- - Tuesday, October 14, 2014

By Yochi Dreazen
Crown Publishers, $26, 320 pages

In his superb new book, “The Invisible Front,” Yochi Dreazen paints a deeply disturbing portrait of the overstretched United States Army, downsizing in Afghanistan while deploying against the latest threats of the Islamic State and Ebola. Even in the “era of endless war” after Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were never called to the colors, so 99 percent of us now have no direct experience with military service. The average reader may thus be shocked to learn that, in 2012, 349 American soldiers died by suicide, more than were killed in combat with the Taliban. What happened to our once-proud Army?

Mr. Dreazen, military correspondent and managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, unravels this urgent but often overlooked question. His narrative is compelling and never gets weighed down, either by the grim nature of suicide or by the Army’s often arcane folkways.

The author diffuses those mysteries by focusing on Mark Graham, a senior Army officer who lost two sons: One to suicide and — only nine months later — another to a roadside bomb while serving as an infantry platoon leader in Iraq. The twin tragedies that befell Mr. Graham and his wife, Carol, were a parent’s worst nightmare, highlighting an even more painful dilemma. How do you deal with mind-numbing grief when one son dies heroically while the other dies by his own hand, heartbreak magnified by the lingering stigma of suicide?

It is impossible to read those pages without emotion, knowing that the Grahams endured their personal hell even as Mark Graham’s impending promotion to brigadier general made private grief impossible. Would he accept that long-hoped-for advancement and quietly endure — or end his distinguished military career in a very public display of anguish? The couple was preparing to bury their second son when Carol told Mark that she would never 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.’”

In that moment, the Grahams decided that their lives would not be defined by tragedy, however unimaginable. When Mark was promoted to general, the names of the Graham brothers were engraved beneath his new stars. “It seemed like my boys were standing right next to me, one on my right and one on my left.” This omen foreshadowed Gen. Graham’s subsequent career, underlined by his personal experience with combat trauma and the new epidemic of soldier-suicide. I first heard his story while deployed as an NBC News “embed” in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Despite being a very junior brigadier, Mark Graham moved bureaucratic mountains while organizing the massive civilian evacuation of New Orleans, saving countless lives in the process. His three-star boss later declared that Mark’s accomplishments made him “the unsung hero of Katrina.”

That commendation probably earned him his second star and command of Fort Carson, Colo. However, because all Army troop installations had become way-stations between repeated combat deployments, post-traumatic stress disorders and suicides became immediate issues for the newly-minted Maj. Gen. Graham. As the author correctly reminds us, “Our all-volunteer army reflects the society in which its soldiers were raised, and any problem that affects the country also affects those sent overseas to fight in its name. Suicide is one of those problems, and it’s getting worse.” How bad? In 2010, we lost more people to suicides (38,364) than to traffic accidents (33,687).

In an era when political correctness rivals combat prowess in the race for the stars, readers will savor Mark Graham’s willingness to break the crockery as Fort Carson coped with soldier suicides. Sadly, his greatest struggles were sometimes with unit commanders and even supporting medical staff who should have recognized that soldiers suffering from PTSD were not malingering or shirking additional combat. Incredibly, some Army psychiatric authorities considered those soldiers crybabies or even “deadwood.” Despite dug-in opposition, Gen. Graham’s common-sense reforms prevailed and were adopted elsewhere in the Army.

Mr. Dreazen’s comprehensive and deeply thoughtful description omits only the far-reaching critique of the all-volunteer army now being leveled by retired Gens. Karl Eikenberry and Stanley McChrystal as well as professors David M. Kennedy of Stanford and Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University. While deploring the casualties of overdeployment, this critical reappraisal raises even more fundamental questions about the malevolent complacency of our political system. Why, for example, do we no longer question the propriety of sending the soldier to war when his nation remains at peace?

With the publication of “The Invisible Front,” Mr. Dreazen provides more ammunition for a debate that is rapidly becoming an urgent national question.

Retired Army Col. Ken Allard is a former NBC News military analyst and author on national security issues.

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