Saturday, July 10, 2010

Marine Veteran James "Bing" Popkowski

Remember Our Heroes

Friends of James Popkowski are mourning his death. The Marine veteran was shot and killed by police near the Togus VA Hospital Thursday. He was armed with a rifle.

Popkowski, who everyone knew as "Bing", is described by his close friends as the most giving person they knew. "He's a person everybody knows and everybody loved. He would give you the shirt off his back for someone in need whether he had it or not," Danielle Day, Popkowski's family friend, said. "He made sure that people that needed it had it, and he didn't ask for much."

The Maine Medical Examiner's Office says the autopsy shows that Popkowski died from a single gunshot wound to the neck.

The James F. Popkowski shot and killed by police Thursday was not a stranger in his hometown, Medway, where he was born and raised.

There, the former Marine affectionately known as "Bing" was the one always willing to help a friend, who addressed his elders as "sir," and who loved his country and his community.

"I've known Bing since he was in high school," Medway Selectman Jeff Jandreau said, moments after learning Popkowski was armed when shot by police Thursday in the woods outside the Togus Veterans Affairs hospital. "To hear what you just said is completely out of character with the Bing Popkowski I know. To hear that this has happened, he must have been driven by something more than he could handle."

That something, Jandreau believes, may have been the physical pain and depression resulting from the cancer treatment Popkowski underwent in 2003.

Jandreau recalled a benefit bone marrow drive held for Popkowski in September 2003 in Medway -- a Penobscot County community of 1,400 people 60 miles north of Bangor.

Published reports indicate Popkowski was a 1990 graduate of Schenck High School in East Millinocket and had been a Marine first lieutenant.

He was treated for a rare, aggressive cancer called hepatosplenic gamma-delta T-cell lymphoma. His treatment involved stem-cell transfers, which eventually led to graft-versus-host disease.

"There were times he felt OK, but other times he got feeling bad physically," Jandreau said. "He would disappear for a few weeks, then he'd be back in Medway and be the same old Bing."

Popkowski offered insight into his struggle in anguished comments written on the NewScientist website in response to a story detailing the side effects of stem cell transplants.

The lengthy blog, posted in August 2008 by a person identifying himself as James F. Popkowski -- a 15-year Marine who received a stem-cell transplant from a sister at the National Institute of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md., in 2003 -- describes a battle against chronic pain and depression that had robbed him of enjoyment in life.

"Suicide is like a little devil, always on my shoulder and always tempting me," he wrote. "Concern for the care of my three dogs after I am gone, my dogs being the only things I feel anything resembling passion for, is the only thing I think that has kept me from pulling the trigger on the loaded pistol, which rests next to my pillow."

Police removed two malamutes from the back of Popkowski's truck after the shooting. The dogs, which were in good health, were taken to a shelter.

Popkowski was known for raising beautiful, well-behaved malamutes, Jandreau said. "He took good care of them," Jandreau said.

Popkowski, who said he described his experience on the NewScientist site in hopes it would help researchers and other recipients, said he had almost no movement in his ankles or wrists. He said he also suffered from a sleep disorder and severe depression.

"The best way to describe the mental and emotional issue is that I am numb ... passionless," Popkowski wrote. "Nothing brings joy or pleasure. I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a (bachelor of science degree) in computer info systems and business management in just three years. Now, I cannot mentally focus enough to read a newspaper."

Doctors treated the graft-versus-host disease with prednisone -- which helped, but the side effects ultimately led Popkowski to need a hip replacement.

"I have lost count of the number of sleep aids the National Institutes of Health and my local VA have tried," Popkowski wrote. "Like the anti-depressants, none have worked."

Popkowski said his time in the Marine Corps left him stoic -- he was on active duty when diagnosed with cancer -- but he attributed the depression to his illness.

"For weeks at a time I will only leave my house once, and only briefly at night, to buy groceries and other supplies," Popkowski wrote. "Most of the time, the only time I drag myself into the shower, is when I have to go into town to buy groceries."

Popkowski lived in a trailer on the banks of the Penobscot River just outside of town. His home on the same spot burned down a few years ago, Jandreau said. Family members, including Popkowski's parents, still live in the area.

Jandreau said he saw Popkowski about a month ago. "He was fine," Jandreau said. Jandreau recalled an average-size teen who went away to the service and came back a few years later "spit-polished" and "bulked up."

"He said, 'Hello, Mr. Jandreau, how are you?' " Jandreau said. "I didn't recognize him. He would have made a great Marines poster."

An average boy who accomplished big things -- that's how Jandreau will remember Bing. The man who confronted police with a weapon was a stranger.

"Bing was a man that loved his country, he loved his community and he loved his friends," Jandreau said, his voice breaking with emotion. "And if you needed anything, he was the guy."

Several of Popkowski’s friends in Medway and Grindstone said that he bore his cancer’s sometimes terrific pain and often debilitating effects like an officer, bravely and without losing his regard for or desire to serve others.

“He was sick a lot. He suffered a lot,” said Ellen Van Dine, a Grindstone Road resident who with her husband occasionally would see and dine with Popkowski. “When he got sick, he was really in pain, and it would make him tired a lot, yet he was always very considerate and kind.”

Van Dine said she occasionally would see Popkowski walking his three dogs and that he always was cheerful and quick to help neighbors with any problems they might have.
“If he did not have that illness, I think he would have stayed in the military all of his life,” said Greg Hale of Medway, a friend and classmate of Popkowski’s at Schenck High School of East Millinocket. “He was a soldier, that’s all I can say. He was a military man from the day he was born.”

“He suffered terribly from cancer and he was never miserable,” Van Dine said. “The only time he would mention it, and he never really wanted to mention it, was when he apologized for not calling you back right away. He would just say, ‘I had a bad day.”


charlie said...

Jim deserves more comments. He was one hell of a Marine, a good friend and a hero. The full report (below) indicates that VA failed my friend and no one was called to account for that fact. Jim's odd behavior came many years after he defeated cancer and untold prescription changes. God bless you, my friend.

Semper Fidelis!

Charles Ward Blount

Link to Attorney General Findings and a video following the tragedy:

Emily said...

I'm not sure how I found myself reading this story, but I just wanted to let it be known that heartfelt tears came to me for someone I don't even know.

Thank you, Jim..and God Bless