Couple who lost two sons in less than a year work to help others deal with depression, PTSD

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comMarch 29, 2014 

A decade ago, Mark and Carol Shroat Graham experienced the deaths of their two sons within months of each other. Today, they work on a national scale to help others avoid or work through the problems they faced.

Kevin Graham, 21, a University of Kentucky pre-med student and a senior ROTC cadet, hanged himself from a ceiling fan in June 2003 after he stopped taking an antidepressant.

In February 2004, a roadside bomb in Iraq killed Army 2nd Lt. Jeff Graham, 24, a platoon leader who had recently graduated from UK. Graham was on foot patrol 50 miles west of Baghdad when he spotted an explosive device taped to a guardrail. As he warned his platoon, his father said, the device exploded.

In the decade since the two deaths, Mark and Carol Graham, a Frankfort native, have dedicated themselves to raising national awareness about mental illness and suicide prevention. They have also reached out to families who experienced combat deaths, and to those dealing with post-traumatic stress. Lives across the country have been touched as a result.

Last week, the Grahams said in an interview that they decided to find a path for their advocacy work as they left a Frankfort funeral home after making arrangements for Jeff.

"We were really struggling. We just talked to each other," said Mark Graham, a retired Army major general. "We said, 'The loss of our boys can be two tragic chapters in the book of our lives, or it can be the whole book.'"

They decided "that we've got other things to do with our life and in their name and in their memory," Mark Graham said.

The couple saw immediately that they wanted to help erase the stigma of mental illness and to warn others about untreated depression.

People found it easy to talk about Jeffrey's death because they viewed him as a hero, said Carol Graham. But the response to Kevin's death was markedly different, in that people were uncomfortable. Kevin had been uncomfortable and ashamed about his depression and was concerned about how taking medication would affect his plan of becoming an Army doctor, his mother said.

Carol Graham said that if Jeffrey had lived, he might be struggling with burns, or amputation, post traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury.

"To us, they are all Jeffrey and Kevins," she said.

The Grahams give speeches across the country about their experiences, and they have lent Kevin and Jeff's names and their support to programs in Kentucky, Colorado and Oklahoma.

After Kevin died, the couple donated money from his memorial fund for a UK suicide prevention program to establish QPR, which stands for Question, Persuade, and Refer — the three steps to help save someone from suicide.

In another initiative at UK, two of Jeffrey's classmates at the College of Engineering established a memorial scholarship fund, the Grahams said.

Additionally, UK's Gatton College of Business & Economics Graham Office of Career Management, funded by an anonymous donor and dedicated in 2012, is named in memory of Jeffrey. Jeffrey once told his father he looked forward to using the skills he learned at UK to help the people of Iraq rebuild their country.

A building called Graham Hall at the U.S. Army post at Fort Knox, which houses services necessary for soldiers to prepare for deployment, is named for Jeffrey.

In Oklahoma, Cameron University's Jeff and Kevin Graham Endowed Lectureship in Psychology advances the study and research of depression and suicide prevention, and the Graham Resiliency Training Center at Fort Sill, which offers soldiers help for their problems, is named in honor of Jeffrey.

And in El Paso County, Colo., the Jeff and Kevin Graham Memorial Crisis Hotline provides 24-hour support, and the Jeff and Kevin Graham Support Services offers support groups for people who have attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts.

While commanding Fort Carson, in Colorado, Mark Graham became nationally recognized as an advocate for suicide prevention. Since retiring from the Army, he has gone to work as the director of military, veteran and family support services at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care in New Jersey, which is sponsored by the Department of Defense. That program runs a 24-hour call center support line manned by veterans.

The Grahams have also shared their story in print.

A guide distributed nationally called "Words Can Work: When Talking about Depression" includes comments from the Grahams' daughter Melanie, who found Kevin's body. Melanie, a former Lexington resident, is now a nurse in New York City.

The Grahams were featured in a cover story in People magazine in 2009.

Journalist Yochi Dreazen wrote about the couple in 2009 when he was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Now deputy editor for news at Foreign Policy magazine in Washington, D.C., Dreazen said the Grahams are the subjects of a book he has written called The Invisible Front. The book is slated for publication in October.

"You had this prominent general and his wife who woke up every day and in a very literal sense tried to help ensure that other people didn't take their own lives the way that Kevin had taken his," Dreazen said. "It struck me then and, frankly, I believe it even more strongly now, that this is the war that matters."

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @vhspears

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service