Timothy Bowman, 23, had been back from Illinois National Guard duty in Iraq for eight months when he drove to his father's electrical contracting business on Thanksgiving Day 2005, got a gun and shot himself in the head.
Last week, his parents, Mike and Kim Bowman, made the 85-mile drive to Chicago from their home in Downstate Forreston to try to save other military families from experiencing the pain they have endured every day since.
Nobody can tell you definitively how many men and women have committed suicide since returning home from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Bowmans can tell you for a dead certainty that it is too many and that we're not doing enough to prevent the next one.
On Friday, the Bowmans added a pair of their son's combat boots to the American Friends Service Committee's "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit, which already displayed 144 pairs of boots representing Illinois' official war dead.
Timothy Bowman's boots were painted white to symbolize a too-often-overlooked group of casualties from the war -- those who have taken their own lives.
In a nation that still has trouble talking about suicide, the Bowmans find themselves in an even tougher spot -- dealing with a long-established military culture that holds suicide in even greater disdain than the general public does.
What makes the Bowmans a rarity isn't that their son killed himself but that they are willing to talk about it.
While the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit is an anti-war protest, the Bowmans are not protesting the war. They are veterans' advocates, trying to educate the U.S. military, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the rest of us on the need to change our attitudes and approach to suicide and the underlying mental health issues that can lead to it.
"Whether you agree with the war is irrelevant," Mike Bowman told a sparse crowd at Federal Plaza.
Tim Bowman was a 2000 graduate of Polo Community High School, home of the Fighting Marcos. An artistic kid who played the trumpet, baritone and tuba, Bowman had the lead role in the school play two years running. His parents say he also was the class clown, the one who was always quick with the comment that would make everyone laugh.
He wanted to pursue music in college, but it didn't work out, so he took a job as an apprentice electrician in his father's business, served as a volunteer firefighter and joined the National Guard, knowing full well that it could result in combat.
His air defense artillery unit was converted to cavalry for the mission in Iraq. Bowman was a gunner on a Humvee. For four months in 2004, he was assigned to protecting the dangerous stretch of highway leading from the airport to the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Within days of arriving in the country, Bowman's unit was sent to pick up body parts of U.S. soldiers killed in a helicopter crash, his father said.
It was a jolting introduction that instilled in the group a shoot-or-be-shot attitude. On at least one occasion of which his father was aware, that resulted in Timothy being the one doing the killing. He was manning a checkpoint when a car failed to stop, and he opened fire.
"Whatever it was he shot in that car bothered the hell out of him. He thought there was a kid in that car," said Mike Bowman, 49, a big, friendly guy with a brush cut and a Harley jacket. He was never able to confirm whether his son really had shot a child.
Maybe that incident was the later source of Tim Bowman's demons. Maybe it was the severe injuries suffered by another guy in his unit, Dusty Hill, who lost both hands and one eye and was severely burned in an explosion triggered by a suicide bomber. Hill had filled in that day after Bowman volunteered for what shaped up as a more dangerous foot patrol.
"It should have been me," a weeping Bowman told his father one night.
But Mike Bowman said too few clues to his son's mental anguish were apparent to his parents, other than uncharacteristic flashes of temper. His buddies knew he'd been drinking to excess. His girlfriend knew he'd been having nightmares, night tremors and had even taken to sleeping in a closet with a gun. But nobody talked about it with the others until he was dead.
The Bowmans want the military to educate families about how to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder and what to do about it. They want the VA to reach out to the veterans instead of making them ask for help. They want more mental health resources available for those who are ready for help.
On this Memorial Day weekend, we should resolve to give them our support.
Mark Brown is a regular columnist for The Chicago Sun Times.
© 2008 Chicago Sun Times