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Minnesota National Guard
Retired general brings message of resilience and strength through adversity to Minnesota

MG Mark Graham ST. PAUL, Minn. - Retired Maj. Gen. Mark Graham recently spoke to the Soldiers and Airmen of the Minnesota National Guard about suicide and loss. The message was of faith, hope and love. His words hit home like only a personal and tragic story can.

The Grahams lost both of their sons in the span of just seven months. Kevin, their youngest, died by suicide in June of 2003 after a battle with depression. Jeffrey, who deployed to Iraq as a second lieutenant, was killed by an improvised explosive device in February of 2004. Hit with such devastating loss, the Grahams struggled at first with finding the strength to move forward and a new purpose for their lives.

"Our journey has tested our faith, it's rattled our moral courage and left us feeling empty and hopeless at times; most importantly though, it's provided us with a direction and revealed an enormous purpose for our lives," said Graham.

It was a series of passages, of chance meetings and coincidences that Graham doesn't believe are coincidences that helped the family to find a sense of direction and purpose. Immediately following the death of his second son, Graham questioned whether or not he could continue to serve in the military. The answer came in the form of a passage from a devotional that reminded him that there was still work to be done.

"In order to survive, we had to use our brokenness to reach out and openly share our story and to try to give hope to others," said Graham. "It seemed like there was still a mission for Carol and I and our mission was to continue to serve military members and their families."

Part of that mission has been sharing their story in order to create awareness about mental health issues and suicide prevention. The Grahams also recognize that if their son Jeffrey would have survived the explosion that took his life, he would have been left severely injured, both physically and mentally. For this reason, they advocate on behalf of the wounded who are suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.

"We pledged to use Kevin's death to raise awareness of the dangers of untreated depression, post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries and other mental health issues," said Graham. "We're compelled to speak out for all the Kevins of the world who have no voice."

The Grahams have also found a calling in using their grief to help others who've lost loved ones. Their unique situation helps them to understand loss in a way many cannot.

"It occurred to us that maybe this was the reason we were meant to continue to serve," said Graham. "We personally knew the pain these families were feeling and we could genuinely connect in a way we never could before."

What they found by helping others through their grief was that, in turn, they were also being helped.

"We tried to comfort the broken hearts of the people put in our path and an amazing phenomenon occurred - we received more healing than we were giving," said Graham. "Everyone else seemed to be helping us more than we were helping them. Gradually little by little, we could see ourselves and feel ourselves growing a little stronger. We even began to be able to smile and laugh a little again."

As a leader in the military, Graham sought help at the on-post mental health clinic for issues related to lack of sleep after his sons died. He saw the stigma associated with getting help when he had to go to a building that was separate from the main medical facility and the looks he got when people recognized him or his vehicle at the clinic. He hopes that by speaking out, he can help fight against the stigma and encourage others to get help as well.

"That's hard to do, I'm not saying it's easy, but I'm telling you, help is out there, but you have to be willing to go," said Graham. "You don't have to have deployed to be struggling. We all know military life is stressful in itself."

What Graham has ultimately learned from his experiences is that no one is immune from hardship. If heartbreak and tragedy can impact a military general with a self-described "Walt Disney" family, it can happen to anyone.

"Twelve years ago if someone told us we could survive the death of one of our kids, we wouldn't have believed it," said Graham. "For us it was like the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center coming down. If one of those towers would have fallen, it would still have been unbelievable, but both towers coming down is truly unimaginable. Even to this day, it's still hard to believe both towers came tumbling down."

February 16, 2016
by Master Sgt. Blair Heusdens
Minnesota National Guard Public Affairs

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