Bowers family still lives with pain of loss of son


It’s a day that Brenda and John Bowers will never forget.

The morning of Oct. 17, 2009, John – better known as Junior – walked out to their garage and found their 27-year-old son Rusty dead.

He had committed suicide.

Eight years later, the pain has never subsided for the Bowers family, but they’ve tried to help others in the area by forming the Rusty Bowers Coalition and hosting the annual “Lifesavers Walk.” This year’s walk – the sixth annual – will be held Sept. 16 from 10 a.m. to noon at Yowell Meadow Park.

Since starting the walk and forming the coalition in 2012, the Bowers have found partnership and support through Alan Rasmussen, a suicide prevention specialist with Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services.

Still, the pain never really goes away.

“He was a good boy”

John Russell Bowers III, Rusty as his family called him, was born Aug. 16, 1982 to John and Brenda Bowers.

He was like most kids growing up, always a smile on his face and involved in a multitude of activities – playing sports and hanging out with his friends.

It wasn’t until his teenage years that the Bowers family started to see a change in their happy young man – noticing that he would have periods where he was sullen and withdrawn.

An A/B student through elementary and middle school, he lost interest in his studies in high school and eventually attempted to drop out.

His mother wouldn’t have it.

She wouldn’t let him quit school, going as far to call the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Department to send out a deputy to talk him into going to school. He didn’t go that day, but he finished – graduating with the class of 2000.

“We wouldn’t let him quit,” Brenda said. “We even called the sheriff’s department and they sent a lady deputy out and she talked to him. He ended up going up not going that day, but he finished.”

“At the end, he walked up to me, he gave me the diploma, bust out laughing and said ‘here Mom, you worked harder for this than I did,” Brenda said. “I’m sure he was very glad, he graduated.”

After graduation, he bounced around from job to job – that’s when his parents started to notice signs of depression.

“At the time we really figured out, that he might be depressed, he was of age and once they are of age there’s nothing really you can do,” Brenda said. “If he were 16 or 17, I would have forced him to at least go talk to someone.”

Brenda was an engaged mother, she kept pestering her oldest son – one she fought so hard to conceive. She always called Rusty her miracle baby, and she could tell when there was something troubling him.

“I always thought something may be wrong, and I’d ask him and he’d always say ‘Mom, I’m fine,’” Brenda said.

He worked for Belk, but quit. He would be excited about getting a new job, Brenda said, but within weeks or months she would find him sulking around on the couch. He

“Rusty, I could see depression, but I’m not sure if he was bi-polar,” Brenda said. “One day he’d up and happy ‘I got this new job.’ He’d work a couple of months and then he’d not go in and he’d start moping around.”

All his employers noted what a hard worker he was, Junior said, but he would have another bout of depression and not go back.

“A lot of the signs we noticed after it happened,” Junior said. “Before, we noticed he was stressed out a lot of times. He’d get depressed I guess. You think back to what you could have done.”

“I’ll always regret going to bed.”

The day he committed suicide, Rusty worked an afternoon shift at Mama’s Pizza. He came home and laid on the couch, with Brenda questioning if he was supposed to work that night.

He was, but he never went in. She sat on the chair, watching him, quizzing him if he felt alright. His continued answer was “Mom, I’m OK.”

He wasn’t.

Brenda went to bed at 1 a.m.

At 7 a.m. Junior and his younger brother Dustin found him in the garage.

“I’ll always regret going to bed and leaving him that night because I think he was just waiting for me to just go away,” Brenda said.

Junior choked back emotion as he remembered that morning. He doesn’t talk about it often – it hurts too much. He found his oldest son – his miracle baby – dead in their garage.

“It’s unbearable,” Junior said through tears. “I’d hate to think about anyone else having to go through what I went through.”

The Bowers were in a dark place for a few years, their other son Dustin – who had to help his father retrieve his brother – struggled. The family didn’t know where to turn or how to cope. In 2012, they decided to branch out on their own and start “A Walk for Rusty.” It was through that walk that they met Rasmussen, and he helped shine a light on their situation.

“We soon realized we weren’t walking just for Rusty we were walking for many people out there like us,” Brenda said.  “There’s lots of people, you think what did I do wrong? He does landscaping, I clean houses. You think, did I not raise him right? Were we so low class? I think it has helped to know that you’re not alone and it’s probably helped them feel the same way.”

For Junior, it’s still hard to talk about his son at the walks, but if he’s able to save another life and stop the heartache for another father, he’s accomplished his goal.

“It’s too hard,” Junior said. “When we have the walks, it tears you to pieces. But in the long run, we’re helping people.”

Rasmussen has been their “rock,” Brenda said. He’s listened to their concerns and he’s helped when others have reached out to her for help.

“He’s always been there for us, he’s a great friend. He’s like family to us, he’s never let us down,” Brenda said.

It’s been hard to share their grief, but Brenda thinks about what Rusty would have wanted. He was a caring soul, he routinely helped people and she believes he wouldn’t want anyone else to suffer the way they have.

“I always say, we really studied about this and we talked about it – would Rusty want us to put his name out there with the word suicide?” Brenda said. “Rusty carried his heart on his shoulder, and we just decided that’s what he would want – if it saved one person.”

Rasmussen said that the Bowers goal is what drove them to work together, pointing out that without community partners and coalitions, the important work wouldn’t get done.

“We’re out here to save lives,” Rasmussen said. “Every event you do, you talk about issues and people show up to support it or they show up if they need help. If they need help, I’m going to get them to the right place to get that help.”

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Jeff Say is the editor for the Culpeper Times. He can be reached at