Retired general, wife tell soldiers to fight stigma of mental illness
Carol Graham read a news story about a fatal attack on U.S. soldiers one morning eight months after her son took his own life, and she wondered if she had just lost a second son to war.
“Never in a million years do you think this can happen again,” her husband, retired Army Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, thought as Carol read the story to him.
The unthinkable happened to the Grahams that morning in February 2004. Their son, Lt. Jeff Graham died when an insurgent bomb detonated near him in western Iraq. His brother, ROTC student Kevin Graham, had killed himself in June 2003.
“In the midst of our unspeakable grief, we were overwhelmed again,” Mark Graham said.
Graham, 58, traveled to Joint Base Lewis-McChord this week to share his family’s story and to encourage soldiers to confront the “deadly stigma” that prevents troops from seeking help in moments of distress.
Their testimony resonates in a military community that lost more than 6,600 service members to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and hundreds more to suicide over the past decade.
Those deaths are indistinguishable in the pain they caused families, the Grahams said Friday.
“When you look at the pictures of Jeff and Kevin, you couldn’t tell which one died by suicide and which one died trying to save his platoon,” Carol Graham said to a Lewis-McChord theater crowded with soldiers.
“To us, you are all Jeff and Kevin,” she said.
They’re powerful speakers who make time for strangers to talk about suicide or the loss of loved ones. More than a dozen teary-eyed soldiers waited for them after their presentation, some with personal stories about reaching out to someone in need.
One soldier stood up in the theater and told hundreds of her peers that she once considered suicide. Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, Lewis-McChord’s senior Army officer, later thanked her for speaking up publicly.
“The stigma is ridiculous,” she said. “If you need help, get it. I’m stronger because I’ve been through that fire.”
The Grahams are honest about their own mistakes in missing signs of Kevin’s spiraling depression. They wanted to think their son was just sad.
They didn’t know how important his medication was when he stopped taking it because he didn’t want friends or soldiers to know he was on Prozac.
“Carol and I were part of the stigma,” Mark Graham said. “We missed it. We pulled out our credit card for everything else. Why didn’t we get our son the best medical care possible?”
Mark Graham said he nearly retired from the Army as a colonel just after Jeffrey’s death. “My tank is empty,” he told his commander.
Instead, he stayed in and championed openness about the emotional and psychological toll the two wars took on service members.
He held frank discussions about suicide as a commanding general at Fort Carson in Colorado, and he and Carol launched a nonprofit to raise awareness about mental health issues on college campuses. The couple also have a daughter who is married to a soldier.
Number has gone up
The number of soldiers taking their own lives has only climbed since Kevin Graham committed suicide. Last year, 182 active-duty soldiers took their own lives, up from 165 in 2011, according to the Army.
The Grahams say the numbers do not reflect improvements in attitude and care that the Army has made over the past decade. They point to increased openness about suicide in the Army as a sign of progress, as well as improved family programs and outreach that connects commanders with life-saving resources.
“We don’t know how many (lives) we have saved,” Carol said.
Yet some challenges remain difficult for the military. One soldier asked Mark Graham how the Army could ensure soldiers would not suffer career setbacks if they seek help.
Mark Graham could not make that promise. He told the soldier to consider getting help as a matter of life and death, and he cited resources that promise anonymity for troubled service members.
Brown, the Lewis-McChord senior officer, took the microphone and said soldiers have to trust that their careers will move forward. He said they should persist in finding officers or senior noncommissioned officers who will support them if they run into someone who does not.
“Are there soldiers out there who will hold it against you? Yeah. But the chain of command will support you,” he said.