November 10, 2014

By Joni Agronin

The Invisible Front

  The Invisible Front

   By Yochi Dreazen


A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and was really impressed by something I read. It was a tweet from the U.S. Army that said “It takes courage to seek help for depression.” The tweet included information about the veteran’s crisis line and a picture of a soldier with the headline—“A different kind of courage.”

I was impressed by this tweet because it shows just how far the United States Military has come in understanding mental illness since the start of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Invisible Front, written by respected military journalist Yochi Dreazen, tells the story of the journey we have faced as a country growing and learning to understand mental illness in a field that depends on mental strength and stamina. But that’s the difference; mental illness has nothing to do with mental strength.

Dreazen’s book primarily follows the life of retired Major General Mark Graham and his family. The Grahams lost one son, Kevin, to depression after he died by suicide when he was in college and another, Jeff, in combat in Iraq. The family was struck by the stark differences in the way their close military community responded to the deaths of their two sons and because of their love for both of them and for the Army, they have since devoted their lives to fighting the stigma that surrounds mental illness, especially in a time of war.

Aside from telling an incredibly compelling story, The Invisible Front provides unique insight into what it’s like to actually live with a mental illness. Kevin, the younger of the Graham sons, was a promising ROTC cadet at The University of Kentucky who spent most of his life hiding his depression from his family and Army superiors.

Dreazen’s chapter on Kevin detailing his life and ultimately his death paints an eye-opening picture of a person who was completely overcome by an illness. Kevin has two sides; the person that he wants to be and the person that he is when depression takes over. He was seeing a therapist and put on medication but eventually stopped taking it. He was planning on attending an elite ROTC summer program between his junior and senior years of college and was concerned about what the Army would do if they knew he was taking medication for depression.

Kevin’s chapter really exposes the reader to the pain; the difficulty, the fear, the lack of understanding and the lack of control an individual living with a very real illness like depression faces on a daily basis. It is an invisible wound, one that many other soldiers also carry with them after experiencing the horrors of war.

The pages of my copy of this book are stained with tears but I kept reading because I felt like it was wrong to not learn the stories of every soldier. Dreazen addresses deeply emotional and highly controversial issues delicately and through the eyes of his subjects without ever editorializing. He didn’t have to—the facts write the book.

In 2012, more soldiers died by suicide than in combat. According to Dreazen, Senior Pentagon officials were slow to acknowledge the growing suicide problem and quick to underestimate its severity. In 2005, 87 soldiers died by suicide which was quadruple the number of suicides in 2003. The military was facing the consequences of years of underfunding for mental health care and soldiers returning from war were waiting months to get an appointment with a doctor.

The Invisible Front explains that members of the military have been facing posttraumatic stress (PTSD) since the beginning of warfare but it was just called something else. In World War One it was called shell shock. During World War Two it was known as battle fatigue.

When Mark Graham started as a Second Lieutenant in the Army in 1978, stepping up to lead soldiers fresh out of Vietnam, it was clear that many of them were facing personal struggles. Mark came in to contact with soldiers self-medicating, mouthing off to officers and fighting with each other, all of which are traits uncharacteristic to healthy units. Many of them were likely experiencing PTSD, the Army just had no idea how to address that yet.

The military estimates that almost 153,000 active-duty military personnel have been diagnosed with PTSD since 2001 and that number is unfortunately only growing. The good news is, it’s clear the military is taking steps to improve the resources available to individuals and families facing mental health problems. The tweet I saw a few weeks ago is proof of that.

The Invisible Front is a must-read for anyone who wants to see just how difficult it is to address mental health concerns in the military. It’s not a simple fix and there are a lot of factors at play. The most we can hope for is that by reading books like The Invisible Front and sharing these stories of both success and of loss can grow our understanding and inform our future decisions.

Families like the Grahams and so many others who are raising awareness about mental illness and suicide in the military are making an invaluable difference. The more people speak out, the more it will become okay for others to ask for help.

This Veteran’s Day, let’s remember that mental illness can affect anyone and our nation’s heroes are no exception. For those who are struggling or may be concerned about a loved one, there are resources available.

If you or a loved one is in crisis please call the Veterans Crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.

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