U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Mark Graham knew his son, an ROTC cadet who was studying to be a military physician, was struggling with sadness, but said he didn't realize the depth of his depression until it was too late.
Graham and his wife, Carol, lost their son Kevin to suicide in 2003 when he was studying pre-med at the University of Kentucky. A second son, 2nd Lt. Jeff Graham, was killed by an improvised explosive device while serving in Iraq in 2004.
Graham, who served in the military for nearly 35 years, said early identification and intervention in mental health crises among military veterans are key to saving lives.
"This can happen to any family. It's important for everyone to know the warning signs," the retired major general said as he prepared to speak at the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Summit and Veterans Stakeholders Symposium in Pewaukee on Friday.
The department is launching a program to help people who have regular contact with veterans understand and identify signs that someone is suicidal.
The goal of the Zero Veteran Suicide Initiative "is to completely prevent the terrible tragedy that is suicide," said Wisconsin Veterans Affairs Secretary John A. Scocos.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day in 2014. That same year, veterans accounted for 18 percent of all deaths by suicide in the United States, according to department statistics.
A steering committee comprised of representatives from veterans groups, the Department of Health Services and others will decide how to implement the training of veterans' relatives, volunteers and non-clinical staff at veterans' facilities.
Vietnam War veteran Ron Worthey lost his good friend Chris Surdyk to suicide last year. Worthey said the 32-year-old Army veteran had served a couple of tours in Iraq and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Worthey, 68, and Surdyk belonged to the volunteer veterans support group, Souls of Honor, based in Wausau.
Worthey said he believes he could have prevented his friend from taking his own life with a firearm at home last October.
"I could have gone in there and talked to him," Worthey said. "Veterans know they're messed up, but the family members don't know why they're angry. When you're in combat, you have to bury all your emotions. The only emotion you can't bury is anger and anger always comes out."
Worthey, president of Souls of Honor, has talked to Scocos about additional mental health training to help veterans, including more education for police officers who may respond to a volatile situation involving a troubled vet.
Jim and Jody Hunn buried their son, Christopher, at Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery following his death last November at age 28.
Hunn was an Army soldier who served in Iraq. Jim Hunn said Christopher battled post-traumatic stress disorder and died of an overdose after being treated at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
"We didn't recognize it with our son until he had some severe addiction issues. It didn't come to us until two years after he was out (of the military.) Then sleep deprivation and anxiety were just overwhelming," Hunn said.
The veteran's family and friends have created a Facebook page, "Army of Hunn," to raise awareness of PTSD and its effects on veterans.
The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs will use a 90-minute suicide prevention training module called QPR, and like CPR it's aimed at saving lives. QPR, which stands for 'question, persuade and refer,' was established in 1995 by Paul Quinnett to identify and interrupt a mental health crisis and direct that person to the proper care.
The QPR Institute said that because many suicides happen in family settings where emergency interventions are more likely to take place, it recommends at least one person in the family be trained in the protocol.
The Grahams established the Jeffrey C. and Kevin A. Graham Memorial Fund to provide the QPR suicide prevention program at the University of Kentucky, where Kevin was a senior on a scholarship.
"We didn't know how serious it was at the time," Graham said "We wanted his death to not be in vain, but to help others."
About 413,000 military veterans live in Wisconsin.