SARANAC LAKE — Justin Ropke came to Saranac Lake to get well.
The retired U.S. lance corporal, originally from Port Jervis in Orange County, started out at St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Center in November 2015 for treatment of his heroin addiction and post-traumatic-stress disorder.
He moved into his own apartment in September after almost a year clean.
Justin spent time hiking the Adirondacks, skiing and playing his guitar. He had even started training for the 2018 Ironman in Lake Placid.
“He started developing some really nice people and friends,” his mother, Lisa Ropke, said in a phone interview from her home in Sparrow Bush in Orange County.
“He also loved your homeless people.
“Justin would sit wherever they were, under some bridge, and have a beer and bring them goody bags of food.”
But then, on April 5, Justin died of an opiate overdose.
He was 27 years old.
Lisa, who thinks his relapse took place on the day of his death, said her son took fentanyl.
“I don’t believe Justin even knew what he was taking,” she said.
Richards S. Simmons, 43, of Saranac Lake is accused of selling Justin the drugs that killed him. He was charged with two counts of third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance in April, and is in custody at Dutchess County Jail.
CANCER, LOST DAD
Shortly after Justin’s death, his older brother, Brad Ropke, wrote in a Facebook post that life didn’t deal Justin a great hand.
“It dealt him a two and a seven, and he always went all in.”
Growing up, Justin had obsessive compulsive disorder and dealt with anxiety.
At 15, he was diagnosed with melanoma and underwent treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for four years.
After graduating from high school, he decided to go to college with Brad in South Carolina.
While Justin was at freshman orientation, his father, Mark Ropke, died of a massive heart attack.
“He had survived his cancer, and now the death of his dad was really just too much,” said Lisa, who was with Justin when her husband died.
Justin was angry with the world.
Unbeknownst to his mother, he enlisted in the . During his four years of military service, Justin had a combat deployment to Afghanistan.
“He becomes a scout sniper. His sergeant steps on an IED in front of him, and that was incredibly traumatic,” Lisa said.
“From what Justin says … their sniper platoons had killed many people, and he always felt terribly guilty for that.”
Her son could never forgive himself, even though he knew it was part of his job.
“He always felt that we were God’s people and that you don’t have the right to kill anyone.
“He really struggled and battled in his own mind, feeling that he was like a murderer and not punished.”
Justin was honorably discharged on July 31, 2012, at age 23.
But the war didn’t stop when he returned home.
“It was still in his mind and in his heart,” his mother said.
Her son battled post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The military tends to put all these guys on this cocktail of these psych meds, which really doesn’t help them in any way,” Lisa said.
Justin and veterans like him need therapy, she continued, but that didn’t seem to be available.
Following a suicide attempt on Aug. 15, 2015, he checked into a mental-health unit at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Montrose.
“It was deplorable,” Lisa said. “There was really no help. The place was dirty. There were men drooling on him … no one talked to them.
“So he got out of there, and then he never trusted in the VA system.”
Opiates seemed to quiet Justin’s PTSD, his mother said.
“He was always, after Afghanistan, always on high alert wherever he walked or talked.”
Justin stopped taking the psych meds the military prescribed to him, but his opiate addiction progressed to heroin.
He decided to go to St. Joseph’s, paying thousands of dollars out of pocket.
“He went through treatment for PTSD and his addiction, and then he came out of there and was living on his own.”
Justin had planned to move to Beacon with his girlfriend, Nicholette Rohrer, in May.
“They knew each other since they were little. Her mother is one of my best friends,” Lisa said.
“She never abandoned him; she loved him. My son had the true love of a woman. For that, I’m grateful.”
Justin had taken art classes and, last January, enrolled in courses at North Country Community College.
He planned to someday get his degree, possibly in veterinary technology.
“He was getting good grades, and I’ve gotten letters from his teachers … about how nice he was, how kind he was, how they enjoyed their talks,” Lisa said.
Justin would get only so far before his mind, racing from PTSD, started to hold him back.
He withdrew from NCCC in March, which felt like another failure for him.
“And I’m sure then that drug was available that day from that drug dealer, and that’s what happened, and he died,” Lisa said.
Brad described his brother as a funny, outgoing, crazy wild card.
“He had the ability to make you laugh but yet be absolutely terrified of him at the same time,” he said.
“He was, you know, this big bad Marine sniper, and he loved that image.”
But he also had a deep love for animals and people who couldn’t defend themselves.
“He always had a spot in his heart for the less fortunate,” Brad said.
Growing up, Justin was a good student, the varsity quarterback and a great center fielder in baseball, which had earned him a college scholarship.
“Those were his sports, and he donated his time at one of the local animal shelters when he was younger,” Lisa said.
Brad recalled going to sporting events, playing sports and watching sports with Justin and their dad.
“When we were younger, they put bunk beds in the room. We had those conversations at night, talking about any which thing.
“I was so tolerant of everything that he did.
“I remember I kept waking up, and he was on the top bunk spitting loogies.
“We were always together; we were really attached at the hip for the most part.”
Justin had a great childhood and a brother who adored him, Lisa said.
“Everything was normal. Justin’s addictions came out of a war zone, of a place to stop the crazy in his mind.”
Some people might think of addicts, “Oh, they’re just junkies,” Lisa said.
“Well, he was my junky,” she continued, tearing up, “and he had a story how he got that way.”
Justin even lived by the mantra: “Everyone has a story.”
“My son, because he was the boy who lost his dad and because he saw so much human suffering in a war zone and because he knew he, too, was a drug addict,” Lisa said, “my son felt no one should ever have the right to judge any human being because behind all people is a reason how they got to be who they are.”
Lisa said she was very honest about Justin’s struggles because it didn’t matter to her what people’s judgments were.
“That was my child, and I’d stand before God with him any day and say, ‘This is my child.'”
On June 8, Lisa hiked to Yosemite Point in California with her son’s ashes. He loved Yosemite National Park and had hiked Half Dome.
She takes his philosophy of kindness, generosity, and love with her in her work as a nurse.
“I can’t judge people if I’m going to care for them,” Lisa said.
“My son’s story always made me step back and realize that even young people … can be going through a lot at any given moment.
“So just be kind and love, and that’s how Justin lived his life.
“He just went down a bad road.”
Those with PTSD who are in crisis can call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room.
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Dial 1 to contact the Veterans Crisis Line.
You can also reach the Crisis Line by texting 838255 or clicking here to start a Confidential Veterans Chat with a counselor.
Click here to find a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility or here to locate a VA PTSD program.
Find a Vet Center to help with the transition from military to civilian life at http://tinyurl.com/ydercj82.
Call 1-877-WAR-VETS (1-877-927-8387) to reach the 24/7 Veteran Combat Call Center and speak with another combat veteran.
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