When military journalist Yochi Dreazen began research for The Invisible Front, the story of a military family who lost two sons within nine months of each other—one to suicide and one in combat—he was surprised to learn that the pervasiveness of military suicide mirrors the pervasiveness of suicide in the civilian world. In 2010, suicide bypassed deaths by car accident for the first time since cars rolled off the assembly line.
To mark the occasion of World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10, Dreazen spoke to Read it Forward editor Abbe Wright about the emotional and physical manifestations of PTSD, the importance of portraying his subjects as living and breathing young men, and the work that still needs to be done—both in military and civilian society—to end the stigma of seeking help for PTSD and depression.
READ IT FORWARD: I enjoyed this book, which might sound a bit weird, considering the topic. But I thought it was so well-researched. This book is quite different from other military writing you’ve done. You really had to get to know this family from the inside out, almost as if you were one of them. How did you do that? How did you immerse yourself in their experience?
YOCHI DREAZEN: I met them when I was doing a story on the family for the Wall Street Journal. Initially, I made plans to go out to see Mark, because when I’d asked people within the Pentagon about military suicide, and more specifically when I asked about anybody they knew who was doing something innovative to fight it, they kept saying Mark Graham, Mark Graham, Mark Graham. They would say he’s this General out of Colorado, and he had one son kill himself and a second son who died in Iraq.
It always sounded to me like it couldn’t possibly be true, because it is so rare for a General to lose a son, let alone two. I figured I would have heard about it already if it were the case. I found out it was the case, and I flew to Colorado to see them. Almost immediately, Carol hugged me. We spoke for several hours the first day, and I kept having to excuse myself to go cry and then come back and continue talking. And when I was leaving, Carol said to me that I reminded her of her son Kevin, and it stuck with me at the time because there was no way for her to have known this, but I had been diagnosed with PTSD at roughly the same time that he was. It was after a long time of thinking I might have had it, but also thinking that I could fight my way through it. I finally accepted that I couldn’t, and that I needed help and therapy and medication, or I’d also potentially make a very dark choice. It resonated that she saw that, though she couldn’t have known it.
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After the story ran, the feedback was incredible. I mean, we had thousands upon thousands of emails, and they got letters and cards. We stayed in close touch as Mark was getting ready to retire, and by the time he did, I considered them family. After the book was out, when my wife and I had a baby boy, the first call we made after those to our parents was to Mark and Carol.
RIF: Oh, that’s amazing. Who else did you interview for the book?
YD: I interviewed about 100 people. I tried to find people who knew them, both the boys and their sister, Melanie, and the parents at pretty much every stage of their lives. Friends of Mark and Carol from when they were growing up, friends from college, people who served with Mark when he was a young officer, post-Vietnam, when he was serving in his twenties.
I interviewed people who were friends with Carol when she was an army wife moving from base to base and country to country. People who knew the boys really well. My hope in writing the book—at the risk of sounding cliché—was that the boys would live again, to a degree. That they’d come across as living, breathing people, and not just names on a page. And I felt like there was absolutely no way to do that unless I spoke to people they’d played basketball with, or people they’d gotten drunk with, or people they’d done silly, crazy things with. You know, the typical things kids do, especially when they get to college. Absent that, there’d be no way to make their lives have meaning or context.
As the book went on, I spoke to people who served with Mark at Fort Carson by the time he was a General, people who he fought with, because a lot of what he did was very controversial. The families of soldiers who killed themselves, the families of soldiers who managed to survive thanks to Mark. And then near the end, very senior U.S. policymakers: Bob Gates, the Secretary of Defense; Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Chief of Staff of the Army. I tried to go from the lowest possible rung, in terms of people who knew Mark and Carol when they were young, up to the very top of the Pentagon and the military.
RIF: How did you know when you were done—when you had enough material to fully capture your subjects, especially the ones who have died?
YD: It’s a great question. Before I started writing, the best advice I was given—and I heard it from several friends, so I shamelessly stole it—was to set a target for the number of words in a day, and if it took all day to get there, spend all day. If it took a few hours, leave early. But always start the day by re-reading the previous day’s stuff.
I was trying to write roughly a chapter a week, so on Monday I’d start to write; Tuesday I would read Monday’s, and on and on. At the end of the week, I’d read the chapter again. Sporadically I would go back and read previous chapters, and there were times when I would think, at the first go-round, that the chapter was finished, but then looking at it a second time and looking at it a month later, I would see little holes where the narrative didn’t quite hold, or the color wasn’t quite there, or the scene just felt flat. The only way to fill those holes and make it not feel flat would be to do another phone call.
I probably read the book twenty times in its entirety. Each time, I tried to read it like an editor would to see where there was something that could be improved. I tried to be merciless with my own writing. My wife read it twenty times, and she was just as merciless, which is what I wanted her to be.
In the end, I felt like I got to a place where the scenes with Jeff and Kevin felt real, which was the most important thing to me. We have a sense of how they spoke and joked around, what they did for fun. When I got to a point where I felt like that part of the book was living and breathing, I felt like the book was done.
RIF: Would you say that PTSD, depression, and military suicide is one of the biggest problems plaguing the military today?
YD: I think it’s arguably the biggest problem facing the military. Right now as a country, we have about 10,000 troops still in Afghanistan. We have 3,500 troops who are back in Iraq. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are supposedly over. The vast bulk of the military—in terms of people, we’re talking hundreds of thousands, if not a couple million—are the people in the military who are back in the U.S. And of those, a gigantic chunk will have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and of those, a gigantic chunk will have served repeatedly.
The estimates of PTSD are between 20 and 40 percent, so you’re talking about 20 or 40 percent of two or three million people. Just for PTSD alone, that is hundreds of thousands of cases—400,000, 500,000, 600,000—depending on which estimate you use.
One of the things about PTSD that’s scariest is that a person can come back physically unscathed—they can come back showing no signs of PTSD, but it’s just kind of lingering there. Then 20 or 30 or 40 years later, something happens, and it flares up. You have Vietnam veterans who seemed fine for 30 years, and then year 31, they kill themselves. They have nightmares about Vietnam, and they kill themselves. The military is facing this wave now, but there’ll be another wave. They can’t predict the number or the severity in the future.
RIF: Wow. And depression is especially stigmatized in the Army. I was shocked to learn that if the military found out Kevin was on Prozac, that would end his career. Why do you think it’s so stigmatized in the military? Do you think it’s connected to the concept of masculinity, and the need to be tough and strong and battle through emotions?
YD: Yeah, it’s a good question. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot as well. I do fundamentally think it comes from a culture of machismo, where you’re graded in a very literal way. You’re graded on how physically tough you are, so you do a fitness test, and if you run faster than the other guy, you’re graded on it. If you can lift more weight than the other woman, you’re graded on it.
So it’s not just a culture of being macho, it’s a literal part of how you’re promoted, how your career goes. Mixed with that is when we’ve been at war for this long, there are soldiers who have said they had PTSD and didn’t; there are soldiers who claim to be so messed up from being over there that they couldn’t go again, but they actually could have.
Even if that’s a teeny, teeny portion of the people who said they had PTSD, the overall majority of whom actually did have it, you could understand why, if you’re a soldier who’s about to do your fourth or fifth tour, or even your sixth, and somebody who has served once or maybe never served says, “I can’t go, I’ve got PTSD”—you could understand the skepticism and the anger. The feeling that they didn’t go through what you went through. That they’re just too scared to go, and this is their excuse for it.
RIF: How do you think our society can work to change the stigma around suicide and mental illness?
YD: I think part of it is in the work the Graham family is doing. To the credit of the military, which is like a giant ship—think of a gigantic cruise ship, like the Queen Elizabeth 2—it takes forever for it to turn even by a degree because it’s just so big. But then once it turns, it speeds ahead really quickly.
That’s kind of how the military functions as a bureaucracy. It takes forever for it to change, but then once it changes, it can change quickly. And some of the things that needed to happen and didn’t for years are now happening. Take two quick examples. One, the fact that soldiers who kill themselves—their families get condolence letters from the President, which was not the case until recently. That’s one change.
The fact that on security paperwork you had to disclose if you’d been to counseling for any reason—which meant that if you had, and you disclosed it, you might not keep your clearance, which meant your career would end. But that’s finally been changed, so you can acknowledge that you were seeking help, and if it was tied to combat or to war, you don’t lose your clearance.
So these are actually big, substantive things. But the military is the literal definition of a hierarchy, and the culture of the military won’t change without people at the very, very top. Not just people like Mark, but on the enlisted side: the grizzled tough-guy sergeants or other generals or colonels, or people at the very top of the military chain. Many of them being willing to say publicly, “I had PTSD; there were times when I was suicidal. There were times when I didn’t want to get out of bed. But I got through it, and you can get through it, and your career won’t end, and you’re not a coward, and you shouldn’t be ashamed.” Until you start hearing people at the top not just say that in general terms, but say it about themselves, you won’t change the culture.
RIF: I think books like this that bring attention and light to the problem are incredibly important, too. As a civilian bystander, I really did not understand how pervasive this problem was.
YD: Yeah, it’s pervasive in terms of numbers, but also when we think about the fact that every statistic refers back to a human being and to the family and their friends and loved ones. It is kind of like when a stone hits the water, and it sends ripples out further and further. Some of the callousness that I found while researching the book is what stuck with me as much as the numbers did.
The fact that you could have people—sergeants—say to other people who needed help, “Kill yourself; we’ll save on the paperwork.” Or when a really disturbed soldier painted what was basically a suicide note on his barracks wall, the military said, “Okay, we’re going to charge you with defacing government property.” This soldier’s mom drove halfway across the country to repaint the wall and try to save her son from being put into the military justice system, when he was basically suicidal. Then after painting the wall, they arrested her son anyway. It shows you the texture of it, that beyond numbers, there’s such a pervasive cruelty.
RIF: Oh, that’s so sad. You were in Iraq as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal—what was it like being there in the thick of it, but not holding a weapon and having to maintain your journalistic sensibilities while under fire? You’ve told us that you suffer from PTSD. How did your experiences in Iraq shape this book?
YD: It helped me a lot to be able to speak the same language as a lot of people I was interviewing. Within the military, the phrase PTSD—or the military prefers to call it PTS; they leave off the D, the acronym for disorder—but within the military, that phrase is somewhat toxic.
So somebody may say, “I don’t have PTSD.” But then as you talk to them they say, “Well, I can’t really sleep.” Or, “I’ve got these daydreams, and they’re so vivid I feel like I’m in a different place.” Or, “This guy bumped into me on a sidewalk, and I wanted to punch him.” Or, “I sit with my back to the wall at restaurants, and I sit far from windows.” Or, “I hear a sound, and I jump under a table.” What they’re describing is PTSD.
It was easier for me to know that’s what they were saying because I had gone through each and every one of those things myself, and I felt no shame whatsoever in talking about it with the guys I interviewed. Some of them were people I had spent time with in Iraq, so on the one hand, them knowing I’d been there for as long as I did, bought me a measure of credibility. But it often meant that I had spent more time there than they had.
Beyond that, it just meant we spoke the same language, and if they were referencing something in shorthand, I knew what they meant. And if they were referencing something without wanting to follow it to the conclusion—you know, if they would describe a couple of symptoms but not walk it to, “And therefore I have PTSD”—I knew that’s where they were going, and it made the conversations flow a lot more easily.
RIF: What would you say was the biggest thing that you learned while writing this book?
YD: Two things actually. The first was how easy it is, even if you’re a wonderful parent and a wonderful family, to miss signs. When you look back in retrospect, it’s so clear to you what was going on, but in the moment—no matter how loving you were, how much you cared, how much you asked—it’s easy to miss things.
As we were getting closer to finishing the book, when I asked Mark and Carol what they were afraid of, it was people reading it and thinking—and I think these are their words—“We are the worst parents ever. Our son was calling to us for help, and we didn’t hear it, and he was leaving these bread crumbs, but we didn’t see the path until it was too late.”
And it is true. If you look at the story chronologically in reverse, you see every step that—had you seen them at the time—things would have played out very differently. But researching as much as I did, seeing as much as I did and getting to know them as well as I have, I understand better than I ever could have how easy it is to miss all of that.
The second thing was how, outside the military, we have a comforting belief that the military is its own world. We can thank it for its service and feel the people who serve are in some way heroic, but it exists on its own; it’s its own little bubble that we have no interaction with. And obviously, that’s false. I mean, the military comes from within our country, so whatever we do well, it does well. Whatever we do badly, it does badly. The one reflects the other.
I hadn’t realized how pervasive mental health and suicide was in the civilian world when I started the book. The single most giant statistic I discovered while researching was that from the moment the first car rolled off the assembly line, more people died in car crashes than anything but disease, by far. Nothing else was close. But in 2010, suicide bypassed it. And since then, the difference has been greater, so every year more people kill themselves than die in car crashes in the civilian world.
Whenever you watch TV or read the paper about some horrible car crash that killed a family of five, or whatever horrible thing we see on TV—that same day, many more people killed themselves. So it would be comforting in a weird way to say this is a problem for the military and just leave it at that, but it’s not. It’s a problem for us as a country, and I hadn’t realized that until I got deep into the book.
Author Photo: © Christopher Leaman