Couple Turns Tragedy into Triumph by Giving Back to UK in Honor of Their Sons

Grahams
Jeffrey, Melanie and Kevin Graham visited the Great Wall of China during Winter Break in 2002. Carol Graham loves the photo, because it shows her children during happier times.

By Ann Blackford

People have many reasons for wanting to support the University of Kentucky, but for retired U.S. Army Major Gen. Mark A. Graham and Carol Graham, the reason is deeply personal. When the Grahams lost their two sons within a year of each other, the loss was devastating for their family, but with love, encouragement and determination, they turned tragedy into purpose and created something positive out of unimaginable loss.  

Jeffrey and Kevin Graham were following in their father's footsteps by pursuing a career in the military. Jeffrey, a 2003 graduate of the UK College of Engineering, was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army. Kevin was a senior ROTC cadet and straight A student with plans to go to medical school to become an army doctor. Their younger sister, Melanie, pursued a bachelor's degree in nursing at UK.  

However, fate stepped in and Jeffrey and Kevin lost their lives fighting two very different battles. Kevin lost his battle to depression in June 2003. Less than a year later, Jeffrey was killed by a roadside bomb while leading a foot patrol in Iraq in February 2004.

Rather than allow the loss to define their lives, the Grahams have used their pain to help others. They established the Jeffrey C. and Kevin A. Graham Memorial Fund to support the suicide prevention program at UK and remain tireless champions of military and civilian efforts to promote mental health and suicide prevention. 

"We were so broken," Carol Graham said. "The UK community rallied around us after Jeff and Kevin's deaths. We felt the love and support of this amazing campus from the top down. Students, faculty and staff held a candlelight vigil for Kevin and Jeff. When I close my eyes, I go back there and still feel the love that surrounded us. They wanted to help us carry our pain and it was one of the sweetest moments of our lives. Our boys' lives have meaning, and they won't be forgotten."

UK's suicide prevention program is in memory of both Jeff and Kevin Graham and the fund helps supports awareness.

“When our son Kevin died, we blamed ourselves for not recognizing the serious warning signs that Kevin’s depression was a true medical illness and not just a sad feeling,” Mark Graham said. “We knew our son was sad, but we just didn’t know you could die from being too sad. For years, we had talked to our children about alcohol, drugs, sex and even strangers, just about anything we knew to keep our children safe and healthy, but our lack of understanding and education in thinking that all it took to fight clinical depression was a prayer, a proper diet, exercise and a good night's sleep kept us from getting our son the best medical care he needed. With the support of UK, we are compelled to speak out and try to save the life of someone else’s child.”

Called "Question, Persuade, Refer," the suicide prevention program teaches people the three steps anyone can learn to recognize signs of suicide and to get people help. 

“Mark and Carol Graham have the courage to turn personal tragedy into active suicide prevention efforts nationwide, and to inspire healing for survivors of suicide and other losses," said Mary C. Bolin, director of the UK Counseling Center. "They often speak of losing their two sons to different battles, and in 2003 their memorial fund allowed UK to launch as systemic effort in the form of QPR – Question, Persuade, Refer – training for active bystander intervention. Coordinated by the UK Counseling Center, we provide QPR to all Residence Life staff, and many others across campus, including academic advisers, faculty, staff, and students. With the Graham family, our goal is to reduce the stigma surrounding help-seeking, and to empower individuals to recognize and reach out to someone whose struggle may include suicidal thinking.”

The Grahams also support the 2nd Lieutenant Jeffrey C. Graham Memorial Scholarship. Started by two of Jeffrey’s classmates, Lee Carlisle and Ulric Kulik, the scholarship benefits College of Engineering students who excel academically. It has been supported by friends, family and UK alumni who knew and loved Jeffrey.

"Jeff truly loved engineering and looked forward to using the skills he learned at UK to help the people of Iraq," Mark Graham said. "He said on the phone one night, 'Dad, we are making a difference here and when things calm down, I am looking forward to using my engineering education to help these people rebuild their country.’"

Carlisle says that he and Jeff hung out together in study groups and remembers him fondly as being funny and really nice. 

"After he was killed, we were all really sad at the funeral and thought it was such a shame that he didn't get to use his engineering degree,” he said. “We thought the best way to pass on the sacrifice he made would be to help future engineering students realize their dream. We would be passing on his legacy to others.”

Carol Graham says that one of the most rewarding things they've seen come out of the engineering scholarship is to see the hopes and dreams in the eyes of the recipients. They attend the scholarship ceremony every year and meet the recipients. On the rare occasion when they are unable to attend, another family member goes in their place. 

"Jeffrey's former engineering professors attend and tell stories about Jeff,” she said. “Jeff and Kevin have left a legacy for young people who do find their dreams and for us it's everything. Our dreams were shattered but to see the dreams of other young people fulfilled is very rewarding.”

Both funds are endowed, providing continuing funds for the scholarship and suicide prevention program. The Grahams also have said they will continue to support both funds for the rest of their lives. 

"Our pain helped us feel compassion for others,” Carol said. “Our boys have left a legacy, something that will live on. The heart of philanthropy is the ability to give back to others. You get back more than you give.”

The Graham's story is featured in the award-winning book, The Invisible Front: Loss and Love in an Era of Endless War, by Yochi Dreazen. 

For more information on the QPR suicide prevention program at UK, go to https://www.uky.edu/counselingcenter/suicide-prevention-and-qpr-2.

Gifts to the Jeffrey C. and Kevin A. Graham Memorial Fund and the 2nd Lieutenant Jeffrey C. Graham Memorial Scholarship advance Kentucky Can: The 21st Century Campaign, UK’s $2.1 billion comprehensive campaign focused on increasing opportunities for student success, funding innovative research, improving health care, strengthening our alumni network and supporting our athletic programs. More than halfway to its goal, Kentucky Can is transforming the quality of life for the people and the Commonwealth UK serves. For more information about Kentucky Can, visit kentuckycan.uky.edu.

Related Stories

  • Longtime Library Employee Leaves Legacy…

    By Ann Blackford Sandra McAninch has worked in a library nearly her entire life. She recently retired from the…
  • Every Dollar Counts: Scholarships…

    By Molly Williamson Before she applied for college, sophomore Kate Harding took the ACT and SAT five times. She…
  • World War II Veteran Benefits His Alma…

    By Molly Williamson A flock of wooden eagles perch atop Roy Hunt’s cabinets. They are watching over a true…