PBS’ National Memorial Day Concert to Honor Director of Rutgers’ Vets4Warriors Program
Hours before deploying to Iraq in November 2003 – and just three months before he was killed by a roadside bomb – Army 2nd Lt. Jeffrey Graham called his parents with a request: No matter what happened to him, never stop talking about his brother, Kevin, who died by suicide.
“When Jeffrey called us, he said, ‘Promise me that you will keep doing what you’re doing,’” said Mark Graham, a retired Army major general and director of the Vets4Warriors program at the Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care National Call Center. “‘There are too many Kevins in the world that need help.’”
Graham has kept that promise to his son. On Sunday, May 29, he and his wife, Carol, will have their family’s story shared on primetime television as part of the 33rd National Memorial Day Concert. Aired live from Washington, D.C., and broadcast on PBS and streaming, the Grahams will be recognized for their sacrifices – and for keeping their promise to their son, Jeffrey.
“If one person is helped by our work, then it’s all worth it,” said Graham, who is also the Executive Director of the National Call Center at Rutgers.
Vets4Warriors was founded 10 years ago as a national 24/7 peer support program. Originally part of the National Guard and the Department of Defense, the program today operates independently of the military. It is staffed by Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps veterans who served in every conflict since Vietnam. Since its inception, the center has operated over 89,000 consecutive hours of answering the phone live within 30 seconds. Last year, the program’s peers helped about 8,000 veterans and active-duty soldiers, and over the last decade about 32,000 men and women have sought out the center for services, mental health assistance and other resources.
“The majority of those individuals are new, and that’s key to understanding our reach,” said Graham. “You don’t become a member of Vets4Warriors. You come through the ‘door’ and our goal is to help you thrive and keep going. Our mission is to ensure that no military member, serving or veteran, ever feels alone. We want to support callers before their circumstances reach a point of crisis.”
After the death of his son Kevin, a 21-year-old ROTC senior cadet at the University of Kentucky, in June 2003, Graham came close to leaving the military. And when Jeffrey died in Iraq, he was completely “out of gas,” he said. But rather than retire, he chose to stay in uniform and use his command to combat a growing trend of suicides in the military.
As the commanding general of Fort Carson, Colorado, which was gripped by a wave of suicides in 2008 and 2009, he helped institute programs on suicide prevention. He also ordered that all soldiers who killed themselves receive full military funerals and memorial services, a move that was intended to destigmatize suicide in the military. The Wall Street Journal said his work at Fort Carson turned the base into the Army’s “suicide-prevention laboratory.”
The Grahams’ story will be told during the National Memorial Day Concert, a more than three decades long tradition that takes us back to the meaning of the holiday through personal stories interwoven with musical performances to honor our men and women in uniform, their families and all those who have given their lives for our country. The Grahams’ story will be shared by multi-Emmy Award–winning actress Jean Smart, star of the HBO Max comedy series Hacks, and Tony Award–winning actor, producer and director Joe Mantegna.
Other actors and artists on the bill include Gil Birmingham (Yellowstone, Wind River), Mary McCormack (Heels, West Wing), Dennis Haysbert (24, Major League), Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon, Mulan) and many others.
In addition to the Memorial Day honors, Graham was also recently inducted into the U.S. Field Artillery Hall of Fame, which recognizes men and women across the military who have made a lasting contribution to the Field Artillery branch.
To learn more about Vets4Warrirors, visit its website at www.vets4warriors.com. To get in touch, call 1-855-838-8255.
Hosted by Mantegna and Emmy Award-winning actor Gary Sinise (Forest Gump, Apollo 13), the National Memorial Day concert airs on PBS Sunday, May 29, 2022, from 8:00 to 9:30 pm ET, as well as to troops serving around the world on the American Forces Network. View a teaser here. The concert will also stream on YouTube and at www.pbs.org/national-memorial-day-concert.
By Gregory Bruno