Major General Mark Graham and his wife know about loss — and the high cost of war.
He and his wife Carolyn lost not one, but two sons a year apart while General Graham was serving as a top commander in the U.S. Army. Their family’s story was told in “The Invisible Front: Loss and Love in the Era of Endless War.”
“The Army told Jeffrey he didn’t have to go because of the tragedy with experience with our son Kevin. And Jeff looked me in the eye and said, ‘Dad, I have to go,’” Gen. Graham, who spent 35 years in the Army said he understood. “Eight months later, Jeff was killed by an IED while he was on foot patrol outside of Fallujah in county Iraq.”
Their son Kevin was an ROTC Army cadet studying to be an Army doctor when depression led him to take his life. He stopped taking his medication because of the stigma associated with mental health and died by suicide. His brother Jeffrey was en route to Fort Riley to join the 1st Infantry Division to deploy to Iraq.
“So our sons died fighting different battles. Kevin died fighting the battle of the mind and Jeffrey died fighting an enemy in a faraway land,” Graham said.
To cope with the loss, Graham started a national call center at Rutgers University called Vets4Warriors, which allows service members to speak to a veteran within 30 seconds. He says he has seen an uptick in calls since the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Department of Veterans Affairs saw 30% more calls to its suicide hotline (1-800-273-8255 press 1) from Aug 15–31 as the U.S. military ended the war in Afghanistan.
“We did see. We absolutely did,” Graham told the live audience of military cadets at the U.S. Navy Memorial during the taping of “The Wounded Warrior Experience.”
“Loneliness is one of the top reasons we get calls, and we’ve always gotten calls. And the loneliness was just grown and grown, exacerbated through the pandemic. And then when the Afghanistan withdrawal hit, it really impacted because they weren’t near each other.”
Allen Levi Simmons, served with the U.S. Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“So there was a gun in my hand, pillows on my bed, Bible on my nightstand. Paranoia tip toeing through the hallway of my home,” Simmons said. “I had the gun in my mouth, finger on the trigger. I had the pills on my bed, and I was tired of feeling like somebody was trying to kill me.”
Simmons was with an explosive ordnance disposal Company in Marjah Afghanistan when he was blown up, hit by a rocket propelled grenade.
“My ears were ringing like a smoke detector,” Simmons said. “And little did I know that the rest of my life was going to be changed.”
He suffers from PTSD after his traumatic brain injury, but finally asked for help. Writing poetry saved him.
“I had thoughts scrambling in my head. I had panic attacks. I wanted to blow a hole through my head. So that’s part of my poem because I practice therapy through poetry, and that’s how I got through my post-traumatic stress.”
Last year he received his bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina in Charlotte and has his own podcast. His book is called “Can I Speak?”
Simmons described the anguish he felt watching the Afghan War end.
“That withdrawal sucked,” Simmons told the audience arranged by the American Veterans Center. “It was like a lot of lives, a lot of blood, a lot of fathers and mothers have passed away. And what do we have to show for it?”
It took ten years for Will Weatherford, a member of West Virginia’s Army National Guard, to ask for help.
“I battled post-traumatic stress. But I had trouble admitting that to myself.”
He was on the verge of a divorce from his wife, until he got help from the Coalition to Support America’s Heroes.
“I thought that when he came back that everything would be normal again. Things would be like they were, but they weren’t,” his wife Megan McDonough recalled. “I was determined to find some resources and not just give up. It’s not just the veterans suffering a lot of times. There is a great impact to families and to marriages.”
He and his wife Megan currently live on a small working farm in rural West Virginia, where they raise a menagerie of animals, such as alpacas and goats.
These stories of survival and resiliency will appear in an hour long special called “The Wounded Warrior Experience” presented by the American Veterans Center and Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation. The show will air on Fox Business Channel at 4 pm Eastern on Saturday, Nov 20.
The Veterans Crisis Line is available for free, confidential support 24/7 by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1 or texting 838-255.