Graham Family Biographies

Mark Graham: A highly-decorated army general who led the military evacuation of post-Katrina New Orleans, Mark took command of a base ravaged by military suicide and put in place new systems—later replicated throughout the army—that sharply reduced the number of Fort Carson soldiers who took their own lives. Mark retired in May 2012 after 34 years in the Army and now helps direct a suicide prevention program in New Jersey.

Carol Graham: A quintessential army wife, Carol set aside her dreams of a career in social work to follow Mark to postings around the world and raise their three children, Jeff, Kevin, and Melanie. She would later devote her life to suicide prevention and become one of the nation’s most prominent mental health advocates.

 Jeff Melanie and Kevin Graham courtesy of The Graham Family

 Jeff, Melanie, and Kevin Graham

Jeff Graham: The oldest of the Graham children, Jeff dreamed of leading men into combat and replicating his father’s long career in the army. In February 2004, Jeff, 24, was killed saving his men from an IED in Iraq and hailed as a hero. He died just months before he was supposed to get married in the same church where Mark and Carol had held their own wedding three decades earlier.

Kevin Graham: A shy and sensitive young man, Kevin excelled at school and was set to follow his father and brother into the army after he graduated from the University of Kentucky. He had been diagnosed with depression and given a prescription for Prozac, but he hid the severity of his illness from his family and abruptly stopped taking the medication because he was afraid it would get him drummed out of the military. In June 2003, Kevin, 21, hung himself in the apartment he shared with his sister, which led the family to spend their lives haunted by their failure to get him the help he needed before he made the darkest of choices.

Melanie Graham: The youngest of the Graham children, Melanie was so devastated by the deaths of her two brothers that she dropped out of college and contemplated suicide. She later finished school and married a Special Forces veteran who had once worked for her father. She now lives in New York and works as a nurse, devoting her life to caring for others.

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A Conversation with Yochi Dreazen

Daniel Bayer/Aspen Security Forum

Daniel Bayer/Aspen Security Forum

Q)  You’ve been covering the military since 1999—for the Wall Street Journal, National Journal, and Foreign Policyand you won the Military Reporters & Editors Association’s top award for domestic military reporting in 2010. Your years of reporting have uncovered some unsettling information about the rate of suicide in the military. What were some of the most disturbing findings you discovered?

A)  There is an ingrained culture of stigma throughout the military that makes many troubled soldiers decide that seeking help would make their colleagues think less of them, prevent them from getting promotions, or potentially end their careers altogether. This means that the troops who most desperately need that help are often the ones most reluctant to ask for it. Until that stigma disappears—and there is no reason to think that will happen anytime soon—I fear that the suicide rate will continue to increase. That’s the most dispiriting aspect of this entire issue. I think most people hoped the army’s suicide rate would begin to come down when the wars ended, but that’s not the case. In 2012, more troops killed themselves than died in combat. In 2013, the suicide numbers were even worse. In 2014, with most troops out of Afghanistan, the rate has continued to increase. The Iraq War is over and the Afghan one is winding down, but the military’s war against suicide is likely to rage well into the future.

Q)  Your book, The Invisible Front, is the galvanizing story of the Graham family, an army family that lost two sons—one to suicide and one in combat—and the very different ways their tight-knit military community marked their sons’ deaths. They have since devoted their lives to fighting the military’s suicide epidemic. Can you tell us a bit more about Mark and Carol and their sons, Jeff and Kevin?

A)  Mark and Carol were college sweethearts who got married right after they graduated from Murray State University in Kentucky. Mark had attended the school on a military scholarship and expected to do a few years in the army before attending law school and building a life in the civilian world. Instead, he fell in love with the military and ultimately spent 34 years as an officer, rising to the rank of major general. Carol had studied to be a social worker, but she set that aside to follow Mark to postings at bases across the world. They had three children: Jeff, the eldest and most outgoing, grew up dreaming of a long career in the army; Kevin, the middle child, who was a shy and gentle man who hid his lifelong battle with depression from his friends and family; and Melanie, the youngest Graham, who idolized her older brothers and decided to attend the University of Kentucky largely so that she could go to school with them and live in their off campus apartment. They were extraordinarily close-knit. Looking back to those happier times, Carol says, often through tears, that she had a Walt Disney family.

Q)  How did you first meet the Graham family?

A)  I met them in early 2009, when I was at the Wall Street Journal. I had dozens of military friends from my time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and several took their lives shortly after coming back to the United States. The deaths hit me hard—these were men who had survived heavy combat, only to die after returning home—and alerted me to the terrible fact that suicide was an epidemic rapidly spreading through the entire military. I asked sources of mine at the Pentagon about officers who had seen the wave coming and tried to find ways of bringing the numbers down, and they all mentioned a general in Colorado named Mark Graham. I flew out there, spent several days with Mark and Carol, and later wrote a long feature for the Journal that profiled the family and their fight against military suicide.

YochiCasualSoldier

Q)  Much has been written about post-traumatic stress disorder. What exactly is PTSD, and is it easy to diagnose?

A)  PTSD is one of the signature wounds of war. It’s been around for as long as humans have taken up arms against each other, though it’s been known by different names. Soldiers shattered by the carnage of World War I were told they had shell shock. In World War II, military doctors said soldiers who were unable to return to the fight were suffering from “combat fatigue.” The term PTSD dates back to the post-Vietnam era, when hundreds of thousands of veterans returned home complaining of overpowering feelings of anger, sadness, and anxiety. Today, military doctors believe that PTSD will be one of the saddest and most dangerous legacies of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers can suffer traumas but then not develop PTSD for decades. That makes diagnosing the disease far harder, and also means that we won’t have an accurate measure of how many veterans of the two wars were affected by PTSD for decades to come.

Q)  How many soldiers—both veterans and those currently serving—do you estimate to be suffering from PTSD or some other form of mental illness? Are the rates of suicide higher among those in the military versus regular civilians?

A)  The numbers are hard to pin down because many troops and veterans are still scared to admit they have PTSD, but we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people. The military estimates that at least 152,986 active-duty personnel have been diagnosed with PTSD since 2001, while the Department of Veterans Affairs says roughly 30 percent of the more than 1 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan that they’ve treated at one of their hospitals have PTSD. Those numbers are unfortunately likely to rise even higher in the future: research done following the Vietnam War found that many veterans didn’t develop PTSD until years after the war ended. That means Iraq and Afghanistan will still be causing casualties long after the guns of war have fallen silent.

YochiSoldier

Q)  You’ve experienced PTSD firsthand after spending two years embedded in Iraq. What kind of help did you seek? How did your own experience influence the book?

A)  It took me a long time to even accept that I needed help, let alone to actually reach out for it. When I moved back to the United States after several years living in Iraq, I had trouble falling asleep and regularly felt sudden and uncontrollable flashes of anger. Years later, at a particularly difficult point in my life, I started to feel suicidal. A close friend brought me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with severe PTSD and gave me prescriptions for anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications. I’ve been in therapy ever since, and that counseling has saved my life. I was drawn to this story because I have lived it myself.

Q)  The Grahams lecture about their heartbreaking story all across the country. This must be such a taxing and difficult thing to do. What do they hope to accomplish with these talks?

A)  I’ve watched them give those speeches all over the country, and it never gets easier for them. They often have to stop midway through to compose themselves, and they rarely make it through without crying. But Mark and Carol have devoted their lives to the suicide fight, and they share their story over and over again in the hope that they might persuade someone in the audience to get help before it is too late.

Q)  While commander at Fort Carson, one of the largest military bases in the country, Mark used the base as a lab for testing new forms of suicide prevention. What did he find? Did his approach work to help bring down the number of suicides on the base?

A)  Mark’s general approach was to look for new ways of making it as easy as possible for troubled soldiers to get help. Early in his tenure, for instance, he set up a hotline where soldiers or their family members could contact him directly if they were suicidal or knew of someone who was at risk of harming themselves. His most important move was to create a so-called “embedded behavioral health” program, which assigned a team of about a dozen behavioral health specialists to a single combat brigade of roughly 3,500 soldiers. The teams operated out of the brigade’s existing medical clinic so soldiers would get used to the idea that seeing a psychologist for depression was no different from seeing a nurse for a sprained ankle. The behavioral health staffers also worked exclusively with one brigade, giving them a chance get to know the unit’s soldiers before the troops deployed so they’d be better equipped to spot at-risk personnel when the unit came home. The brigade’s soldiers, meanwhile, saw the same therapists repeatedly, giving them a level of comfort and trust that would have been impossible to develop with counselors the troops saw only once or twice. Dozens of such teams have since been created and put in place at virtually every large army base in the country. Mark’s programs worked wonders at Fort Carson. In 2008, Mark’s first full year at the base, its suicide rate was 66 per 100,000, triple the army average. By 2009, when he was wrapping up his tenure, it had fallen to 49 per 100,000. In 2010, with his new programs firmly in place, it fell to 31 per 100,000.

Q)  What happens to the standing of a respected career soldier who develops PTSD? What kinds of resources are made available to him or her? Can he or she keep serving?

A)  It depends on whether that soldier decides to seek help. Most of those who develop PTSD keep it to themselves, which leads a small but growing minority to eventually take their own lives. Soldiers who admit to having PTSD face three challenges. The first is that there is a real possibility that they will be shunned or mocked by their fellow troops. The second is that they might be drummed out of the military by commanders who continue to believe that PTSD is a myth and that a soldier who claims to have an invisible wound is simply a coward. The third challenge is perhaps the most daunting: the military has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to hire as many mental health professionals as possible, but it still doesn’t have remotely enough. Many soldiers and veterans wait months for an appointment with a counselor, and those psychologists and psychiatrists are often so overworked that all they are able to do is prescribe a medication like Xanax or Ambien. In several cases, troubled soldiers who had sought help waited so long for an appointment that they killed themselves before ever seeing someone who could have walked them back from the ledge.

Q)  In your opinion, what is the single most important thing the military can do to help bring down the rates of suicide?

A)  Make clear that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and that coming through war with an invisible wound should cause no more shame than coming through it with a physical one. That message would be even more effective if it came from a general. Dozens of senior officers spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many of them have privately told me that they thought they had PTSD or some other form or war-related depression or anxiety. The problem is that virtually no generals have been willing to admit that publicly. In a hierarchical organization like the military, many young soldiers will only feel comfortable seeking help if they hear generals speak of their own struggles and see that seeking help didn’t derail those officers’ careers. That message needs to come from the top.

Q)  What was the hardest thing for you in writing this book?

A)  Trying to bring Kevin and Jeff Graham, both of whom died far too soon, back to life so readers would see them as real people rather than just characters in a book. That meant asking Mark, Carol, and Melanie to share memories of the most painful parts of their lives again and again in our interviews. Mark and Carol have found purpose in their sons’ deaths and devoted their lives to saving other troubled troops, but they are parents first and foremost, and they still openly cry when they talk about Kevin and Jeff.

Q)  If there is one thing you hope readers will take away from reading The Invisible Front what would it be? Do you think your book is relevant to people not in the military, and if so, why?

A)  That suicide is a national problem, not just a military one. More people now kill themselves than die in car crashes, and the rates–especially among baby boomers hammered by economic woes–continue to skyrocket higher. Our all-volunteer army reflects the society in which its soldiers were raised, and any problem that affects the country also affects those sent off to war. Suicide is one of those problems, and it’s getting worse in every segment of American society.

Q)  For people who read The Invisible Front and are passionate about this issue, what ways are there for them to get involved?

A)  There is an array of organizations that try to help veterans get the help they need, most notably a wonderful nonprofit called Give an Hour, which has a network of thousands of psychologists and psychiatrists who each see at least one veteran per week at no charge. Donating money to them is a great, immediate way of helping. But some of the best ways to get involved are also the simplest.

YochiDog

If you know of a veteran in your community, ask them how they’re doing and really try to listen to their answers. If you can tell that they’re suffering and showing clear signs of depression, try to persuade them to get the help they need before it is too late. If you are looking to fill a job, strongly consider hiring a veteran and try not to fall into the trap of thinking all veterans are loose cannons capable of exploding at any minute. Don’t simply thank these veterans for their service. We sent these men and women off to fight in our name. They deserve more than just our gratitude once they come home.