03 June 2009

A General's Next Battle

The Wall Street Journal had an excellent article about two weeks ago, during which it chronicled the personal struggle of Major General Mark Graham, the Commanding General of Fort Carson, Colorado.

Maj. Gen. Graham has lost two sons who were serving in the Army in the period of about a year and a half. One son was an infantry lieutenant who was killed by an IED sometime in 2004, near the city of Fallujah. His second son was an aspiring doctor who was an Army ROTC cadet at the University of Kentucky. Sometime in 2003, the stresses of classwork and ROTC led him into a state of depression and mental anxiety. His sister found him hanging from a ceiling fan.

With the Army's recent increase in suicides, Major General Graham has spoken out on the issue of suicides within the military. He has drastically improved mental health services at Fort Carson, Colorado, providing mobile mental health teams to care for Soldiers before, during and after deployments.

In the article, Maj. Gen. Graham also discusses a very pressing issue in today's military: the dilemma which the military faces in regards to respect bestowed upon those who commit suicide versus those who die in combat or in accidents, and the level of outreach provided to the families. Indeed, it seems as if many military organizations are beginning to reach out to the families of Soldiers who kill themselves, such as the Tragedy Asssistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) . Maj. Gen. Graham notes:

At the same time, the family began to notice how the two deaths were treated differently both by the military and by friends. Parents of children killed in combat receive a gold star, for example, and are often invited as a group to meet with the president or other dignitaries. There's no equivalent for suicides.

"When Jeff died...we were told how heroic our son was," Mrs. Graham says. "And I was thinking, 'No, I had two amazing sons, not just one.' "...

...Gen. Graham assumed the group [TAPS] wanted to talk about Jeff's combat death. Instead, organizers told him they wanted to hear about Kevin. Bonnie Carroll, who founded TAPS after her husband was killed in a military plane crash in 1992, says she wanted the families of suicides to feel as welcomed as those who had lost family members in combat.

Gen. Graham told the gathering that he had lost Kevin "to a different kind of battle" than the one that had claimed Jeff.

"Our friends' children had birthdays, graduated, got married and had babies, which left us always wondering how the world could keep spinning without Kevin and Jeffrey in it," he told the crowd.

Although suicide remains a problem for the military, recent suicide prevention programs are beginning to help somewhat. Since the implementation of the Army's new "Beyond the Front" training, suicides have dropped. The Army also places Combat Stress Clinics on most Forward Operating Bases throughout Iraq (interesting article regarding the Combat Stress Clinic at TaskForceMountain.com), and as a former commander, I can tell you that a number of Soldiers from all different walks of life, from different jobs and with different problems have benefited from the services provided at these clinics.

Although there are often signs that accompany depression, mental illness and suicidal behavior, sometimes even a Soldier's best friends can never tell what truly lies inside of him.

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