Tags: invisible front | love | loss | endless war | mark graham | yochi dreazen

Love, Loss in Era of Endless War: An Excerpt from 'The Invisible Front'

Love, Loss in Era of Endless War: An Excerpt from 'The Invisible Front'
Photo of Amazon web site showing The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War by Yochi Dreazen, Hardcover. (nm)

By    |   Sunday, 09 November 2014 12:13 PM

Reprinted excerpt from The Invisible Front Copyright © 2014 by Yochi Dreazen. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

Fort Sill, Oklahoma, March 2004

Mark Graham had made up his mind: It was time to leave the military. He was barely hanging on after Jeff’s death, doing his best to stay strong for Carol and Melanie while keeping his own grief bottled up and hid­den away. Carol had come home one night and found him alone in the garage, cradling one of Kevin’s old golf clubs. His close friends could tell how much sadness Mark was feeling, but they knew he was also grap­pling with overpowering feelings of guilt and regret. It wasn’t simply that he had lost a second son, though that was devastating enough. It was that Jeff had been killed in action, at the start of an army career modeled on that of his father. Mark was haunted by the thought that Jeff might still be alive if he had chosen a different profession. The army had taken so much from him and Carol. How, Mark wondered, would he be able to put on his uniform each morning and salute the flag as if nothing had happened? He had loved every moment of his service in the army, but it was time to move on.

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Mark and Carol arrived back at Fort Sill on March 10 and returned to a house full of ghosts. They had spent their first year at the base mourn­ing one son and praying for the safety of the other, only to lose him as well. The framed pictures of Kevin and Jeff stabbed at Carol like dag­gers, painful reminders of a family that no longer existed. My boys are gone, she told herself. My precious boys are gone. She didn’t know how she would stifle her own thoughts of suicide, let alone continue as an army wife. She and Mark worried about Melanie and pleaded with her to leave the University of Kentucky and join them in Oklahoma, but their daugh­ter wouldn’t step foot in a house whose walls were lined with photos of her two dead brothers. Melanie told her parents that being around them simply made her too sad.

“You got to live forty-seven years of your lives in this perfect world where nothing bad ever happened,” she told them. “My world basically fell apart when I was eighteen. I have to somehow find a way to live the rest of my life.”

The only surviving Graham child wasn’t sure she could. Melanie never told her parents, but Jeff’s death left her actively considering whether to take her own life. The only thing that kept her from com­mitting suicide was the thought that she simply couldn’t cause her par­ents any more pain. “I have to keep going until my parents are either old or dead before I kill myself,” she remembered thinking. “Nobody will care then.”

Mark barely slept the night of March 10 and woke up early the fol­lowing morning ready to put in his retirement papers. He had prepared a new résumé; the moment had come to send it out to potential employers in the civilian world. Groggy, he made his way downstairs and stepped into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Carol was already up, sitting at the kitchen table with an eighty-five-year-old book of biblically inspired sto­ries called Streams in the Desert. She read from it every day, seeking the type of solace that she had just about abandoned hope of finding. Mark sat down next to his wife and was startled by how fiercely she was cry­ing. “The expression on her face completely threw me,” he recalled.

Carol pulled herself together and began to read out loud from that day’s chapter, a parable written by James Russell Miller, a Presbyterian minister and teacher who came of age during the Civil War and never forgot its carnage.

“Yesterday you experienced a great sorrow and now your home seems empty. Your impulse is to give up amid your dashed hopes,” Carol read. “Yet, you must defy that temptation for you are at the front line of battle and the crisis is at hand. . . . You must not linger at this point even to indulge your grief.”

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Carol looked Mark in the eye as she began reading the next sec­tion, a story about a Civil War general leading an important assault who glanced down and saw his son lying dead on the ground. The general, Miller wrote, set aside the impulse to mourn by his son’s body and in­stead pressed on with the assault, putting duty to others ahead of his per­sonal grief:

Weeping inconsolably forever beside a grave will never bring back the treasure of a lost one. We never completely recover from our greatest griefs and are never quite the same after having passed through them. Yet sorrow that is endured in the right spirit impacts our growth favorably and brings us a greater sense of compassion for others. Sitting down and continuously brooding over our sorrow deepens the darkness surrounding us, allowing it to creep into our heart, and soon our strength has changed to weakness. But if we will turn from the gloom and remain faithful, the light will shine again and we will grow stronger.

Mark understood that Carol was telling him that they, too, needed to put duty to others ahead of their own grief. The wars in Iraq and Af­ghanistan were getting steadily bloodier, with hundreds of soldiers like Jeff losing their lives and thousands of others returning to the United States maimed, burned, or injured. Perhaps, Mark thought, he and Carol would be able to find ways of ensuring that wounded soldiers of all kinds got the care they needed and that the families of all fallen troops were treated with the same compassion and respect they’d re­ceived after Jeff’s death. Remaining in the military would give them the most—and best—opportunities to help. “I knew right then that I was meant to stay,” Mark said.

Mark threw away his retirement paperwork and decided to finish out his remaining time as chief of staff to the commanding general of Fort Sill. He was slated to relinquish that post in the fall of 2005, and he told Carol that he would retire as soon as his replacement was in place. His military career had begun at Fort Sill decades earlier; it seemed somehow fitting that it should end there as well


“Congratulations, Mark,” Major General Dave Valcourt said into the phone. “You’re on the list for brigadier general.”

It was September 22, 2004, and Mark was at a military conference at Georgia’s Fort Benning, one of the largest bases in the entire American military. It took him a few seconds to process what Valcourt had said. Mark had assumed that when he retired in twelve months he would go out as a colonel, a highly competitive rank attained by only a small frac­tion of army officers. He hadn’t led soldiers into combat or served in Af­ghanistan or Iraq, and he didn’t have personal relationships with many of the three-and four-star generals who determined which colonels would make the jump to general. Years earlier, Brigadier General Creigh­ton Abrams had said that Mark had “General Officer potential.” It turned out, much to Mark’s surprise, that Abrams had been right.

When the initial shock passed, Mark felt like it was no coincidence that he’d gotten the good news on that particular day, and while he was visiting that particular base. Kevin had spent the summer between his sophomore and junior years attending Fort Benning’s famed airborne course, a grueling three-week course reserved for the most promis­ing ROTC cadets in the country. He earned his jump wings—a military badge showing a parachute surrounded by a pair of feathered wings—after safely finishing five jumps out the side doors of a military plane flying roughly twelve hundred feet above the ground. Being at the base where Kevin had spent some of the proudest moments of his life left Mark feeling unusually close to his lost son. September 22, meanwhile, was Jeff’s birthday. He would have been twenty-five. “At that moment in time at that exact place I knew I was where I was supposed to be and that there was a mission for me to continue in the army,” Mark said. “It seemed like my boys were standing right next to me, one on my right and one on my left.”

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At Mark’s promotion ceremony a few months later, Valcourt proudly pinned a silver star to each of his friend’s shoulder epaulets. Jeffrey’s name was engraved under one of the stars, Kevin’s under the other. “Your sons will always be with you,” Valcourt told Mark.

Seven months earlier, Valcourt had handed Carol a folded Ameri­can flag during Jeff’s funeral, one of the lowest points of her life. Now he was personally welcoming her husband into the top ranks of the United States Army, a professional accomplishment for Mark that stood as one of the highlights of her life as well. Carol allowed herself to smile, a rare occurrence since the boys’ death. She also thought back to a conversation she’d had with Mark during a particularly hard day in Kentucky. A short time before Jeff was laid to rest, Carol and Mark had sat down with a fu­neral director in Frankfort to discuss the final details of their son’s me­morial service. On the drive back to her mother’s house, Carol turned to her husband and bluntly told him that she didn’t think they would ever be happy again. Mark surprised her with his response. “We can let los­ing the boys be two tragic chapters in the book of our lives, or we can let it be the whole book,” he told her at the time. Watching Mark pin on his general’s stars for the first time, Carol started to see what he meant. She and Mark had wanted to figure out a way of using their personal losses to help others. Being a general would give Mark the power, and the promi­nence, to begin doing so.

Reprinted excerpt from
The Invisible Front Copyright © 2014 by Yochi Dreazen. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

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Fort Sill, Oklahoma, March 2004. Mark Graham had made up his mind: It was time to leave the military. He was barely hanging on after Jeff’s death, doing his best to stay strong for Carol and Melanie while keeping his own grief bottled up and hid­den away.
invisible front, love, loss, endless war, mark graham, yochi dreazen
Sunday, 09 November 2014 12:13 PM
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