Interview: Yochi Dreazen, Author Of 'The Invisible Front' In The Invisible Front, journalist Yochi Dreazen tells the story of the Grahams, a close-knit family that lost two sons in the span of a year and then took up the fight against military suicide.
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One Military Family, Two Lost Sons: One To Combat, One To Suicide

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One Military Family, Two Lost Sons: One To Combat, One To Suicide

One Military Family, Two Lost Sons: One To Combat, One To Suicide

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Over 5,000 Americans have died fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If that weren't heartbreaking enough, over the past 12 years, over 2,000 servicemen and women have committed suicide. One military family experienced both of those horrors. Before the tragedy, the Graham family would've fit right in a Norman Rockwell painting. Mark and Carol Graham were college sweethearts. Their three children - Jeff, Kevin, and Melanie - were inseparable. Mark was a decorated officer and his sons were following his military path.

Yochi Dreazen's new book, "The Invisible Front: Love And Loss In An Era Of Endless War," tells the story of the Graham family and how in a single year they lost both of their sons.

YOCHI DREAZEN: Kevin had been battling depression most of his life. When he was in college, he was diagnosed, formally and clinically, and put on medication. And his mood stabilized. Kevin had been chosen for a particularly elite part of the ROTC program. So, by all measures, he looked like he was doing perfectly.

But then abruptly he took himself off the medication. He worried that, because of the stigma that exists in the military, that if they discovered he was taking medication, they'd boot him out. So he stopped taking it. And that was cataclysmic because within a matter of weeks his mood had gone back to the same dark place that it had been when he was younger.

And on this one horrible night, he went to Melanie, his sister - they were are at this point sharing the apartment - and said to her you have a lot of potential. You're this amazing person. Don't ever forget that you have this potential. She had no idea what he was talking about and went back to sleep.

In the morning, he was supposed to have met Jeff, his older brother. He hadn't shown up, so Jeff got a bit worried. He called Melanie and asked her to check. She saw this closed door - his door was usually not closed - opened it, and had this absolutely horrific sight of seeing her brother hanging from a ceiling fan.

And, a year later, Jeff, who by this point was an Army officer, was on a foot patrol on a bridge that he was leading his men across. He was at the very front. His men were behind him - spotted something attached to the bridge, something gleaming, and turned around to tell them to stay back. And as he did, it exploded. Had he not turned to warn his men, probably most if not all of the platoon would have been killed.

So he died in this trademark way that you'd imagine a hero dying. And Kevin died very differently. And the way that the two boys' deaths were treated is what's haunted Mark and Carol for the rest of their lives.

RATH: You write about that how the very different ways that military and just everybody treated the two deaths - the one suicide and one combat death. Can you talk about that and the effect that had?

DREAZEN: So when Jeff was killed, he was one of the first people from Kentucky to die in battle. So the Kentucky State Legislature had a resolution on the floor honoring him. Some of the flags were put down at half-mast. There were thousands of people who were lining the road on the way to the cemetery where he was buried in Kentucky. People would come up to Mark and Carol and talk about Jeff, talk about Jeff.

Kevin had died a year earlier. People didn't mention Kevin. And when Kevin died, the question of how to bury him was very different. They were a very religious family. And members of the Graham family said Kevin killed himself. He died a sinner. So we should not bury him in a Christian cemetery. We should not give him a burial service in the church.

Ultimately, the family had a fairly small service. It was in a funeral home as opposed to in a church. It was a lot of family, a good number of friends. But it was about a hundred people, whereas for Jeff it was well over a thousand.

RATH: It's such a heartbreaking story. But unlike most grieving parents who are in his position, Mark Graham was in a position to make some changes. Can you talk about the innovations he put into effect when he was the commander at Fort Carson to fight the stigma against suicide and depression?

DREAZEN: So he arrives at a base that had this giant scandal of murders by soldiers, a horrific suicide rate, and tries to figure out, how can I make this better? And the things he did were revolutionary, which is kind of sad because they shouldn't have been. So for instance, he would openly talk about PTSD, what it had done to his family, his own sadness. He would cry in front of other soldiers, which generals don't do.

And for a lot of people at the base, first they were thinking, who's this softie? Who's this weak man? And only later did they think that's actually a sign of tremendous strength.

He set up a phone line, later replicated across the Army, where people could call any hour of the day and night. The phone would be answered by a sergeant he was very close to. And she would get the message to him.

In one particular case, a mother called and said I can't reach my son. I'm worried he's going to kill himself. The sergeant who took the call called Mark at home. They immediately had the soldier taken out of his barracks, put him into therapy, and he survived.

The other thing they did - and this was the biggest of the changes he made and to my mind the most important - he created what was called an Embedded Behavioral Health Team. Basically, the idea was take a clinical health worker and have them be assigned to the same brigade all the time. So when this brigade deploys to Iraq or Afghanistan, this doctor goes with them. When this brigade comes home, this doctor goes with them.

The idea was people will begin to trust this doctor. He won't be seen as this alien person where if you see them, you're going to be ostracized and seen as weak. This was someone who was part of the team. And this was something that began at Fort Carson. Mark was the first person to sign off on it. And now it's used across the Army.

RATH: I'm speaking with journalist Yochi Dreazen about his new book, "The Invisible Front." What do you think based on all this needs to be changed in order to get past this cultural barrier - it seems - to getting help in the military?

DREAZEN: This is the definition of a hierarchy. This is the most obvious place where a person at the top can change things because everyone has to take orders from that person. But you can have people at the top talk about eliminating stigma, which they do. And they mean it. It's not just paying lip serve.

You can have people at the top saying we're putting more money at the issue - hundreds of millions of dollars, which they're also doing. But what you don't have are people at the top saying I, General Arun, I, General Yochi, I had PTSD. I was suicidal. I had these issues. I worked through them. It did not hurt my career. It did not hurt my marriage. My colleagues didn't think less of me. You can do it, too.

So when you're trying to change a culture, if the people at the top of the ladder - the people at the top of the hierarchy - won't talk, changing that culture will be very, very hard.

RATH: Have Carol and Mark Graham read the book?

DREAZEN: They have. They were involved at every stage. At one point, they came and stayed at my house for a week. We just did round-the-clock interviews. They shared diaries and journals of extraordinarily intimate painful things.

But yes, they've read the book. Part of their reaction was a bit of nervousness about would people read it and think of them as having failed their sons in some way. But their reaction was ultimately if a few people read this and it may change them, then they're willing to have that risk out there.

RATH: That's military journalist Yochi Dreazen. His book, "The Invisible Front," comes out on Tuesday. Yochi, thank you so much.

DREAZEN: Thank you, Arun. I appreciate it.

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