NEW BRITAIN, Conn. -- After losing one son to suicide and another to a roadside bomb in Iraq just eight months later, Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Mark Graham implored those gathered inside Central Connecticut State University's Torp Theatre last week (April 11) to help banish the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness among veterans and military service members.
"What we're talking about today is a culture change," said Graham, a retired U.S. Army commander who served for more than 34 years. "We can't keep that hushed tone when we're talking about invisible wounds — because they can be deadly."
Kevin Graham, a senior Reserve Officers' Training Corps cadet, took his own life in 2003 at age 21 after discontinuing his medication used to treat depression, his father said. Graham and his wife, Carol, knew their son was struggling, he told the audience, but he said he didn't know much about mental illness at the time.
"We didn't know about depression. We had no idea," he said. "I knew our son Kevin was sad, but I didn't know he could die from being too sad."
"We did not get our son Kevin the help he needed, and we lost him," Graham continued. "And we'll never get him back."
In February 2004, eight months after Kevin's death, the Grahams' other son, Jeffrey, was killed outside Fallujah when an improvised explosive device on the side of the road was detonated remotely by a cell phone, said Graham. He compared the deaths of his two boys to seeing the Twin Towers fall in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
"To lose both of our boys was beyond comprehension," he told audience members, many of whom wiped away tears during Graham's talk.
He urged the CCSU community to "keep talking" about the many challenges that soldiers and veterans face as they re-adjust to civilian life, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, mental illness and physical disabilities. He asked audience members to be aware of sudden changes in the behavior of soldiers and veterans they know, and to take action by physically bringing them to someone who can provide help.
He also urged veterans to seek help for themselves.
"It's a sign of strength, not weakness, to get help," he said.
At CCSU, there are resources available to student veterans, says Veterans Affairs Coordinator Chris Gutierrez.
Mental health clinicians specializing in the care of student veterans are available on campus, he says, and a confidential support group for student veterans meets every Thursday at the university.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pledged to take additional steps to reduce suicide among veterans, including adding additional resources to its Suicide Prevention Program and meeting urgent mental health needs with same-day evaluations, along with other initiatives. According to the VA, approximately 22 veterans take their own lives each day in the U.S.
Since their sons' deaths, the Grahams have dedicated their lives to dispelling the stigma surrounding mental illness that they themselves were once a part of, he says.
Graham is now the senior director of the Rutgers Behaviorial Health National Call Center, while Carol Graham is involved with the Suicide Prevention Action Network.
Their story is also chronicled in the book "Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War."