A friend, a veteran with PTSD, just died of an overdose.

Justin Ropke is dead. I consider him a friend although there are several who are in a better position to write this than I am. Nonetheless, the small portion of his story I know should be shared.

He was a musician. An artist. A storyteller. An athlete with a Division I baseball scholarship. A champion high school quarterback. In his journal, empty except for a few paragraphs, he described himself:

 “A veteran, A fatherless son, A cancer survivor, A heroin addict.”

I’m unsure of where his death will fall as a statistic. Likely as an opioid overdose. But that would mask the true nature of his death. It is more accurate to say that he died as a Marine in Afghanistan. As part of the Corp’s 3/2 scout sniper platoon.  In Helmand province. Where he did and saw all things war and where he was exposed to drugs – the former driving the need for the latter.

I’m unsure of his thoughts on the war in Afghanistan before he served. But after he served he was against it.

“You can’t just give a 19-year-old a rifle and tell them to go, kill everything.”

Justin’s best friend, Marine Corps Sergeant Mark Bradley was killed by an IED. Wounded in Afghanistan, he later died in the United States. The speech his father gave to the NYS Senate is here.  It is Mark’s story.  And it helps explain Justin’s story.

Justin watched a fellow Marine die from an IED blast.  The explosion separated the Marine in two, severing him at the waist. The explosion somewhat cauterized the wound, preventing instant loss of blood. The Marine died after 20 minutes of pain and yelling.

“I have medals.  I have accolades.  I’m the elite of the elite, I need you to know this about me. I’m the upper 1%. I’m a murderer.  I’ve killed more people than I have fingers or toes.”

It was Justin’s platoon that made headlines for the video surfacing of Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters in late 2011.  The enemy were killed while planting roadside bombs.  The same type of bombs mentioned above and the same type that killed another Marine just prior to the video.  The Taliban strung that Marine’s body parts from a tree. Sgt. Robert Richards, identified in the video, was publicly castigated and officially court-martialed.  He is now dead.  Buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A veteran of 3 tours in Afghanistan he too died of a drug overdose. His story is here.  And it helps to explain Justin’s story.

“Once Gunney died, we just started killing anything Muslim-ish.”

Justin once walked into the barracks in Afghanistan to see a friend using a knife trying to amputate his own arm.  Justin would also tell the story of the time he shot a shepherd. He watched through his scope as the man’s daughter tried picking up the pieces of the brain and skull – a macabre version of Humpty Dumpty.

“I’m an innocent murderer living here today scot free. Because that’s what you wanted me to do. You gave me medals and ribbons. You gave me pats on the back and ruffled my hair and I murdered people. Now send me back to civilization? Send a murderer back. Murder is murder. No matter what continent it’s on or thousands of miles away, it still does something.”

After Afghanistan Justin kept a pistol in his car but stopped after realizing he wanted to use it. While driving. Or waiting in line at a drive-through.  He couldn’t sleep. Insomnia. His mind was always overloaded and racing. Thoughts of the people he has killed.  Not all – some he was glad to kill.  But certain ones did haunt him. Thoughts of seeing others killed.  He never stopped being a sniper – he constantly thought about his surroundings, ways he would set up if he needed to kill again.  He was constantly on edge. Constantly trying to keep his mind occupied.  Constantly trying to live. Constantly racing and constantly in need of more. Constantly fighting.  Chasing the feelings of combat. Being chased by the feelings of combat.  Constantly. Constantly. Constantly.

“Ended up drinking a handful of tallboys and blew $400 on scratch off tickets.  It’s the adrenaline I suppose, it’s just a release, and I need it to get through the day. Skipped the gym and watched a bunch of movies. I really don’t like myself.”

The multiple MRIs and CT scans of Justin’s brain showed, literally, that his brain physically changed from the war.  Can one ever be the same with a changed brain?

On my way to work on Wednesday I saw an ambulance and police car racing down the road  in the direction of his apartment and I wondered for a brief, non-serious moment if they were for him. Later that afternoon my fleeting thought became a reality. We went to his apartment that evening.  We didn’t know and don’t know how it works – does his mother have to come to get his belongings? We just wanted to make it decent for his mother.  I didn’t want her to see anything drug related. Typing that seems idiotic.  Her son died of a drug overdose, she knew and knows about his addiction, but still, we wanted to help in someway.  A friend took his guitar – we didn’t want it to disappear – and will deliver it to his mother.

There were no illegal drugs. But bottle after bottle of prescription drugs.  All prescribed, roughly 10 pills a day, to treat his PTSD, identified from the military paperwork thumb-tacked to the wall as ‘9411 Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.’ The picture at the top of this post was next to the paperwork.  In the corner, a syringe of Narcan, designed to save those in the midst of an opioid overdose.

The same friend with the guitar, a friend to Justin who helped him as best he could and perhaps as best as anybody could, said this, choking back tears in the back seat of my car, “He just wanted to be normal.  Like you and me.  He wanted to live so bad and he tried so hard but he couldn’t beat it.  He wanted a family, kids. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to die.”

Of course he didn’t.  The world he lived in made it hard. He lived in a world where people do not even know what IED stands for. Do not know what Helmand province is, or what it stands for.  In a world that saw President Obama escalate the war in Afghanistan, having over 75% of that war’s casualties occur during his time in office. In a world that now has the Taliban and other similar factions controlling 85% of Helmand province – a troop surge for no purpose.

A world where the media cavalierly calls Al-Qaeda “rebels” in Syria. A world that despite the majority of America’s heroin coming from Mexico one is labeled a racist for wanting to secure the border.  A world where during the election cycle of 2016, despite thousands of hours of coverage, the war in Afghanistan was forgotten. In a world that shares memes that say the US does not have any major wars despite US service members still dying in them.  Despite the US dropping over 30,000 bombs in 2016.

He was trying to live in a world where people are asinine enough to suggest a war can be minor.  Are we truly that naïve?

He was trying to live in a world that when it chooses will endlessly discuss Obamacare, or Trumpcare, or Ryancare but nobody seems to care that the Veteran’s Administration (VA) still has staffing shortages.  Still has long wait time for veterans to receive care.  Still has substandard facilities.  And despite 20 veterans dying of suicide each day, still has a suicide hotline with 30-minute delays.

He was trying to live in a world where his platoon only made national headlines after the 39-second urinating video become public.  Not for any of their missions.  Not for amassing 223 confirmed kills. Not for innovating sniper and tank tactics. Not for acts of heroism.  Not for when team leader, Sgt. Nate Hervey, was awarded a Bronze Star with valor.  Just for the video.

He was trying to live in a world in Saranac Lake where the town rallied behind the cause to help a man, who happened to be Muslim and from India, obtain a travel visa after he was previously denied.  He was heralded as a mini-celebrity and prominently featured in the local paper. Within days he was arrested for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old. This is the same town that just this week became outraged at the prospect of St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Center needing to relocate.  Residents did not want the patients in their neighborhoods.  Justin was receiving treatment at St. Joe’s.  He was never made into a celebrity, he has never been in the paper.  Agree or disagree. Neither here nor there perhaps.  But these things do not make this world easy for someone like Justin. Maybe nothing could.

Justin would tell the story of Iron John. A story about a boy becoming a man. A story about the wildman at the bottom of the lake. A story about the wildman that is in all of us.  It just remains dormant. Perhaps it only comes out in those who suffer the savagery of war. Not only in the moment, but constantly reliving those horrors in a brain not designed to cope with them, in a body that cannot sleep.  A wildman that cannot be tamed after being exposed to combat.

Justin is dead.  And it is horrible.  Another victim of war. Truly, another victim of 9/11.  In his journal were the lyrics to a song, Beacon Hill. Listen to it here.  As for the political speak in this blog, don’t worry. Justin would have approved. He loved to hate politicians. He said he’d rather kill 10 corrupt politicians than 1 Taliban member.  The sign below was his. Semper Fi, Justin.

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38 Comments

  1. I’m so very sorry for the loss of your friend and for all those
    we loose every day. Although written in grief and frustration your words could not be more on point.
    Semper Fi, Justin.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This just breaks my heart. It’s shouldn’t have happened. This government is not there for the bravest and the ones that give up so much for this country. This story brings me to tears. Rest In Peace and prays for his family, his girl friend and all his friends. He’s now an angel watching over all the ones he loves.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So very sad indeed. He literally gave his all for his country and was basically then kicked to the curb by that country. His mother, brother and those close to him are now suffering terribly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So Sorry. May God Wrap his arms around this Family, and bring peace into their hurting hearts. Justin will be in the Arms of his Angel. Rest in Peace.

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  5. I deployed with Justin in 2011, he was a hero to us. I was attached to India Company and we would wait for the good news about the snipers. They were the super heros of that deployment. He was a good man and a even better warrior, I’ll see you in Valhalla brother.

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  6. Thank you Nick Pepe for sharing. Justin was the upmost respected young gentleman I known. I will never forget the good times when he was younger that he had with my daughter and his classmates and friends. They were such innocent times. I remember when he came to me when my daughter had passed away in a traumatic accident and said he would be honored to be A pallbearer for Lindsey. I said to him it would be an honor. Justin will be deeply missed. My heart goes out to his mom Lisa and his family and friends and the love of of his life Nicholette. Thank you again that was a great piece.

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  7. Wow. This is powerful, real, and a necessary account. There are so many stories but they’re rarely told with the truth and clarity I find in this tribute. I’m the widow of Rob Richards and I knew Justin, not well, but they suffered together and had many of the same struggles. Rob’s writings reflect so many of Justin’s. I’ve never thought about releasing them but I am encouraged and inspired by this that I may reconsider. Thank you for this, sincerely. I’m proud to have known Justin, but feel even more connected to his story through your words.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you Mark and all of our soldiers. I am so so sorry we as a country couldn’t help you after serving your country.. god bless you and may you Rest In Peace…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I can’t even begin to comment on this most beautiful, but sad, tribute to one of our own. He was brought up to be a decent, respectful human being, then sent to war to kill, and come back home not able to cope with the memories, etc., and take his own life, because he had no other choice. No choice to live a decent respectful human being that he was brought up as. My deepest sympathies, prayers and thoughts do go out to his family. Please God let his soul RIP and may he be forever re-united with his father.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for sharing this and thank you to all the men and women who fight for our country….Prayers for Justin’s family and friends 💔💔

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  11. My heart aches for him his mother and brother. His father will wrap his arms around him and bring him peace finally. How much sadness can one family endure. Prayers for you Lisa.

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  12. May he Rest In Peace. I went to school with his Mother, His Father grew up across the street from my grandparents. His Girlfriend and my Daughter Brittany are good friends. And I am the Mother of an active duty Marine. He is a baby Marine still in school. I’m afraid of this world we live in and I can feel Lisa’s pain. I hope Justin , you can now find peace and know you left this world as a Hero. Watch over your Marine Brothers and Sisters. Be that Cardinal on your kitchen window. Fly High Marine… Semper Fi –we Love Denise Bauer Smith and Family

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  13. May He Rest In Peace. Thank you Justin for the service you gave. To all who are reading this that suffer from PTSD: there is hope. A medical doctor & PhD has discovered an amazing tool that undoes the damage of trauma. That’s correct, you read that right. Please check out http://www.havening.org

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  14. The true extent of the war are these horrific stories of the struggle our men and women of the military face upon discharge. I wish there was a way to help them. My thoughts and prayers are with Justin’s family and friends.
    Semper Fi Marine and may you finally Rest In Peace.
    From a Vet and Mother of a currently serving US Marine

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  15. I am just heartbroken for his mother and brother… I remember when his mom asked me about the Marines when he was joining… as I had my own son there already…I can’t believe this has happened, but his story needs to be told. Thank you for sharing so that others may know of his beautiful life and good family… May the arms of his father wrap him in love and peace… And may only the beautiful memories of his life sustain all those who mourn his passing….

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  16. Heartbreaking…………I found out of justin’s passing yesterday. Having had a son in the army briefly and now my nephew is an army ranger scheduled himself to be deployed with 5 years of marine enlisted before it., I only fear what all mothers fear., Our boys to come home safe and sound. Unfortunately, this is not reality. Justin’s story is just one more testament to what we need to heed. A patriot of their people, country and family does not come without a sacrifice. A sacrifice that I feel only our Saviour knows . We follow with a memory of a human being trying to make a difference. We need now to make these differences mean something , somehow to our nation. Lest our efforts fall in vein. God bless Justin and others with his attributes good and bad. God bless his mother and her family who bear another loss. And yes Hilliary, Justin was “Not a senator’s son”. May all of our comrades in arms be at those greeting gates as Justin and others like him come to greet their own. Let us never forget, ever……………………………………….

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  17. Our hearts go out to Lisa and Brad. We’ll never forget such a great time vacationing together when Justin and Adam played travel baseball in Rehoboth Beach. We went low-budget and rented out small cabins in the outskirts of town. Mark and Justin were both one of a kind. May you find solace knowing that Justin is reunited with his father.

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  18. We all died in a combat zone it just hasn’t caught up with some of us yet. Some died in Afghanistan some in Iraq, some had the privilege of loosing themselves in both wars. We push those close away, we don’t want to be reminded of who we will hurt when we are finally gone. We walk a fine line of danger and smile while swerving in and out of traffic well over 100mph on our bike’s. We are not all suicidal but we don’t care to live and we mock death at every opportunity. Some of us just stop caring the way we once did and we fade into the shadows so you forget we were ever there.

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  19. Very sorry for your loss, he deserved a better life and death.. I am a graduate of Marine Officer Candidate School (I chose not to serve after College), my Father was an enlisted Marine and his brother a career Marine Officer. Let’s be perfectly clear about something- the single most critically important manner in which Americans can support OUR troops is to keep them out of unnecessary conflicts- PERIOD. President Eisenhower warned of a Military Industrial Complex and now we have one- in spades. The US spends more on defense than the next 8 countriies COMBINED, including Russia and China. Yes, more Soldiers died in Afghanistan under President Obamas watch and yet you conveniently failed to mention that we lost twice as many Soldiers serving in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Yes Mexico is a major crossing point for Heroin but you conveniently fail to mention that Fentanyl (a synthetic opioids 50 times more powerful than Heroin) is at the heart of our Heroin and Painkiller epidemic and the vast majority is produced in China. You also mention the child Molesting Muslim and conveniently fail to mention that the vast majority of Child Molesters have Christian backgrounds and that most Muslim Americans are peaceful, hard working, family oriented and strongly opposed to terrorism. The sign “Fuck Hillary” says it all- the Political Divide in this Country is cultivated and nurtured by those who most benefit from ineffective government. Red vs. Blue states is about as meaningful and important as the Patriots vs. the Cowboys. The vast majority of Americans are Politically Moderate on most issues and agree on far more than they disagree. We are now significantly boosting Military spending AGAIN. God help us from ourselves.

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  20. So sorry for your loss. I did not know your friend, our town in upstate NY just lost another young man to drugs on Friday and when I saw your friend’s obituary in the paper it prompted me to look him up wondering if he too passed from the same reason. We MUST do something to help out soldiers; we are failing them…He traveled a tough road and may he finally be at peace and find comfort reuniting with his father. God bless.

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  21. Heart breaking and so real. So much history in such a young life. My heart hurts as a mother for his mother. May God keep him in the palm of his hand and bless his family with the comfort that Justin was loved and looked up to by so many. Lisa you are in my prayers.

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  22. Unfortunately, coming home from war often brings the war home. I think many felt trump was finally going to be a president to make veterans a higher priority than starting new wars. Syria and N Korea are now his priorities. For Justin, we should hold 45 to account and not make prioritizing a substantial budget for meaningful veterans care just another broken promise.

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  23. My heart breaks for Lisa and Justin and their family. There’s a good organization called 21 Kill that supports PTSD. There are no words 😶

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  24. Thank you for all of this.
    Justin heard the story of Iron John at Save A Warrior. We “unpack” it for every Cohort, including his. I can’t tell you how moved I am to know he retained the story. I’m heartbroken he couldn’t find and retain the miracle of recovery. If anyone desvered to, it was Justin.

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  25. so sorry to hear this news im an combat vet myself served in iraq and i know the struggles we as combat vets face after coming home my heart goes out to this marines family

    Like

  26. I am the man who first told Justin the story of Iron John, the Wild Man. I am so deeply sorry to learn about his death. I feel profound grief learning how he died, and yet I feel even more shame and disgust reading about the contrast you eloquently described. There are no adequate words for those in mourning and yet I still feel compelled to speak against the sick society that hastend Justin’s demise.

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  27. SAW 024, rest my brother, you battles are over, sleep in heavenly peace, until we regroup again, when the sound the bugle of recall. Present Arms, Order Arms.

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  28. Justin and I spent hours working out in the upstairs gym at the St. Joes Veterans Rehabilitation house. We both suffered from insomnia among other mental health disorders. Upon my discharge, he selflessly took me in as his roommate. He was my friend, a hero and a tortured soul with the heart of a lion. I was there when he passed. I only wish I could’ve done something to save him. Had I not been asleep, I’m sure I could’ve. Much has been said about the man he was and the man he strived to become. All I know is that I miss my friend and my heart breaks for his mother, brother, girlfriend and all those lucky enough to have called him a friend. God bless and Rest In Peace Justin.

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  29. Justin’s story needs to be told from beginning to end; birth to death. We have to make something positive from this tragedy to bring awareness to the veterans and others who are struggling with addiction and mental health. We need to tell his story. God Bless you and you loved ones, Justin.

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  30. I am the mother of a Marine who was a friend of Justin’s. I heard of Justin’s passing but reading this narrative brings me, again, to tears. I don’t think anyone but one who has served their country during war can even begin to imagine the atrocities they have witnessed or terrible things they have had to do in the line of duty. It is true…we civilians can never know the horrors of war that our young service men and women must endure and then to expect them to fit back into a life they left behind that is now so foreign to them.
    Something has to change to get these heroes the help and counseling they so desperately need to re enter a society that has all but forgotten about them. RIP Justin. I pray that you have found eternal peace away from those demons who haunted you in this world.
    God bless you. You are a hero and always will be.

    Like

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