LEWISVILLE — Two Star General Mark Graham paused and sobbed as he relived the painful moments that followed the death of his two sons. They died just seven months apart.
His youngest son took his own life and his oldest died in an attack in Iraq.
Graham finished his speech at a Dallas hotel with a single line inscribed on their headstones: 'This is the land of the free, because of the brave."
From the audience, Lewisville's Traci Thomas Ratliff quietly cried. It was Gen. Graham who saved her brother's life.
Graham is based out of Atlanta, but he heard Ratliff's desperate cries for help when her brother, serving in Iraq, threatened himself and others. It was a downward spiral that began a year prior after he witnessed the death of his good friend while serving on his first tour in Iraq.
"He became really withdrawn, really angry," Ratliff said, adding that her brother started drinking and showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Even so, he was redeployed for a second tour.
On the way to Iraq, Ratliff said, her brother's anger became evident. "His unit had gotten into Kuwait and he had a problem with his first sergeant. He actually threatened to kill him."
That threat landed Ratliff's brother in the Army's brig — the base jail in Kuwait. He spent 30 days there before being sent out with a new unit to Iraq.
By that point, she said, her brother had lost his rank and over the coming months, he would lose his control.
Ratliff spoke to her brother every day over instant messenger. "It was a helpless feeling," she said. Her brother told her that he felt like a caged animal and that he didn't know what to do.
One day, he sent his sister a clear message for help. "He said he was going to do something. We didn't know if that meant that he was going to do something to himself or to the people around him," Ratliff said.
She jumped into action, spending two days calling Army chaplains at her brother's home base in Kentucky. Each day, she said they promised to get her brother help. But each day in their communications via instant messenger, her brother told Ratliff that a chaplain had yet to meet with him.
By the third day, Ratliff wrote a letter and e-mailed it to 11 Army commanders and numerous local politicians. In it, she described her brother’s situation in harsh detail.
"I'm writing to reconfirm to you that my brother is mentally unstable and requires immediate psychiatric care for PTSD," the letter read.
Ratliff copied her friend on the e-mail, a local representative from TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. It was that friend that forwarded her e-mail to Bonnie Carroll, the foundation's founder.
Carroll forwarded the e-mail to Gen. Mark Graham. Ratliff received a call from Graham within hours.
Since his son's death, Gen. Graham has joined the Army's effort to curb the growing suicide problem. Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli is leading that charge.
"Every three months, they give me a briefing on their findings to date and there is a heck of a lot more that we have to do," Gen. Chiarelli said.
Last year, 160 active-duty soldiers committed suicide, which is a larger percentage than the general population.
The Army is facing a shortage in mental health professionals and is challenged by the stigma that comes with suicide in the military.
The Army recently launched a new program that would require returning soldiers to undergo a mental health evaluation via teleconferencing. When a unit returns home, the commanders are the first to go through the evaluation.
Gen. Chiarelli said the Army has also studying the issue starting with new recruits and following their mental health over a five-year period. He hopes this will help identify the reason behind the increase and a way the Army can combat it.
Dr. Craig Bryan with the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio is researching the issue. Bryan, a veteran, believes service members are more susceptible to suicide because they’re trained to no longer fear death. "Fearlessness about death and tolerance of pain and suffering increase the ability of a person to kill themselves,” he said.
Bryan believes that decreasing the military suicide rate requires a major change in the way the Pentagon approaches and handles the issues associated with PTSD. He says that change needs to happen as a part of regular combat training.
Traci Ratliff’s brother made it home safely and is now out of the Army, but his fight with PTSD is far from over. It’s a battle that many times outlasts the war.