One Family's Battle

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Major General Mark Graham and Carol Graham

Major General Mark Graham and his wife, Carol, have made preventing suicides their mission.

Losing a child is a pain most parents can hardly imagine.

Losing two sons, one to suicide and the other in combat in Iraq, is a tragedy few can imagine surviving.

That was certainly the case for Major General Mark Graham and his wife, Carol. In June 2003, their 21-year-old son, an ROTC cadet at the University of Kentucky who wanted to be an Army doctor, killed himself. His older brother, Second Lt. Jeff Graham, deployed to Iraq and in February 2004 he was killed when an IED detonated as he was leading a patrol in Khaldiyah, a city near the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.

After a period of dealing with almost unimaginable grief and considering retirement from the military, Graham and his wife decided it was their mission to do what they could to help prevent future suicides.

“We were both grieving so deeply that I did not think I could continue to serve,” Graham told a gathering of NCSL’s Military and Veterans’ Affairs task force on Sunday at a preconference summit at Legislative Summit in Louisville, Ky. said. “It left us wondering how the world could even continue spinning with Kevin and Jeffrey not in it.”

But as they considered the increasing number of soldiers dying in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then returning home and dying in car accidents and by suicide, he said they realized “there was still a mission for us and the mission was to continue to serve soldiers and families.”

Graham said the Army and other branches of the military are making efforts to change the culture that makes soldiers avoid seeking help for mental health issues. “It’s difficult to change the culture in our military, but it is changing,” he said. “And we applaud the efforts of the senior military leaders for their commitment.”

The Grahams speak to numerous groups about suicide prevention. While it’s difficult, Carol Graham said, “we received more healing on our spirits than we gave.”

“It still feels like it should be somebody else’s story,” she said. “Believe me, we were nearly broken by it. We had not been educated in the warning signs of suicide. For college-aged kids, suicide is the No. 2 cause of death. We thought if we could survive we could help someone else.”

The Grahams said one of the most touching things for them was a banner left near the graves of their sons in Kentucky. It bore the legend that Major General Graham now uses when he closes every presentation he makes.

“Land of the free because of the brave.”