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Trying to help others

Son's suicide sets Soldotna couple on new path

Posted: December 30, 2013 - 9:22pm  |  Updated: December 30, 2013 - 11:02pm
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A photo of James Bearup and his mother leans against figures in a Nativity scene in the home of his parents, Tom and Adele Bearup.  Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion
Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion
A photo of James Bearup and his mother leans against figures in a Nativity scene in the home of his parents, Tom and Adele Bearup.

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.


Reach Rashah McChesney at

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RaySouthwell 12/31/13 - 12:23 pm

In 2012 more soldiers took their own life than died in combat. Many say we must disarm our veterans to keep them safe. Perhaps we should be looking into why they suffer PTSD? And why are we in Afghanistan? Oh yes to stop the spread of Communism, I mean Islamic Terrorism. Here is a recent poll. I wonder when the politicians in DC will start listening to the people. Never. Also never blame the soldiers behavior in time of war. War is hell. The human mind must dehumanize the enemy in order to kill them. And we pay our taxes to support the military industrial complex. Their behavior is a reflection of the people we are.

beckster 01/01/14 - 07:49 am

I respectfully disagree Ray. I don't think we are in Afghanistan to fight terrorism. I think it's purely economics. We don't make a lot of clothes or electronics anymore. We make bullets, armored vehicles, and MRE's. It's a false economy to keep our troops supplied. On top of that is the monthly defense appropriations bills. Well I don't know if they still do them as I got sick to my stomach reading them and stopped. A few billion for the troops and then billions in pork added to the bill - every month. Vote against the bill and your voting against our troops. Pathetic. Both the Pubs and Dems are in on it. Bush and Obama. We need to demand that our next president promise to shut down the war machine to get our vote and stop this insanity.

RaySouthwell 01/01/14 - 08:29 am
Beckster-Nothing changes

I agree 100%. As I have aged I have dug into history. One name, I never heard before, was General Smedley Butler. He served for 33 years in the marines. He received two "Congressional Medal of Honors." I read his book "War is a Racket." Things became clear after understanding my short snapshot of history and comparing it to his. Things have not changed. The battle for America was lost in 1913 with the establishment of the Federal Reserve Bank. The people believe there is a difference in politicians. They are the same at the Federal level. The feds will continue to destroy the nation and our children will die for the empire. Every empire is destroyed when their currency is used for empire building. Alaska can make a difference by taking control of our billions of dollars. A public Bank of Alaska. I just wish I could get dialog. Here is a video, of an actor, speaking General Smedley Butlers words back in the 1930's. See how appropriate it is today.

kenaigal 01/01/14 - 03:34 pm
southwell and beckster

shame on you both for using this family's pain as your political soapbox.

to the Bearup family: I am sorry for your pain. Hopefully the help you provide others in the same situation will be received as lovingly as given.

RaySouthwell 01/02/14 - 09:07 am

It was the ignorance of the people, who ignore the politics, that caused the death of this young man. I quote Harry Truman- "I never did give them hell. I just told the truth and they think it's hell."

We must look for the root cause of the suicides. I quote from the above article- "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.” "

Feeling sorry for those who are left behind is not enough. We must be asking, why is this happening? That comes down to politics.

BTW, I still morn the death of my friend, Dennis Spenelli, who died in Vietnam 45 years ago. And my wife still grieves over the death of her first love Dewayne T. Williams. He also died in 1968 and on his 19th birthday. They died because of politics and the ignorance of the people, including myself at the time.

Suss 01/03/14 - 09:14 am
Veteran suicide numbers

Death rates for Vietnam vets by suicide are double the combat deaths. It will take time to find the current suicide rates but they more than likely will exceed combat fatalities as well. Please pay attention to these struggling vets when they return home.
War is hell and returning from hell takes a lot from these "magnificent bastards".

Garth Brooks and Vets sing tribute

RaySouthwell 01/02/14 - 11:22 am

Thanks Suss. I remember how Vietnam vets were/are treated. All were "Baby Killers." When I told a friend, my wife's first love received the "Congressional Medal of Honor" while serving in Vietnam, he said "oh he must have killed many people. I said no. He jumped on a hand grenade and saved many. Why do we blame our soldiers for the behavior of our government's politicians?

I post the story of Dewayne T. Williams in honor of his short life.

Citizen17 01/03/14 - 12:14 pm

My condolences go out to the family. This scenario has repeated itself way too often. I understand how trying to assimilate back into civilian life is very stressfull, even after our "debriefing" sessions. War is war, Afghanistan or the Nam. We came back from the Nam in the cover of darkness, but the protesters were still there. They spit at us, cursed at us, called us names, etc. I thought to myself, " these are Americans; I am home; am I still at war?" Over the years, I have tried to forget what I did, what I heard, and what I saw.......but the memories remain. They are more vague now, but they linger.
I do not have the answers to this terrible problem. I ask that we offer support for the grieving families and never forget those who sacrificed so much.

Suss 01/03/14 - 04:04 pm

I think if you were spit upon there are some people you should talk with to confirm this report. Aside from Stallone in "First Blood" the idea of spitting on a returning vet has been debunked and yet the myth gets repeated.

RaySouthwell 01/03/14 - 10:17 pm
War heros

Often it is how vets are thought of that is the problem. Many may have felt they were being spit on based on how they were received when coming home. I went to college after Vietnam. Some of my classmates were Vietnam vets. I could see a change in the instructors' behavior towards the Vietnam vet, when they found out. My mother told me during WWII, in the city of Detroit, all military were allowed to ride the bus for free if in uniform. During Vietnam we were told to avoid wearing our uniform. War is hell whether WWII, Vietnam or Mid-east. How we treat our veterans make the difference. Acceptance during WWII and non-acceptance during Vietnam. Vietnam veterans grew up in the post WWII days. All the perfect war movies and all the heroes. When they came home they were not treated as heroes. I continue to see how the Vietnam vet, who is struggling, is treated today. I am ashamed to see how some healthcare providers treat them. I just pray we learn from history and support our returning vets of today. Truly help them deal with the effects of war. When ever I see someone in uniform I shake their hand and say thank you. I do not support the wars of today but will always support all vets 100%. We made them go to war.

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