ago, Army National Guard Sgt. James Bearup put a shotgun into his mouth and blew away memories of his military service in Afghanistan, an inability to find consistent work to support his wife, growing family and the pressure of coping with day-to-day life with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The 29-year-old left eight siblings, a wife and two children, 30 nieces and nephews and two parents shocked with the loss, suddenness and permanence of his departure.
Tom and Adele Bearup, of Soldotna, also learned how terrible life with PTSD can be and have spent the last several months reaching out to area veterans through meals, gifts and word-of-mouth in an effort to prevent a similar tragedy from happening to another family.
James called his parents and each of his siblings before killing himself.
“We tried to talk him down,” Adele said, her voice thickening and finally breaking as she searched for a voicemail message James had left on a sibling’s phone the day he died.
After a few minutes of searching, Adele finds what she’s looking for and suddenly the room is filled with a James’ baritone voice, “I just want to say I love you. Bye.”
Deflated at the sound of his son’s voice, Tom’s eyes overflow with tears. Siblings sent Adele the voice messages after James died and she keeps them in her phone.
Pictures of James — starting with a lean 18-year-old bare-faced teenager newly enlisted in the Air National Guard leaning down to hug his mother, then in his battle dress uniform cradling his gun and trying not to smile at the photographer, finally a heavy-set man with a goatee standing behind his wife and their two children — lay spread across the table as Adele tapped each one, recounting stories of her “baby.”
James was the youngest of a diverse group of siblings including Korean step-children and Alaska Native children the Bearups adopted as they lived in Soldotna, then Arizona and recently back in Alaska.
In the evenings, several times a week, he would call his mother with and with his customary “Hi mom!” the two would wander into the kitchen.
“We’d cook together,” Adele said. “Mexican and Korean.”
But underneath the cheerfulness and the willingness to help others, Tom and Adele said their son was struggling to cope with life after two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
“He had no sleep, he was totally depressed, then he found out he didn’t get his job at the (Transportation Safety Administration),” Adele said of James’ decision to commit suicide.
And, true to form, Adele said, once James made a decision he stuck by it.
She and Tom were shopping when their son called to say goodbye. He yelled at his mother when she tried to talk him down from killing himself; that’s when the couple say they knew he was serious.
“You couldn’t stop the decision,” Adele said.
No one could. Not his parents, his siblings, or a college advisor he called to give the exact location of his body.
James walked outside of the hotel where he worked, Adele said, crouched behind a Dumpster and shot himself — leaving divots in the white brick wall behind him and falling into a large pink oleander bush nearby.
Adele kept a few of the petals from that bush and ironed them in wax paper.
“Just to remind myself that my son, there he was and it was a tragedy, but there was also a life, there was this beauty,” she said.
Tom and Adele are committed to finding positive emotions in each of the tragedies that life has dealt them.
“I choose not to be in bondage to that negative emotions,” Tom said. “We understand that bad things can happen, but not it’s time to get up and do something positive with your life.”
Being catapulted into a side of James’ life that they had not known existed ultimately lead the two to open their home on Thanksgiving this year.
They hosted about 30 people in the garage turned church and gathering space next to their home at mile 91 on the Sterling Highway.
“We had some veterans here,” Tom said. “Some that had called us and never showed up.”
Then they raised money to provide gifts for the children of area veterans for the Christmas holiday.
“We bought gifts for 15 kids. We wrapped them, went shopping for them,” Tom said. “To get our minds off of our challenging thing, we’ve always taught people to go help somebody else. So, now we’re trying to help somebody else. Like with James, how many other people are in his position? We don’t know. Just right on the edge.”
Verdie Bowen, Alaska’s director of veteran’s affairs, said there are many more like James.
“Nationwide, our veterans are committing suicide at the rate of one every 80 minutes,” Bowen said, quoting statistics from a January 2013 Veterans Administration report on the subject. “Statewide, it’s a lot less than that.”
There are about 74,000 veterans in Alaska, according to state VA data. About 58,000 of the state’s veteran population are combat era veterans including 27,000 from the War on Terror and 24,000 Vietnam-era veterans.
It’s those veterans Tom and Adele say they want to lend a helping hand, those veterans Bowen said could sometimes be silently struggling.
“The sad part is that you and I would look at a person who committed suicide and the last thing that triggered it might be really minute. A shoelace that got broken or they slammed the car door on their hand,” Bowen said.
Tom and Adele said they aren’t sure what pushed James over the edge, but they’re hoping to share their pain and recover with other veterans.
A makeshift memorial with several flags and a snow-covered gazebo stands near their driveway and Tom said they’re hoping to expand it into a small sanctuary in 2014.
The two are also exploring options for providing a camping area on their property.
“We have a little lake, we have 15 acres past that,” Adele said. “Can they just come out here and enjoy the beauty and get away from the big city, come out here and spend some time with their kids. It’s takes money that we don’t have.”
But a lack of money hasn’t stopped the two from dreaming about how they can help others, after they couldn’t help their son.
“We have the choice of sitting here and crying day in and day out — and I want to stress, there are times that (it) happens — but rather than keep ourselves in that position, how can we reach out to other people that are hurting?” Tom said.