December 11, 2012

Anger over medical care is channeled into fatal choice

An ex-Marine with an incurable disease points a weapon at law enforcement outside the veterans hospital near Augusta.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

James Popkowski was a true son of Medway.

James "Bing" Popkowski, 37, an armed former U.S. Marine from Grindstone who was killed by Maine law enforcement officers Thursday, July 8, 2010 near the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Togus in Augusta.

Photo courtesy of Facebook

The small mill town on the way to Mount Katahdin is the kind of place where people know and care about each other and take pride in their compassion and resilience.

When someone makes the hour-long drive to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor for cancer treatment, townspeople are holding benefit suppers and shoveling their driveway.

Popkowski didn’t join the Marine Corps because he wanted to leave the 1,400 people of Medway. He joined because it represented the kind of person he was: strong, purposeful, at home in the outdoors and extremely patriotic.

“He was an all-American kid,” said his brother, Mike Majkowski. “Everybody’s dad wanted their daughter to marry someone like James. Everybody wanted their kid to be like James.”

Popkowski, 37, was shot on July 8, 2010, by a Department of Veterans Affairs police officer outside VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus, the veterans hospital near Augusta. After years of frustration and pain stemming from an incurable illness, he was fed up with what he felt was a bureaucratic runaround and disjointed approach to his care that led to months-long delays in getting medicine – delays that he said were killing him.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office, which reviews all police shootings, found Officer Thomas Park and Sgt. Ron Dunham justified in using deadly force as Popkowski advanced on them with his handgun pointed at Dunham. The two officers fired eight shots, one of which hit Popkowski in the neck, killing him almost instantly.

The angry man who was shot was far from the James “Bing” Popkowski that people from Medway remember.

In high school in East Millinocket, the kids from Medway were from the sticks – into snowmobiles, four-wheelers and hunting. They had a distinct sense of themselves in school, which Popkowski cultivated, said his longtime friend Angela Adams.

“He would holler “Medway!” and everybody would catch it,” she said.

Popkowski’s brothers and father were in the service, and Popkowski enlisted after graduating from high school. He excelled and was accepted in officer training, graduating from Norwich University with degrees in computer science and business and becoming a first lieutenant.

The Marines became his home as he worked counterintelligence, tracking the Taliban first in Afghanistan, then in the Philippines, his mother said.

Just as he was preparing to come back to the states in 2003, he contracted gamma-delta T-cell lymphoma, an often terminal condition so rare that his experimental treatments through the National Institutes for Health were contributing to research on the disease, his brother said.

He was assigned to a succession of doctors, each one having to learn about his case. He had trouble getting his prescriptions, and his pain persisted.

“It was horrible,” said Adams. “He had days when he was up and chipper, and he had days he didn’t want to see anybody. He was a Marine and he didn’t want anyone to see his pain.”

Popkowski described his ordeal in a 2008 posting on an Internet bulletin board.

“I have severe sleep problems; severe depression; barely function enough to feed and bathe myself; and care for my dogs. ... Nothing brings joy or pleasure,” he wrote. “For weeks at a time, I will only leave my house once, and only briefly at night, to buy groceries and other supplies.”

He talked about suicide, too. A month before his death, the Department of Veterans Affairs sent him a letter saying the 100 percent disability attributed to his cancer was being reduced to zero because he had missed a required examination.

He dealt with a series of medical setbacks, and a few days before his death, wrote to his mother on a social networking site: “If the cancer returns, whether it is the VA’s fault, or not ... the children of the Director of VA Togus, Maine will grow up fatherless. ... I know where he lives. ... I know his schedule. ... I know what he drives. ... He is a dead man walking!”

The day before he died, a neighbor spotted a crude, hand-made sign at Popkowski’s house that read: “MUCH LIKE ME, VA DIRECTOR = DEAD MAN WALKING.”

A sheriff’s deputy spotted it the next morning and called the veteran’s hospital, only to find out he was too late.

Friends and family do not believe Popkowski showed up in Togus intent on dying. He and a friend had made plans to buy a Grindstone Road campground together, his mother said.

Popkowski had been planning to spend the coming weekend at parties and parades related to his 20th high school reunion, Adams said. At the somber gatherings that followed his death, he was remembered as a wholesome young man who inspired pride.

“I don’t think there’s anybody in town here, when they think of Bing, the first thought that comes to mind was not how sick he was. It was what a great guy he was,” Adams said. “He was a hero. Medway’s hero.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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