FORT LEE, Va. -- The U.S. military suicide rate has steadily climbed over the past three years. In 2012, more than 349 active duty troops ended their lives, nearly 100 more than the number of troops who died in combat the same year and a 15 percent increase from 2011. One hundred and eighty-two of those deaths were Soldiers.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Mark Graham and his wife, Carol, answer questions after speaking to hundreds of students, faculty and community members at the Army Logistics University May 14. The Grahams are suicide prevention and mental health treatment advocates and offered their insights on the subject and their experiences as parents. (Photo by T. Anthony Bell)
Despite the discouraging numbers, retired Maj. Gen. Mark Graham said the problems can be overcame. The former director of the G3/5/7 at U.S. Army Forces Command, and his wife, Carol, were the guest speakers at an Army Logistics University event May 14. It served to raise awareness about suicide prevention, encourage leaders to be proactive in helping subordinates and hearten those with mental health issues to seek help.
Members of the installation leadership, led by William F. Moore, deputy to the CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general, were among more than 400 personnel who packed ALU’s Multi-Purpose Room for the presentation. Several hundred more tuned into the event at other ALU locations via closed circuit TV. The event was also streamed online.
Graham, a veteran of more than 35 years of service, and his wife are nationally-acknowledged advocates for suicide prevention and mental health treatment. They became so after the lives of their two sons met with tragic ends: Kevin, an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet, ended his life in 2003; and the following year, Army 2nd Lt. Jeff Graham was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.
Having worked tirelessly for the past several years to combat suicide and to encourage mental health treatment, Graham offered the crowd reassurance the military is allotting sufficient resources toward saving lives but implied that courage to seek help and a compassionate command climate are needed to make real progress.
“We’re working hard in the military to ensure that every door a service member walks through is the right door with the right answer,” he stated. “So, go through that door, and if you’re on the other side of that door, be the right answer with the right help for that person who has taken the courage to come through your door.”
Graham acknowledged that on the cultural front, the services are still not where they need to be to adequately confront the problem, pointing out that suicide and mental health treatment are still closet issues that keep the affected from freely seeking help. He emphasized, however, that stigmas can be swept away and used various examples to make his point.
“You know there was a time when we didn’t talk about things like cancer because we didn’t know much about it,” he said. “And we never talked about breast cancer. We didn’t even talk about breasts in public.
“Think about today,” he continued. “We have athletes wearing pink gloves, (swinging) pink baseball bats and golfers playing with pink driver shafts. We’ve come a long way because we’ve eliminated the stigma surrounding cancer and particularly breast cancer. So many lives have been saved. Research has kicked in. We can do this. We can eliminate this sigma.”
Recalling how he and his wife responded to their son Kevin’s need for treatment, Graham freely admitted that out of ignorance, they supported the stigma.
“We missed the warning signs of our son’s depression,” he said. “We just couldn’t see that there was an illness, and that left untreated, it could be deadly. …We all make mistakes. Some of us make mistakes that we can fix. Some make mistakes that are inconsequential.
“We made a mistake that we can never fix and get back …”
Graham said his work in the suicide prevention arena is motivated by his personal experiences but challenged leaders in the audience to act with cognizance in light of such conditions as Traumatic Brain Injury and illnesses such as depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“You’re a part of changing the culture,” he said to the audience. “But this change in culture is life or death. We must change the culture and stigma of getting care. You must think that it’s a sign of strength not weakness to come forward to get help and support.”
Graham said he is satisfied with the military’s communications strategy to break down the barriers that prevent troops from seeking help for themselves or others.
“What we’re doing right now is one, we’re talking about it,” he said, “and we’re continuing to talk about it, and two, we’re not just talking about it during Suicide Prevention Month or Suicide Prevention Week. We’re talking about ‘Ready and Resilient’ all the time now ... because it’s life or death. It’s that important to our Soldiers.”
Going forward, the services can benefit from a screening program for all troops, said Graham, not just for military members in either a pre- or post-deployment status.
“When we do mental health screening, we need to do them for everyone,” he said, “so that it doesn’t make those who step forward and say that they need mental health screenings to feel ostracized. The challenge there is that you need a lot of resources to do that. That way even if someone who thought they probably needed help, but the stigma wouldn’t let them go forward to get help, they would be getting help because everyone would be getting help.”
Graham said he and his wife will continue their efforts to educate and enlighten the masses about suicide prevention and treatment for mental illness. It is their way, he said, of helping to heal their own wounds and spare others the pain and grief they’ve suffered. The endeavor, he added, has forced them to consider to a greater degree the world around them,
“We take one day at a time,” he said, “and try to keep our apertures wide open; be more accessible; see other people’s pain. We see other things going on in the world much better than we ever did before.” He said he wished his enlightenment had come sooner.
“We might still have our son who died by suicide.”
T. Anthony Bell, Senior Writer/Special Projects, Fort Lee Traveller