JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – An unthinkable tragedy, the death of two sons within a year of one another, is enough to shock any parent into a disabling despair.
For Army Maj. Gen. Mark A. Graham, retired and his wife, Carol, who lost their son Kevin to suicide and Jeffery, a second lieutenant to a roadside bomb in Iraq, responding to that level of grief seemed impossible. But with the help of friends, family, faith and their daughter, Melanie, they have started on a new mission: sharing their story with others to raise awareness for behavioral health issues and suicide.
“For us it was like the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center coming down,” said Graham. “When one of those towers fell it was unbelievable, but when both came down it was pretty much beyond comprehension.”
The Grahams brought their story of tragedy, loss, and hope to a packed Carey Theater on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, March 1.
“We feel like we’ve lost our sons and we don’t want to lose anyone else to suicide,” he said. “We think we can give back this way to help save a lot of lives.”
Recounting their heart wrenching story of loss to the captivated crowd, which included Lt. Gen. Robert B. Brown, I Corps commanding general, many in attendance found themselves becoming emotional during the event.
“The level of emotion that they showed was very touching; it brought me to tears quite a few times,” said Sgt. Nadia R. Lubetski, a human resource specialist with the 308th Brigade Support Battalion.
Lubetski, who experienced the loss of a friend to suicide in January, said the event was fantastic because it helped to put a face to suicide statistics that might just be numbers to some.
“There are a lot of people in the military that have experienced suicide on some level and it’s a horrible, horrible feeling to know that you’re left behind and left wondering if there was something that you could have done,” she said. “If you have people talking to you and telling you ‘this is my son, and he committed suicide,’ or ‘this is my friend and he committed suicide,’ it lets them know these were people and that it’s OK to ask for help.”
Graham said that the ability for people to come forward and seek out help and the ability to recognize when someone is in need of assistance is very important to reducing suicide deaths.
“For anyone going through a difficult time, it’s important to know that people do care about you even though you may not see it, and even though you might not feel it; you’re not alone,” he said. “There is always someone out there you can call, don’t ever feel so alone that you can’t reach out to someone and get care, because people do care about you.”
Opening up to those in attendance, Graham and his wife recounted their lack of knowledge and understanding of behavioral health issues, despite more than 30 years in the military, before their son took his own life.
“I think it’s key to know that resiliency is education, and it’s understanding that you have to eliminate the stigma of behavioral health issues,” he said. “I think the Army is seeing and doing that, and I’m very encouraged by the new resiliency program that the Army has put in place.”
“The key is helping soldiers,” added Graham.
Lubetski said she would like to see more events like this in the future because of the visible impact that the Graham’s story had on her and those in attendance.
“Their story is very moving, and the way that they stayed strong for each other and their daughter was very inspiring,” she said.
Graham said he wants to continue to speak to soldiers to raise awareness and remove the stigma that is sometimes associated with behavioral health issues for as long as people want to listen.
“I wish we weren’t qualified to do it, but this is where we are, we didn’t get a vote,” he said.
“We think we can give back this way to help save a lot of lives,” he continued. “Our son, Jeff, said before he deployed, ‘mom and dad what you’re doing is important, keep doing it.’ That’s why we continue to do it, because we think we can continue to help people.”