John Preston can barely talk when he recounts losing his brother Michael, a veteran, to suicide. “I didn’t see it coming,” Preston tells PEOPLE. “He was falling apart, and I missed it.” Now, the singer-songwriter — who is also a veteran — uses his music to help prevent suicide among those who served.
“I want to stop it from happening,” John says. “That’s my mission.”
A former Marine, John’s musical repertoire includes songs about suicide and its aftermath, and the proceeds go to suicide-prevention charities.
“Superman Falls,” about Michael, references a scene veterans instantly will understand. The song’s lyrics “seven hands on the trigger, pulling the trigger” places the listener at a military funeral, with its traditional 21-gun salute.
“Before I’m Gone” is a suicide note meant to dissuade someone from carrying out an irreversible final act.
A series of heartaches and struggles sent John on his lifesaving mission. After returning home from Iraq in 2004, John grappled with depression, post-traumatic stress and alcohol abuse. Immersed in his own problems, he didn’t realize that his brother Michael, then a police officer, was also was in trouble.
“He was the strong one,” John says. “I never saw that he was struggling.”
In 2015, the brothers’ beloved father died. The loss sent the family reeling.
“I went into blackout drunk every night after work,” John says. “I lost my hustle. I started to feel fake. I was a drunk.”
Six months later, Michael took his own life. John, who was devastated, moved into action.
“From the moment I got home from Mike’s funeral, I knew I had to do something,” John says. “I was thinking, ‘How I can make this a project?’ The light came on and I started moving toward it.”
John stopped drinking. He devoted himself to creating music that would support troubled veterans and their families. He donated the proceeds to veterans’ groups such as the Valkyrie Initiative, Boot Campaign and others.
His activism has had an unexpected side effect: troubled veterans learn about his songs, and contact him directly for help.
Iraq War veteran Cody Ingram reached out and was surprised to get a response.
“All I did was send him a message telling him I’m going through some things,” Ingram, 26, tells PEOPLE. “His response was super quick. He told me it was a hard adjustment to civilian life.”
Ingram confided things to Preston he’d never told anyone else. “In the military you are not supposed to break down or let things get to you,” Ingram says. “I’m not embarrassed to say it now, but I was before. I tried to commit suicide.”
At Preston’s urging, Ingram called a Veterans Administration hotline.
“They sent a police officer to pick me up and drive me to the VA,” Ingram says. He instantly was admitted to an inpatient PTSD program.
“The first thing I did when I got out was call John and tell him I was okay,” Ingram says. “He saved my life.”
Others reach out with similar sentiment.
“You saved my life for the last 7 days my husband left me right after I had cancer without anything,” a woman wrote to Preston. “So when I think about suicide I’ll listen to your song. Thank you.”
The anti-suicide message is vitally important, say members of the military community.
“Music like John Preston’s reminds me us that we are all battle buddies in uniform and that we are still not alone when we come home,” says Daniel Alarik, the CEO of Grunt Style, a military-themed clothing company.
Now signed with Concore Entertainment, Preston is donating all profits from his newly released song “Before I am Gone” to Stop Soldier Suicide.
Ingram hopes the anti-suicide message will continue to spread.
“I just want everyone to know, if you know somebody who needs help and is going through something, help them,” Ingram says. “The worst thing you can do is be a bystander to a veteran who needs help. They may resist you at first, but you are doing the right thing.”
Ingram, Michael, the woman whose husband left her and others keep Preston focused and on track.
Says Preston: “My whole purpose in life is to create music that heals the souls of veterans who have served and their families who have suffered a loss.”