Mark Graham was the chief of staff at the Army’s artillery school at Fort Sill, Okla., when his boss approached him and delivered devastating news: Graham’s son Jeff had just been killed in a bomb blast in Iraq. With tears streaming down his face, Graham and then-Maj. Gen. David Valcourt told Graham’s wife, who reflected quickly on the cruelty of it all.
“Our boys are together again,” Carol Graham told her husband. “Wherever they are, they’re not alone anymore.”
The Graham family already had lost their other son, Kevin, to suicide a year prior. A bright student and ROTC cadet at the University of Kentucky, he had been planned to join the Army after graduating, but killed himself by hanging himself from a ceiling fan in apartment he shared with Jeff and their sister, Melanie. He had been struggling with depression for years, but his family never knew the full extent of it.
“We thought, ‘Our son has depression? No way! He’s going to be an Army doctor. He has great grades,” said the elder Graham, who retired as a two-star general in 2012.
The experience of the Grahams is described in “The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War.” The book, by Foreign Policy magazine managing editor Yochi Dreazen, was released this month, and traces the narrative of the Graham family from the couple’s first meeting at Murray State University in Kentucky.
Graham was dismayed to see how differently the deaths of his sons were treated. The family decided to open their lives to scrutiny because they wanted others to discuss mental illness. The book does so not only in sharing the family’s history, but in examining how war changes those who experience it, and the downward spiral it can cause after returning home.
“It was kind of a walk of faith and a little scary, but our Army family and our blood family have both been really supportive,” Carol said. “We feel like we’ve done the right thing.”
The general, who last served at Fort Bragg, N.C., as the director of operations, plans and training for U.S. Army Forces Command, said several writers had asked if his family would be willing to share their story in a book. They chose Dreazen after developing a familiarity with him after he traveled to Fort Carson, Colo., in 2009 to profile the general for the Wall Street Journal.
After losing his two sons, Graham was the the top commander on base as it grappled with a suicide problem. Seeking to change the culture about how suicide was viewed at Carson, he used his authority to make sure that all soldiers who died received full military funerals and memorial services, whether killed in combat or through suicide. The decision wasn’t popular with everyone, but he stood his ground.
The general now runs Vets4Warriors, a hotline staffed by veterans to take calls from active-duty troops. It is funded by the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, which was established by the Pentagon in 2011 to grapple with the military’s broad problem with suicide.
The book acknowledges the Grahams imperfections, including binge drinking and a previous lack of communication about a mental illness in the family. Mark Graham said it was hard to read, but feels the issues explored are “bigger than us.”
“I think people know me and my wife aren’t perfect,” he said. “My kids aren’t perfect. But we’re a normal American family.”