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In ‘Invisible Front,’ military family’s losses propel battle against mental health stigma

October 16, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
Two brothers from a military family were lost in separate tragedies just months apart. Jeff Graham was killed while on duty in Iraq; his younger brother Kevin, a ROTC cadet, took his own life during a bout of depression. Yochi Dreazen, author of “The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War,” talks to Jeffrey Brown about the Graham family’s story and the stigma of suicide.

GWEN IFILL: Now: to one military family’s painful battle with death and depression.

Jeffrey Brown has more.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two brothers dead within months of one another, one in combat in Iraq, the other a suicide. Jeff and Kevin were the children of Carol and then Colonel, now retired Major General Mark Graham.

And the story of this family and a larger story of pain and trauma within the U.S. military is told in the new book “The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War.”

Author Yochi Dreazen is a journalist who covered the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for The Wall Street Journal and is now managing editor of “Foreign Policy” magazine.

And welcome to you.

YOCHI DREAZEN, Author, “The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War”:  Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is the different responses to these two deaths that is kind of the starting point and a way into the larger story you tell, right?

YOCHI DREAZEN: That’s right.

When Jeff Graham died, he was treated as a hero. The Kentucky state legislature had the flags at half-mast. They passed a resolution in his honor. Thousands of people lined the road to the cemetery, full military funeral with a folded flag.

Kevin, his younger brother, who had killed himself, there was nothing. The family itself was divided about whether it should take place in a church. They thought this was a sin. He took his own life. To Mark and Carol, it was as if Kevin’s life and death never happened. The way they were seen by the public, people just pretended Kevin never existed, whereas, for Jeff, he was a hero given every possible honor.

JEFFREY BROWN: The hero, we know how to deal with, the suicide, something altogether different.

YOCHI DREAZEN: That’s right. We don’t know whether to think of them as weak, as wounded, as flawed, as sick. We as a society don’t know that. We as a military don’t know that either.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kevin was in ROTC at that point, right, and he had gotten off his antidepressant drugs because he thought he would be seen as being weak if he was on them.

YOCHI DREAZEN: That’s exactly right.

He was about to be commissioned into the Army. His feeling was, if they tested him and found that he was taking Prozac, which he was then taking, they would kick him out right then and there and the career would end before it started.

His father by that point had been in the military for 20 years. They saw that kind of service as the highest possible service you could do, and to them the Army was all. And he thought, I won’t make it to the Army. They will kick me out. I will embarrass my family. My career will end. I can’t take the risk.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, the parents fall into a spiral of grief, of course, with the two sons — losing two sons in a short time, but then they realize that they have to do something positive or something has to come out of this.

And the father is in a position to do something, although, as a military man, he’s been part of this culture, right?

YOCHI DREAZEN: That’s right.

He’s been part of this macho culture that says if you are feeling depressed, if you come back from war different, you’re flawed. You’re not worthy of the wearing the uniform.

JEFFREY BROWN: It has to be you, right, the individual, not — you can’t be a military man and…

YOCHI DREAZEN: Exactly. And it’s not us as a military.


YOCHI DREAZEN: It’s you, the individual soldier, who is flawed. We’re not doing anything wrong.

And for a long time, the suicide rate in the military was lower than the civilian world. And the military would say, see? Sure, we have suicides, but you civilians have more of them. 2009, which is when I first met the Grahams, was the year that that passed. That was the first year more soldiers by percentage killed themselves than civilians did.

By this point, Mark was at command of Fort Carson in Colorado. At that point, they had one of the highest suicide rates in the country. By the time he left, it had one of the lowest. And what he did there in many ways is kind of at the heart of this book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, before I get — ask you what he did, why is this — this is something we have covered a lot on the program, I know you have covered in your years as a journalist before the book.

Why this sort of epidemic of suicide? Do we know why it’s happened, what — even within this culture in which it is so stigmatized, the idea of being depressed or weak, if you use that word?

YOCHI DREAZEN: We think about post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, as it’s — as the acronym is, that kind of shock has existed since humans went to war, the feeling that if you commit violence, you’re changed. If you see violence, you’re changed.

Now you have people serving two, three, four, five tours, where the people that they’re killing are often dressed like civilians. That takes a toll. When you’re living in Iraq and all you hear are explosions one after the other after the other, that takes a toll.

The other difference is an actual physical injury, traumatic brain injury, TBI. The two are linked. PTSD and TBI are very closely linked. And they’re linked to suicide. TBI comes from exposures to explosions, from concussions. This war is marked by those kind of explosions. It’s marked by trauma to the head and brain.

So, you have the combination of multiple tours, the combination of injuries to the head leading to suicide.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you said Mark Graham, the father, as you tell in the story, he was able to take some action at Fort Carson. What specifically did he do and what kind of impact do you think it has had on the military?

YOCHI DREAZEN: The first thing he did will seem like an obvious thing, but it wasn’t. He told his own story.

And when he talked about his sons…

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me stop you there, because it does seem obvious. But why is it not obvious?

YOCHI DREAZEN: Because it’s so rare, as you know, in the military to see generals show emotion. You just don’t see it.

And when he first got to Fort Carson, he called in the officers beneath him, talked about his two sons, and started to cry. And some of the people I spoke to for the book said they’d never seen that before. They’d never seen a general cry.

And generals were always afraid of being seen themselves as weak or as soft. And when Mark Graham spoke about his sons, he was a father first and a general second. And they hadn’t seen that. And so that was a bit of a cultural change. In terms of how the base operated, the single most important change he made was picking a doctor assigned to a specific unit.

So, when that unit deployed, they would know the doctor. When they came back, they would know the doctor. The issue there was oftentimes a soldier would come back, sit across from a civilian psychologist and feel, how could this man possibly understand what I have been through? How can I possibly open up to him? How I can talk to him?

This was a way around that. This was a way to build trust.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you finally about — part of this is personal for you. You experienced PTSD yourself.

YOCHI DREAZEN: When I came back, I would have flashes of anger. If I was asleep and I heard a noise, I would wake up immediately and not be able to fall asleep. I had very vivid nightmares.

And at the time, I thought, I’m a tough guy, I’m a war correspondent, I will just deal with this on my own. It took a while, until a military friend said to me one day, you have PTSD, not as a question. And I started take counseling and ultimately taking medication to help with it.

But the kind of issues Mark has wrestled with, the kinds of issues where in a military culture people are afraid to say, I need help, I’m not strong enough to deal with this on my own, I faced that. I went through it. And if I hadn’t had gotten the help, my life would have been very, very different. And I’m grateful that I did.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new book is “The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War.”

Yochi Dreazen, thank you so much.