Dallas Contact Crisis Line forum to raise awareness of military suicides
Soldiers, Mental Illness, Drugs and Suicide
By DAVID TARRANT
March 25, 2010
After eight years of war marked by repeated deployments, military families have endured great sacrifices – but few as much as Maj. Gen. Mark Graham.
In June 2003, his 21-year-old son, Kevin, a promising ROTC cadet at the University of Kentucky, killed himself. He had been diagnosed with depression. Eight months later, the general's oldest son, Jeff, died in Iraq when a bomb exploded while he led a foot patrol.
Graham and his wife, Carol, mourned privately for several years. But as the military struggled with an increase in suicides, the Army couple began telling their story to raise awareness about depression.
"All I knew was that Kevin's death did not need to be in vain," Graham said in a telephone interview joined by his wife. "Carol and I both would never want this ever to happen to anyone else."
Graham is scheduled to speak about military suicides at a luncheon today in Dallas. Contact Crisis Line, the nonprofit 24-hour suicide
prevention hotline, is sponsoring the forum at the Hilton Anatole. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, is also scheduled to speak.
Defense Department figures show that 160 active-duty Army personnel committed suicide in 2009 – up from 140 in 2008 and more than double the 77 suicides reported in 2003. The Army suicide rate is now higher than that of civilians. There is no single explanation, Pentagon officials say, but the wear and tear of repeated deployments appears to be a major factor.
"Soldiers are hurting, families are hurting, and it's a tough time in the Army," said Graham, deputy chief of staff of Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Ga. "Being in a war eight-plus years – it's tough."
Young veterans leaving military service remain at risk. The Veterans Affairs Department said recently that suicides among 18- to 29-year-old veterans have increased considerably – up 26 percent from
2005 to 2007.
In 2005, the suicide rate per 100,000 veterans among men ages 18 to 29 was 44.99, compared with 56.77 in 2007, the VA said.
"Of the more than 30,000 suicides in this country each year, fully 20 percent of them are acts by veterans," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said at a suicide prevention conference in January. "That means on
average, 18 veterans commit suicide each day. Five of those veterans are under our care at VA."
Graham said: "People need to know that you can die from depression. You can die from untreated depression."
The VA has expanded mental health services to veterans and added 6,000 new mental health professionals since 2005. A 24-hour suicide prevention hotline that started in July 2007 has received 225,000 calls from veterans, active-duty personnel and family members.
But too many soldiers are reluctant to seek help for depression and anxiety because of the stigma attached to mental illness, Graham said. "One of the things we've tried to do is to make it clear that it's a sign of strength, not weakness, to come forward and ask for help."
In 2003, Kevin Graham was attending school while sharing an apartment with his siblings, Jeff and Melanie. His parents were living in South Korea, where the general was assigned.
Kevin was a "tender-hearted" child who wanted to be a doctor, said Carol Graham. At his older brother's graduation from the University of Kentucky in May, Kevin looked in great physical condition, she said. He was exercising and getting ready for an advanced ROTC camp.
But at some point around then, he stopped taking his medication, apparently too embarrassed to admit to the military that he needed it. "He had told no one in ROTC" that he was taking Prozac, his mother said.
The Grahams feel guilt-ridden over Kevin's death to this day. "I knew Kevin had been having problems," Mark Graham said. "But it never even entered my mind that he could die from [depression]."
Painful as it is, the Grahams plan to continue to tell their story.
"It's hard. It'd be easier to just curl up in a corner and do nothing," Graham said. "But if it helps just one person not die by suicide, then it's worth it."
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