When Jeff Graham was killed in Iraq in 2004, the Kentucky State Legislature passed a resolution hailing the young second lieutenant. Tens of thousands of fans applauded when his boyish face was displayed on the scoreboard at a University of Kentucky basketball game. Hundreds of mourners waved American flags as his hearse passed. One sergeant even named his son after the fallen hero.
When Jeff’s younger brother, Kevin, committed suicide in 2003 while enrolled in a University of Kentucky R.O.T.C. program, his aunt opposed holding his funeral in a local church. His memorial service was sparsely attended. Members of the community suggested to Kevin’s parents, Mark and Carol, that their son had been “a weakling, a coward and even a sinner.”
“Strangers told them that Kevin’s suicide had been a sin in the eyes of God,” Yochi Dreazen writes in his new book, “The Invisible Front,” “something Carol, a deeply religious woman, often worried about.”
Jeff, Kevin and their deaths are the spine of this harrowing book, a courageous effort to examine the military’s abysmal initial response to rising numbers of post-Iraq and -Afghanistan suicides. To his credit, Dreazen takes the book a step further. He uses one American military family’s tragedy to expose a vast double standard — and spreading epidemic — in American society.
By 2012, more American soldiers were killing themselves than were dying in combat. But the problem goes beyond those in uniform. Suicide rates among American adults between 35 and 64 are at record rates as well, notes Dreazen, the managing editor of Foreign Policy and a former military affairs writer for The Wall Street Journal. He offers a sophisticated examination of an act of ultimate despair that irreversibly wounds the living and remains hidden, stigmatized and largely misunderstood.
In alternating sections, Dreazen’s book describes how war functions as a psychological caldron and how the American military serves as a social science laboratory. To its credit, the military once served as a largely successful testing ground for overcoming America’s racial divides. But its initial effort to address its warriors’ psychological wounds was appalling.
Surveying accounts of war from the “Iliad” to Iraq, Dreazen details how soldiers have returned from combat suffering from depression, anxiety and sleeplessness. Called “shell shock” after World War I, “combat fatigue” after World War II and “post-traumatic stress disorder” after Vietnam, the condition has been remarkably consistent. Yet a deep-seated military culture that views mental illness as a weakness helped make America’s post-9/11 military a psychic charnel house.
Dreazen uses the story of Kevin Graham, the doomed R.O.T.C. cadet, to investigate depression in detail. From a young age, Kevin struggled with the disease, which ran in his family, but strived to join the Army like his father. Tall, bookish and outwardly successful, Kevin took Prozac but knew that disclosing his use of it would destroy his military career. From boot camp on, Dreazen writes, American soldiers are told mental illness is a character flaw:
“Roughly 75 percent of the troops surveyed . . . told pollsters that they wouldn’t seek help because they were afraid it would make their colleagues think less of them, harm their chances for promotion, or bring their military careers to a premature end.”
Fearing he would be deemed “mentally ill and not fit for military duty,” Kevin stopped taking Prozac in the late spring of 2003. Weeks later, he hanged himself from a ceiling fan in the off-campus apartment he shared with his younger sister, Melanie, who discovered his body.
Melanie and her parents, like other friends and relatives of suicide victims, entered a world that was “darker and emptier,” Dreazen writes. Shame and guilt consumed them.
Four years on, Kevin’s father, then an Army general, saw firsthand how poorly the Army treats mental illness when he was appointed commander of Fort Carson, in Colorado, home to 100,000 soldiers and members of military families. In Mark Graham’s first full year in command, eight soldiers killed themselves at the base, triple the Army rate and four times the national average. Violence was rampant as well, with 14 Fort Carson soldiers linked to 11 murders and attempted murders around the base in a three-year period.
Yet many officers at the base continued to dismiss mental health problems as character defects. In 2006, when one Fort Carson soldier told his commander he had gotten drunk, nearly killed himself and needed psychiatric treatment, the officer tried to have him arrested for failing to attend that morning’s drill. Eventually, he and another soldier who also self-medicated with alcohol and sought psychiatric treatment were discharged for “patterns of misconduct.” The discharges rendered them ineligible for free medical care for veterans, their military pensions and G.I. Bill benefits.
“I think some people are just weak,” a sergeant told a reporter for NPR at the time. “You know, you just have to buck up and be a man and face it.”
After a young soldier in another unit scrawled a suicide note in black paint on the wall of his barracks room, his commander threatened to charge him with “defacing government property.” When the soldier’s panicked mother flew to Fort Carson to plead for leniency, she offered to paint over the note if it would help her son. “To her surprise, the officer said yes,” Dreazen writes. The mother “spent the next day painting the wall and covering up her son’s scrawl.”
Disdain for anyone who sought psychiatric help was rampant among soldiers as well. Troops in one unit left a mock “Hurt Feelings Report” near the sign-up sheet for soldiers seeking counseling, listing reasons they needed care. “I have womanlike hormones,” the sheet said. “I am a queer; I am a little bitch; I am a crybaby; I want my mommy; all of the above.”
Even those who were charged with treating mental illness were skeptical. The base’s top military psychiatrist wrote a memo to counselors warning that many of the troops who sought help were “dead wood” who faked their symptoms. One military chaplain claimed that witches living in nearby mountains had cursed Fort Carson soldiers.
The Grahams battled against the military culture at Fort Carson and other bases, speaking publicly about their son’s suicide, but the struggle took its toll. At one point, so many people told Kevin’s mother her family was cursed that she tried to find a priest to perform an exorcism.
“The Invisible Front” has its shortcomings, with some slow-moving early passages. But the book steadily gains power with each chapter, and Dreazen lays out a series of simple steps the military could take in order to save lives. The Israeli Army, for example, reduced suicides by 40 percent in 2006 by barring soldiers from taking their weapons home. Dreazen also calls for a greater commitment to suicide prevention: “It should begin by making the ways commanders and enlisted personnel handle mental health issues within their units a formal part of the written evaluations that help determine whether they’re promoted.”
But leadership remains lacking. Dreazen found no cases, for example, of officers being punished for their actions, including the officer who had a traumatized mother paint over her own son’s suicide note. And in all the time he spent researching his book, Dreazen was able to identify only three American generals who have gone public about suffering nightmares, jumpiness, flashes of anger and other symptoms of PTSD: “Even now, at the very pinnacle of their professional lives, most of the generals afflicted with PTSD suffer in silence because they are afraid other soldiers will see them as weak.”
Dreazen warns that military suicide rates could rise as an estimated 80,000 soldiers are forced out of the Army by Pentagon spending cuts. And he notes that civilian adult suicide rates are at record levels as well. Today, more people die in the United States by their own hand than die in car accidents.
In public speeches about his son’s death, Mark Graham quotes a line from the elegiac Archibald MacLeish poem “The Young Dead Soldiers.”
“They say: We leave you our deaths,” MacLeish wrote. “Give them their meaning.”
This vital book is a stirring call for action to better aid American soldiers who struggle alone with depression — and civilians who suffer from our most stigmatized disease as well.