In eight months, Maj. Gen. Mark Graham and his wife lost two sons to two different battles: Their eldest was killed by a bomb in Iraq and their youngest committed suicide.
While both deaths were a shock, the retired Army veteran knew first-hand the dangers of a war zone. He didn’t know how deadly depression could be.
“I didn’t know you could die from being too sad,” he said this week at a Veterans Affairs conference in Dallas.
The Grahams shared their tragic story at a three-day suicide prevention conference held by the VA and Department of Defense at the Hilton Anatole.
Kevin Graham, a 21-year-old ROTC cadet, killed himself in a Kentucky apartment he shared with his brother and sister in June 2003. He was battling severe depression and had stopped taking his medication because he didn’t want the Army to know.
After Kevin’s suicide, Graham said he refused to show his grief until the death of his other son the following year.
In February 2004, Kevin’s older brother, Second Lt. Jeffrey Graham, was leading a foot patrol in Iraq when an improvised explosive device detonated, killing him and a fellow soldier.
Graham said that if their eldest son had survived the explosion, he would be an amputee with severe burns, struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and possible thoughts of suicide — like so many other servicemen and women.
A 2012 report by the VA showed that more than 22 veterans commit suicide every day. This week’s conference, attended by nearly 600 clinicians, veterans and service leaders from across the country, hopes to tackle the problem.
“We need to make sure that we’re reaching out to family members and friends and that they’re supporting our veterans,” said Caitlin Thompson, deputy director of mental health services at the Veterans Health Administration Suicide Prevention Program.
Graham and his wife, Carol, remain focused on raising awareness of the dangers of untreated depression by setting up suicide prevention programs on college campuses.
“We have soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and veterans that are hurting,” Graham said, “and they need to be helped, not judged.”