By Air Force Master Sgt. Greg Rudl
Special to American Forces Press Service
Oct. 10, 2008 - No one would have faulted Carol Graham or her husband, Army Maj. Gen. Mark A. Graham, if they had kept their enormous grief private. Their youngest son, Kevin, committed suicide in June 2003. Seven months later, their other son, Jeffrey, an Army lieutenant, was killed in Iraq.
Instead, the two have gone public with their personal tragedy to teach others about suicide prevention.
In front of more than 100 people at the Army National Guard Readiness Center here Oct. 8, Graham talked about losing her two sons and how it changed her life.
Her appearance was part of the Army National Guard's Suicide Prevention Program guest speaker series. She was introduced by Alice Nuttall, wife of Maj. Gen. James W. Nuttall, deputy director of the Army National Guard.
"Pain is the price we pay for being alive," said Graham, quoting Rabbi Harold S. Kushner from his book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People."
She and her family have had more than their share of bad things.
Kevin was a University of Kentucky senior and Army ROTC scholarship cadet when he took his own life. Jeffrey, a second lieutenant in the Army, was readying for a deployment to Iraq. Because of his brother's death, the Army offered him stateside duty instead. He declined.
On Feb. 19, 2004, while leading a foot patrol in Khaldiyah, Iraq, Jeff Graham stopped his platoon short of a bridge after noticing something out of the ordinary on the guard rail. As he was calling in the report, the roadside bomb detonated, killing him.
Graham, with Jeff's picture on a screen behind her, read a prepared statement in a somewhat tired, monotone voice about how she and her husband received the news, but couldn't accept it. Her husband felt that he couldn't lead any more, she said, and wanted to retire from the military.
"We joined every support group in Lawton [Okla.]," Graham said. Her husband was stationed at nearby Fort Sill at the time. In her despair, she thought, "How could the world keep spinning without Jeff and Kevin in it?" she told the audience.
But something happened at those recovery groups when the couple shared memories of their sons and the grief over losing them. They found that the more they talked about them, the better they felt. Instead of withdrawing, they decided to get involved in educating others about suicide and how to prevent it.
For the past four years, Graham has been instrumental in raising depression and suicide prevention awareness for families and soldiers at Fort Sill. She received the Oklahoma Governor's Commendation for Suicide Prevention and Depression Awareness in support of the post-traumatic stress disorder program in July 2004. She also was awarded the Texas Governor's Yellow Rose of Texas for her work with wounded soldiers and their families at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
Following Kevin's death, his parents established a memorial fund at the University of Kentucky to raise suicide and depression awareness. After Jeff's death, the fund was endowed and renamed for both.
Graham's somber tone in the first half of her talk changed to a lively exchange with the audience in the second half, as she stepped from behind the podium to take questions.
"Kevin wore the mask very well," she said, meaning he disguised his discontentment by putting up a normal front. He had won several awards in his ROTC class, she said.
Graham recounted the suicide warning signs her son was giving off -- indicators she didn't pick up on then, but now knows through education.
The mental health community agrees that the classic signs are talk of suicide, giving away possessions, acting in a bizarre manner, financial problems and withdrawal. Her son also had suicide risk factors, Graham said, including a history of depression that required medication and a family history of the illness. She found out later that her father suffered from depression most of his adult life.
Graham said she remembers talking to a Tricare health care representative over the phone and trying to get psychiatric help for her son. She was warned by others that it would cost $250 an hour. The representative said there wasn't a psychiatrist in the Tricare network in her area, so she didn't pursue it.
Guard members suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or contemplating suicide have more resources that can help them than ever before. One of those is military OneSource, a program through which they can receive up to six sessions with a counselor for no charge.
Graham warned that people considering suicide show signs. "No one [who] commits suicide is compulsive," she said, explaining that no one thinks about it for the first time and does it. It's a gradual process, she said.
"It's like a jar sitting on the shelf," she explained. "They take it down several times and put it back before finally going through with it."
She ended her talk with a plea to everyone in the room: "I beg you, if your buddy is showing signs of suicide, do what we didn't do and reach out to them. And don't be afraid of mentioning the 'S' word."