Mama, take this badge from me

Mama, take this badge from me

I can’t use it anymore

It’s getting dark, too dark to see

Feels like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

Mama, put my guns in the ground

I can’t shoot them anymore

That cold black cloud is comin’ down

Feels like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

     ~Lyrics by Bob Dylan

It was a cold January night, 1991, when the carload of teens arrived at Rodger Dos’ rural Dunkerton home. The group had enjoyed an evening of pizza,  bowling and hanging out together. As Rodger prepared to exit the vehicle, the driver hit the eject button on the car stereo. Twenty-six years ago, the only digital music that existed came in the form of a compact disc. And the closest thing to a playlist was a cassette recording of favorite songs, a mix tape. That night, the teens had been listening to Rodger’s mix tape.

“No, just keep it,” Rodger said, as the tape was offered to him.

“No,” the driver replied. “It’s your tape. Take it.”

Back and forth the polite banter went, each insisting the other should keep the tape. Finally, as Rodger got out of the car, he said, “No, just keep it.”

Three days later, this seemingly insignificant exchange took on a whole new meaning. Sophomore Troy Belmer was one of several friends who received a call that day from Rodger’s mom, who, after waking up, realized Rodger wasn’t in his room. At school, the classmates had no reason to be alarmed. Rodger would often go for a walk and spend time alone. He was probably down by the pond, they figured, certainly nothing for Mom to get worked up about.

It wasn’t until later that morning, when the bell rang signaling the end of the class period and all of the students were instructed to remain in their classrooms, that the possibility of something being wrong began to creep into their minds. Not only was Rodger not in school that day, neither was one of his best friends, Ryan Nesbit.

In 1991, class sizes at Dunkerton High School numbered fewer than 40. In such a setting, students, while sharing the same variety of interests commonly found in larger schools, were still well acquainted with their classmates. As the members of the Class of 1993 were gathered together in a room that morning, they soon realized something was very, terribly wrong. The announcement there had been a shooting was punctuated by the awful reality that Rodger Dos, a popular, intelligent student who played sports, got good grades and was a member of the National Honor Society, had pulled the trigger of a gun and taken his own life. His very good friend, Ryan, who had responded to the phone call from Rodger’s mom and set out looking for him, was the one to find Rodger’s body, lying in the snow.

For those closest to someone who has committed suicide, it can be difficult to find the words to adequately express the sense of loss they feel as they struggle to understand how and why such a thing could happen. While each person is different, survivors can experience a bevy of powerful emotions, ranging from extreme sadness to anger. The frustration felt trying to answer the “why” question is often expressed in five simple words: “We never saw it coming.”

There is no way the teenagers closest to Rodger Dos could ever have imagined he was planning to take his own life. Psychologists point to the timeline associated with the development of the brain’s frontal lobes for a scientific explanation why so many teens believe that nothing truly bad can happen to themselves or their friends.

Those who grew up with Rodger Dos, who knew him since they went to school together in kindergarten, will never know the reason why he chose to end his life. Years later, as Troy Belmer recalled the final weeks of Rodger’s life, the signs were subtle. But they were there.

Take Rodger’s mix tape, for example. On Saturday night in the car, it was simply a collection of current hit songs the teens were enjoying. A close listen to the tape days later after Rodger’s death, though, revealed song choices and lyrics with a recurring theme of death and dying.

As someone who played a guitar and wrote songs of his own, Roger would sometimes share them with his friends. At the time, his songs didn’t look or sound dramatically different than much of the music that was popular in the early 1990s. Looking back, Troy can recall phrases contained in some of Rodger’s lyrics that referenced “not getting kicked around” and statements such as “don’t come crying when I’m gone.”

In the weeks leading up to his suicide, his friends can also recall times when Rodger offered to give them personal possessions, saying his parents wouldn’t know, or wouldn’t care, if he gave them away.

“We didn’t catch it,” Troy said, “but hindsight is 20-20.”

Not surprisingly, Rodger’s death deeply affected Ryan Nesbit. One can only imagine the pain and horror associated with making the awful discovery of finding his friend, seeing things that he could never unsee. As roommates for a time after they graduated from high school, Troy watched his good friend struggle to cope with the loss over a period of years. 

The grief and anger Ryan felt led him to question his faith. If God is great, how could He allow this to happen? It would take some time for Ryan to pull out of the downward spiral that followed Rodger’s suicide, thanks, in part, to counseling and participating in support groups. Throughout that difficult time, Troy was there for his friend, listening and offering encouragement.

“Suicide doesn’t end the chances of life getting worse, it eliminates the possibility of it ever getting any better.” – Unknown

Years later, as the two friends and their wives were reminiscing, it was Ryan who made the suggestion.

“We should do something,” he said, affirming the belief the two friends could take the tragic experience they shared and turn it into something positive for the community.  It didn’t take long before they began exploring ways to advocate for suicide prevention. Shining a bright light on the darkness of depression and isolation, finding ways to help improve a person’s physical and mental health, these are the things that can help save lives, they reasoned.

From that initial seed planted in 2009 has grown an organization committed to raising awareness for suicide prevention. Symbolized by the semi-colon punctuation mark, the message is a simple one: “Your story isn’t over yet.”

As Ryan and Troy pondered the best way to convey their message, they soon decided on hosting a 5K Run/Walk in their hometown of Dunkerton.

“I don’t think we realized how big it would get, because the first year just blew us out of the water,” Troy recalled. Starting in January, when plans for their first 5K event began, the pair believed the goal of finding 100 participants was ambitious, but realistic. When the day of the event arrived in June, confirmation of just how well their message had resonated with the community came in the form of 450 runners and walkers, ready to take on the course.

“When you feel like giving up, just remember the reason why you held on for so long.” – Unknown

Over the years, Ryan and Troy, with the help of a very supportive community, the 5K event has become so much more than a three mile run on a summer Saturday morning. The experience now encompasses Friday, as well. When participants begin picking up their packets in the afternoon, they can register for the hundred or so door prizes that are given away. They can also visit a number of booths featuring merchandise offered by a number of groups who donate the funds they raise to Alive & Running. The organization has the support of several corporate donors, which allows them to keep their 5K entry fee much lower than what is typically charged for such an event.  The Friday night experience includes food and refreshments provided by a local church, followed by a very somber program where the names of loved ones who have been lost are read aloud. It’s a number which, sadly, grows longer each year. The evening usually includes a guest speaker before concluding with some form of remembrance ceremony. In previous years, loved ones have been remembered with the lighting of lanterns and the launch of balloons.

When Saturday arrives, all attention is focused on the 5K, as hundreds of runner and walkers take to the streets of Dunkerton. At the conclusion of the race, a brief awards ceremony is conducted.

“If you are looking for a sign not to kill yourself, this is it.” – Unknown

In less than ten years, Alive & Running has grown well beyond the scope of one 5K weekend. Working in conjunction with the Iowa Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Alive & Running is a sponsor of support groups in Waterloo and Waverly. It can be difficult for people to come to their first support group meeting, Troy acknowledges. Some are not sure what to expect. Others may think they may be required to talk. It’s not like that at all, Troy explains. Some people don’t say anything at all. They just sit and take it all in. Others may be more vocal because the passage of time has helped remove them from the immediacy of the loss. 

As one of the moderators for Alive & Running’s very active Facebook page, Troy is able to keep the community up to date with area events and activities promoting suicide awareness and prevention. And as the “face” of suicide prevention efforts in the Waterloo area, attending support group meetings and the use of social media has helped him keep in touch with those whose lives have been affected by suicide. 

“As you go to these support meetings and you see how people were six months ago versus today, you think, ‘Wow, they’re in a better spot,’” he said.

While the work of suicide prevention can, at times, be daunting, Troy is quick to credit those who generously give of their time and talents to support Alive & Running’s mission; from the people of Dunkerton who work tirelessly to prepare for the annual 5K event, to the many individuals, groups and organizations who actively raise funds in support of the work they do.

“I guess I just always look at it that we’re trying help people,” he said. 

Over the course of a year, Troy and Ryan will make dozens of appearances at the request of schools, colleges, churches and organizations. Often they will be joined by speakers who have a very personal story to share about how they, themselves, or a family member, reached a point where they felt they did not want to live anymore. It takes great courage to stand in front of a group of strangers and deliver such an intensely personal message. While the location, audience and speaker of each event can change, the essential message remains the same:

“Your story isn’t over yet.”


Suicide Prevention: Know the Signs

Depression and thoughts of suicide can be brought on by a variety of causes, including setbacks or disappointments in life, loss, divorce or breakup, financial stress, medical illness, family history and genetics, trauma and stress (ranging from being unemployed to getting married), pessimism, low self-esteem, physical conditions, medical conditions, etc. Any one of these causes or a combination of several can contribute to depression because they bring on physical weakness and stress.
The following are some of the signs associated with individuals who may be considering suicide:

  • Making statements such as, “I don’t want to live anymore”, “There is nothing to live for anymore”, “People will be better off without me”
  • Dramatic changes in mood
  • Loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed
  • Increase in drug and alcohol use
  • Risk taking behaviors
  • Aggressive, impulsive and/or violent acts
  • Expressions of hopelessness and purposelessness
  • Lack of self care or outright neglect of self
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Feeling tired most of the time
  • Gaining or losing a significant amount of weight
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Withdrawal from family, friends, and other interests
  • Giving away prized possessions and/or making a will; tidying up personal affairs; writing notes; making notes on belongings
  • Reconnecting with old friends and extended family as if to say goodbye
  • Previous unresolved or recent suicide attempt(s)
  • Unusual happiness and peace after an intense period of turmoil and displaying some of the above characteristics

Support Groups

For those struggling with the loss of a loved one to suicide, these group meetings in Waterloo and Waverly can be a source of comfort, understanding and support. They are being provided in partnership with donations from Alive and Running and the support of the Iowa Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:
Cedar Valley Hospice

Survivors of Suicide Support Group

Kimball Ridge Building, Boardroom on 1st Floor 2101 Kimball Ave., Waterloo

Contact: Kassidi or Nathan at 319.272.2002

Group meets fourth Thursday of each month, 6-7:30 PM. Please note: November’s meeting will be held on Nov. 16, due to the Thanksgiving holiday.
This ongoing, drop-in grief support group is open to individuals in the community who have lost a loved one to suicide. This group aims to help those grieving the death of a loved one and is a “drop-in” group – in the sense that you can come and go as you please depending on your needs or monthly availability. There is no cost to attend.


“Healing After a Loss to Suicide”

Heritage United Methodist Church, 1201 230th Street, Waverly (west of Waverly on Hwy. 3)

Group Facilitator: Bonnie Travers

Or contact Ryan Nesbit at rmnesbit@mchsi.com515-257-4499 or 641-990-4957
Group meets monthly on the second Saturday, 10 AM-Noon


Myths About Suicide

Myth: Talking to someone about suicide may give him or her the idea to attempt it.
A person who is experiencing a traumatic loss, emotional crisis or mental illness is already depressed and may already be having self-destructive thoughts or practicing life-threatening behavior. Talking to them about these thoughts and feelings creates an immediate connection that grounds them and provides them with an outlet for their fears and other emotions.

Myth: The majority of people who commit suicide are uneducated and poor.
In the United States the largest number of suicides are committed by middle-aged Caucasian males which, according to the US Census have the highest level of education and the largest earning potential in our society.

Myth: People who talk about suicide don’t usually do it. They just want attention.
According to research, as many as 75% of the people who commit suicide do or say something to indicate their state of mind and intentions before they take action. If a person goes to the extreme of threatening to commit suicide, it’s not about wanting attention, it’s about needing it.

Myth: If someone wants to take his or her own life, there is nothing that can be done about it.
Suicide is an ambivalent act with anywhere from 20 to 100 attempts (depending on age, sex and other circumstances) made for every completion. Most people who attempt suicide do not want to die. They want their pain to stop, which can lead to self-destructive and life-threatening acts.