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Sons’ Deaths Inspires Soldier to Help Others

All Posts  October 01 2009
 — By CJ Grisham

Major General Mark Graham is a man that knows sorrow, feelings of hopelessness, and tragedy. After losing two sons, he battled instincts to give up and live a life of grief and regret.

MG Graham visited Redstone Arsenal on 10 September to share his message of “faith, hope, and love” that he has gained through his experiences to more than 1000 Soldiers and Civilians in attendance at one of his two briefings of the day. As a career Soldier, Graham is a combat hardened Soldier. He never expected that he’d be fighting for his own happiness and purpose in life

In 2003, Graham lost his son, Kevin, to suicide. It was completely unexpected and devastated the family. Kevin was a top ROTC cadet and stellar student. He enjoyed working out and was the life of parties. People went to him with their problems, knowing that Kevin’s ear was always available and words of reassurance would follow.

Seven months later, his oldest son, Jeff, was killed during combat operations in Iraq. He was a 2LT in the Army and had earned the respect and admiration of his troops. He was a “lead from the front” type officer to the very end. On his last patrol in Baghdad, he spotted an IED attached to a guardrail and quickly halted his platoon. Looking back to ensure that everyone was halted and safe, the IED detonated, killing Jeff and one other Soldier. His attention to detail and alertness saved the lives of several Soldiers.

In room full of completely silent advanced individual training Soldiers, Graham relayed his thoughts of that day.

“My wife, Carol, came in and told me that CNN had just mentioned that two Soldiers were killed in the area where Jeff was operating,” he said.

Carol, his wife of over 32 years, asked if they would have known by now if Jeff was one of those killed. He doubted it. The visit soon followed.

Graham couldn’t believe that just seven months after losing one son, he had just lost another. The grief and depression took hold and they found it difficult to find happiness. He was so grief stricken that when he tried to convince his daughter, Melanie, to move closer to her parents, she told them she couldn’t. They just made her too sad.

After thinking about it long and hard, then-Colonel Graham decided that it was time to retire from military service.

“Yesterday you experienced a great sorrow and now your home seems empty. Your impulse is to give up amid your dashed hopes. Yes, you must defy that temptation for you are at the front lines of battle and the crisis is at hand. Faltering for even on moment would put God’s interest at risk. Other lives will be harmed by your hesitation and His work will suffer if you simply fold your hands. You must not linger at this point; even to indulge your grief.”

This was the devotional by L.B. Cowan that MG Mark Graham, commander of Division West, 1st Army at Fort Carson, CO, and his wife read the day he had made the decision retire from military service after the loss of his two sons. Graham realized that he couldn’t just give up. The quote was a sign of hope and purpose.

He began to dedicate his life and career to honoring the memory of his two boys and helping others deal with issues of depression and suicide. Although still dealing with his own pain and healing, Graham and wife became advocates for Soldiers who suffer with post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other mental health illnesses.

As a senior officer, he has made it a point to train his subordinates on mental health issues and has enlisted their help in changing the stigma associated with mental health issues within the military.

The military is known as a profession of arms. It trains its Soldiers to be killers and encourages them to hide their true emotions. Graham is working hard to smash that attitude and change the military mindset.

One day, he pulled his staff together and explained that this sort of thinking is “old school.” He told them that the Army needs to do things differently and create a “new school” of thought about depression and suicide. He pleaded with them to “get on the new school bus.”

His timing couldn’t be more appropriate. The Army recently released its August suicide statistics and the numbers don’t look good. Graham maintains, like Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth O. Preston, that even one suicide is a suicide too many.

In August, there were 11 suspected incidents of suicide among active duty troops. In 2009 alone, there were 71 confirmed acts of suicide with 39 still pending determination. MG Graham is determined to see these numbers disappear. One suicide is a suicide too many.

He encourages troops to take nothing for granted. He asked everyone in attendance to be mindful of their co-workers and battle buddies. He explained to them that grief and suffering is not a weakness. He implored them to seek help and to help each other.

Graham told the Soldiers to “get in front of” suicide. “Stop it BEFORE it happens,” he said. He noted that if a Soldier fears that a buddy or co-worker may commit suicide, don’t tell them need help; escort them to help.

He reiterated the Army’s ACE Campaign to be a friend and ASK if someone is hurting or thinking about suicide. CARE about their well-being and let them know you care. ESCORT them to get help. Don’t leave them alone and hope they seek help on their own.

Graham concluded his presentation by urging leaders in attendance to help get rid of the stigma of PTSD, depression, and grief. No more “suck it up,” an Army term for “get over it.” The stigma is a result of nothing more than fear and ignorance, he said. He also told those in attendance that may be suffering to seek help immediately – if not in front of everyone, to do so anonymously.

The Department of Defense has numerous programs available to which troops can seek anonymous help. One of those is MilitaryOneSource.com. Troops can also visit their local military hospitals or call the Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255).

(1) Reader Comment

  1. Andrew Bacevich

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