One man’s mission to support families after a veteran’s suicide

  • This retiree who never served now helps families of fallen veterans
  • Once A Soldier focuses on suicide deaths by offering aid and counseling
  • Suicides in the military are high and increasingly among the young
Image: Mary Hall/NewsNation. Photos courtesy of Getty Images and Misty Morris.

Image: Mary Hall/NewsNation. Photos courtesy of Getty Images and Misty Morris.

(NewsNation) — When a young veteran dies by suicide, many question what could have been done to prevent the tragedy.

Dave Barbush, founder of Once A Soldier, has turned his focus on the ripple effect: the devastating grief and financial crisis their families can face in the days and weeks after.

Kevin Johns knows too well how a lack of financial resources can re-traumatize a family. When his son, Jared, died by suicide in 2018, the funeral home wouldn’t let the family see his body until they had paid a deposit worth thousands — something they didn’t have.

“They sort of held him hostage from us,” he said. “My son is there and I can’t even see him or hold him — or even realize it until I can actually see it with my own eyes.”

Once A Soldier and friends stepped in to cover the cost. The Department of Veterans Affairs did send $2,500 in survivor’s benefits several months later, Johns said. 

Once A Soldier’s focus is “postvention:” providing counseling and crisis financial aid to the families of veterans immediately after a suicide.

“So many people were doing prevention, I was like, ‘What happens afterwards? Like, what about the family?’” Barbush said. “When the dad kills himself … now there’s five kids with that. You know, 20 (veteran suicides) a day — that’s 20 families to us.”

“That’s the real number, you know?” he continued.

It’s estimated for every soldier who dies in a military operation, four veterans die at home by suicide, making it the second-leading cause of death among veterans under the age of 45. 

And deaths are trending younger: The suicide rate among veterans between 18 and 34 increased by 95.3% in the past two decades, according to the latest report released by the VA

They also die at rates almost three times higher than non-veterans and are twice as likely to die by overdose.

While tragic at any age, the deaths of younger veterans means their surviving family members are more likely to be children or spouses financially dependent on their income, Barbush says.

Multiple groups have been sounding the alarm about the impact on veterans families and the lack of help for them. Among them is the organization Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, also known as TAPS, which last year worked with 9,000 loved ones of veterans who died in all kinds of circumstances.

TAPS offers its own suicide-related counseling. In 2022, it published a guide to help families through their grief, stating: “There is still far too little focus on the impact these deaths have on family members.”

Once A Soldier is unique in the fact that Barbush is essentially a one-man band.

TAPS, for example, will take in $10 million or more in annual donations and pays multiple organizations to fundraise on its behalf.

Meanwhile, Barbush spends 20 hours a week on his project and takes almost no compensation. He raises about $100,000 a year and distributes essentially all of it, according to Once A Soldier’s most recent tax filing with the IRS.

Barbush, 60, spends many days on the phone with surviving spouses, children, grandparents and mothers. 

He’s become a bit of an expert in the logistics: advising a mother to keep her son in the morgue to save costs until they find a cemetery; helping a wife know what benefits to apply for first; walking a family through finding a biohazard specialist to clean up. 

“The stories that these families have to tell are riveting, heartbreaking,” he said. “It just goes on and on.”

Barbush never served in the military, but was inspired to found the small nonprofit after reading the 2016 VA report on the topic — the same year the agency began prioritizing prevention efforts. 

At that time, older veterans were most at risk. And the agency has had success in its efforts: The overall rate of veteran suicide fell in 2019 for the first time in decades. 

“Many of the suicides with veterans are not around necessarily chronic major depression, not around necessarily chronic thoughts of suicide,” said Matt Miller, the VA’s executive director of suicide prevention. “They more so may center around an immediate and big problem or issue that leaves the veteran feeling isolated, embarrassed, ashamed, alone.”

He highlighted a range of efforts the VA has implemented to prevent these deaths, including gun storage safety awareness campaigns, a free crisis hotline for family and friends of veterans called Coaching Into Care, as well as the veterans suicide prevention hotline.

He also pointed to information on the agency’s site specifically about longer-term postvention resources for surviving families and friends, although he admitted it can be challenging for families to navigate finding information.

“One of the most difficult and burdensome aspects of of this position … is feeling that sense of responsibility and feeling that if one veteran dies by suicide, we were not doing enough,” he said.

Still, younger suicides are often proving more difficult to prevent, experts say, perhaps in part because more soldiers are living with the scars of injuries that would’ve killed them 50 years ago.  

Even if family members qualify for compensation as a dependent or on a survivor’s pension, the average time it takes to process a claim is about 80 days, according to a written statement provided by the VA.

That delay is why Once A Soldier is so needed, says Misty Morris, a mom of two whose husband, Anthony, died by suicide in 2021. She had to turn to a GoFundMe page to be able to “send him back to God in a proud and dignified way,” she wrote on the page.

“You hear people say, ‘Well, the VA will bury me.’ They won’t,” she told NewsNation. “They do provide a service, you can get a headstone. … You’re still going to be liable for paying for the funeral for your spouse. You’re going to have to pay for that all out of your pocket.”

Most of Once A Soldier’s financial gifts are less than $1,000, which Barbush admits doesn’t cover a lot. He also hasn’t tracked how many families they’ve helped, but says he gets about one call a week.

The online reach is bigger, about 300 visits a day, often from people looking for information on counseling or even ketamine therapy for PTSD. Still, what makes the biggest impact, he says, is just listening.

“They are able to talk to somebody like me, even if I can’t pay for whatever,” he said. “Somebody is there for them at this time.”

If you or someone you know needs help, resources or someone to talk to, you can find it at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website or by calling 1-800-273-8255. People are available to talk to 24/7.


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