Military Life

After his son’s death, this Army vet found a new purpose

Jessica Manfre Avatar

Out of the embers of deadly fire, new life can blossom. Retired Army CW3 Jon. W. Ganues, has devoted his life to talking about mental health, suicide prevention and remembering his son.

In 2009, Airman Jon “Wesley” Ganues, Jr. was less than a week away from deploying to Iraq with his unit attached to Moody Air Force Base when he took his life. He was just 22 years old. Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org. The world is better with you in it!

Research by the Costs of War Project at Brown University found in 2021 that an estimated 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans who have served since 9/11 have died by suicide. This is over three times the number killed in combat. 

As a manager for the Men’s Program at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), Ganues uses the pain of loss to serve other families. 

“Wesly never really crawled, he just got up and walked at nine months old and learned to speak German at the same time he learned English, although he forgot the former very quickly around the age of 4,” Ganues shared. “He loved sports and played in a youth hockey league in Alaska. As a kid, he loved Legos and could build anything with just a mixed pile of them in front of him.”

Born on a military base in Germany, Wesley wasn’t always going to enlist in the Air Force. His father described being surprised when he made the announcement since he was just a year from graduating from Liberty University. But the family was proud. 

Planning Wesley’s funeral rather than saying goodbye before his first deployment was a devastating shock to his father. 

“After the shock of Jon losing his life to suicide had worn off, I felt numb. I was truly just going through the motions of day-to-day life. I sometimes thought of taking my own life, but always realized that would not bring him back and would certainly add to the pain everyone was already going through,” he explained. “My current wife, his bonus mom, found a military support group of other survivors, whose losses happened to be combat-related. However, over time we realized we were not a good fit for the group. We were all parents, but our pain was very different. I often felt shame and embarrassment that they could never understand.”

It was through finding TAPS and their National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar he found his tribe. 

“I learned I was entitled to grieve, which men have a hard time doing and I was finally able to say Jon’s name in the same sentence with the word suicide. I was able to move forward in my grief, allowing post-traumatic growth to occur,” Ganues said. “I was finally able to cast aside the stigma of suicide and openly talk about the subject.”

He started as a volunteer and eventually a mentor for TAPS. Leading the men’s program has brought everything full-circle for him. 

“Helping other grieving fathers, regardless of the manner of loss, allows me to honor Wesley and give back to TAPS,” he added.

As Americans utilize Memorial Day to recognize the fallen, Ganues hopes they recognize that the manner in which lives are lost doesn’t define the worth of the uniform. 

“Here at TAPS, we say the place and manner in which our loved ones die does not define who they were. Although the circumstances leading up to Wesley’s death are unpleasant and difficult, they will never overshadow his legacy. Jon was a fun-loving, caring and respectful person who would do anything he could to help someone,” he shared. “Although his time in the Air Force was short, he served proudly. After his death, I spoke to his leaders who all gave him exceptionally high praises and mentioned he was a great candidate for officer training school when the squadron returned from Iraq.”

While he knows the day is a celebration of all things red, white and blue, Ganues encourages those celebrating the weekend to reflect on those lost. 

“Memorial Day is normally associated with cookouts and outdoor fun, the start of the summer. Americans should take a few moments on this day to reflect on the freedoms they and others around the world possess due to the deaths of their fellow Americans who served,” he explained. “It is a day to honor and remember them, never forgetting that freedom is not free.”

You can learn more about TAPS and the work they do for the families of our fallen by clicking here.