Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Invisible Front by Yochi Dreazen, 2014

Major General Mark Graham is a decorated two-star officer whose integrity and patriotism inspired his sons, Jeff and Kevin, to pursue military careers of their own. When Kevin and Jeff die within nine months of one another—Kevin, a student enrolled in the University of Kentucky’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, commits suicide and Jeff, who served in the Army as a second lieutenant, dies as a result of an IED attack in Iraq—Mark and his wife Carol find themselves reeling after the loss of two of their three children. As they begin to gather their bearings and contemplate a life without their sons, they must also come to terms with the terrible stigma that surrounds suicide in the military. This stigma is brought into high relief through the Grahams’ own experience of how their tight-knit military community marked their sons’ very different deaths.
The Grahams commit themselves to fighting the military’s suicide epidemic and making sure that the families of troops who take their own lives receive the dignity and compassion that were the hallmarks of both of their sons’ lives. The Invisible Front is the story of their quest to do so. As Mark ascends the military hierarchy and eventually takes command of Fort Carson, Colorado—a sprawling base with one of the highest suicide rates in the armed forces—the Grahams assume a larger platform from which to work to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health in the military and to develop new ways of keeping troubled troops from killing themselves. Their efforts put them in direct conflict with an entrenched military bureaucracy that considered mental health problems to be a display of weakness and that refused to acknowledge, until far too late, the severity of its suicide problem. The Grahams refuse to back down, using the pain and grief that their sons’ deaths inspired to fight to change the institution that is the cornerstone of their lives.

Yochi Dreazen, an award-winning journalist who has covered the military since 1999, has been granted remarkable access to the Graham family and, as a result, is able to tell the story of Kevin and Jeff’s legacy in the full context of America’s two long wars. The Invisible Front places the Graham family’s story against the backdrop of the military’s suicide spike, caused in part by the military’s own institutional shortcomings and its resistance to change. With great sympathy and deep understanding, The Invisible Frontexamines America's problematic treatment of its soldiers and offers the Graham family’s work as a new way of understanding how to minimize the risk of suicide, substance abuse and PTSD in the military

This is going to be a very tricky book to review, because I honestly don't know how to approach the material. This is probably the saddest nonfictional book I've reviewed yet, including The Family Romanov, which is literally subtitled "Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia."

The first half of The Invisible Front traces the Graham family all the way from Mark and Carol's early years of courtship and marriage through the death of both of their sons. The narration goes mainly in order, but skips around rather confusingly every once in a while. I would say that some of the level of detail is a bit excessive (meaning not all of it is strictly relevant to the topic of depression/suicide), but on the other hand it's a book about the Grahams as well as about depression and suicide in the army, so it's perfectly natural for the first half of the book to focus almost entirely on them.

Okay, about Jeff and Kevin Graham. I have to say that after reading about their personal lives, these are not the sort of people I would have been friends with if I met them in college. I don't drink, I don't party, and I don't sleep with people - all things that one, the other, or both Graham boys did with gusto. However, both of their deaths still hit me very hard, and I had tears in my eyes when their deaths were described (in detail - this book is not for the faint of heart). Lifestyle choices aside, they both sound like genuinely nice people who could have made the world a better place for a very long time if they hadn't died at such tragically young ages.

The second half of the book discusses depression and suicide in the army, citing anecdote after anecdote about real soldier who really attempted suicide - many of them succeeding. It also follows Mark's time working as general at a fort where he worked to implement techniques to decrease PTSD-related depression and suicide. I frankly would have preferred to read more about what Mark did than about all these random deaths and almost-deaths. It is definitely talked about, but Dreazen could have gone a lot deeper into talking about what worked, what didn't work, etc. I came away with a feeling of helplessness more than anything else; it didn't really feel like Mark did any good. Of course, standing back a step I see clearly that he saved many lives (likely more than he could have by going overseas), and I register the fact that his techniques have been implemented across the country. But while actually read the narrative, it felt a bit disjointed. I would have preferred to have the pieces placed together neatly in front of me, instead of scattered around for me to pick through and piece together.

Basically, that's the only flaw I can come up with: it's a bit disjointed. Besides that, there is really nothing I can possibly criticize. It's a book about suicide in the military, what is there to say? The only thing I can say is that it is incredibly tragic that the best and bravest of our nation are not given the proper mental care they need. They do and see unspeakable things in order to keep us, the citizens of America, safe. We need to ensure that when they come home, they will be greeted with proper medical care not just for their physical wounds, but their mental wounds as well.

Disclaimer: I received a complementary copy of this book through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

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