FRANKFORT — A high-ranking Army commander who lost both sons — one by suicide, the other in combat — is channeling his grief into action as a leading national voice against what he calls the stigma of mental illness, particularly among military personnel.
Mark Graham and his wife, Carol, were keynote speakers Friday at a suicide prevention conference at the Frankfort Convention Center attended by about 300 people, many of whom have also lost loved ones to suicide. The couple's youngest son, Kevin, hanged himself at his apartment in 2003 when he was an ROTC cadet at the University of Kentucky.
The Grahams' trauma amplified seven months later when their oldest son, Jeffrey, died in a bomb blast in Iraq, where he was stationed as a platoon leader. The events nearly pushed the highly decorated general out of the military for good.
Eventually, however, he determined his true calling was to stay and help spread a vital message that getting treatment for depression is a sign of strength, not weakness, especially with the stress of armed service.
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"Our journey has tested our faith, it has rattled our moral courage and left us feeling empty and hopeless at times," said Graham, a former commanding general in Fort Carson, Colo., who is assuming a new role at Fort McPherson in Atlanta. "Most importantly, though, it has provided us direction."
The military has improved its response to mental illness in recent years, Graham said, although eliminating its stigma in an environment where toughness is supposed to prevail remains difficult.
Now when a soldier enters basic training, he or she is given a playing card — an ace of hearts — with instructions on the back. The letters A-C-E represent the words "ask, care and escort" — the steps all soldiers are expected to take if they suspect depression among one of their comrades.
"We need to get in front of suicide," Graham said. "We must work to prevent it by action, not just figure it out after the fact."
The Grahams were stationed in South Korea when Kevin took his own life, but he constantly assured them life as a cadet was actually helping curb his previously diagnosed mental illness because it gave him a sense of community. However, his parents think he went off his antidepressant when he entered training to avoid detection by his peers.
"I felt like the worst mother in the world — shame, embarrassment, guilt, to lose a son to suicide," said Carol Graham, a Kentucky native who met her husband when both attended Murray State University. "Part of that will never go away."
Now she blames herself for not noticing warning signs earlier. For example, she recalls Kevin — an avid Shakespeare reader — telling her over the phone that he thought his brain must not work anymore because he was having trouble understanding Hamlet.
"If he'd called and said, 'My lungs don't work, my heart doesn't work, my kidneys don't work,' I would have been all over it," she said. "But sometimes when people say, 'My brain doesn't work,' we don't take it seriously."
She still wears a dog tag with Kevin's picture on one side and Jeffrey's on the other and chooses which side to show depending on whose story she most wants to share each day. On this day, Kevin's story directly spoke to the conference.
"The single most important lesson I have learned is that no one is isolated from hardship," Mark Graham said. "Everyone seems to be going through something, either directly or indirectly. Leaders are human and just as vulnerable as anyone else.
"We are compelled to speak out to all the Kevins of the world who have no voice," he said.