Colorado Springs is a town loaded with experts on the past 13 years of war.

They fought the battles. They planned them. They mourned the 383 people with ties to the Pikes Peak region who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. A few of them protested.

Now, plans call for the fighting in Afghanistan to cease by Dec. 31, ending America's longest war.

As Colorado Springs soldiers and airmen work to bring the war to a close, we asked a variety of people one question: What did the past 13 years of war mean?

It's a simple question, but the answers proved complex. No two were the same.

Mark Graham

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Mark Graham can't think about the war without memories of his sons rushing forward.

Kevin was working his way through ROTC when he died in 2003. He'd kept the depression that proved fatal a secret before taking his life. Kevin wanted to serve. He wanted to be a doctor.

His older brother, Jeff, was fresh out of ROTC when he went to Iraq, full of dedication and patriotism. He was killed by a roadside bomb in early 2004.

The war meant so much to MarkGraham.

"It rings a lot of bells inside me and a lot of different emotions," said Graham, a former Fort Carson commander. "It rings love, loss,patriotism and service to the nation."

"I think of all the families who have lost someone, and the wounded - those with physical wounds and the wounds we can't see," he said.

Graham has fought to change the legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wants future generations to see the years of thewars as the time when the military and the public removed the stigma once associated with mental illness.

"We need to let others know it's a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness, to come forward to seek help," he said. "And mental health is not a character flaw."

For Graham, it's a lesson about the cost of patriotism - how the freedom of a nation can lay waste to the mental health of those who foughttopreserve it.

"There are so many out there who are struggling. They are struggling not because they want to struggle."

Long after American guns go silent in Afghanistan, the war will still be fought in American towns where veterans fight to recover from hidden injuries.

"I think the stigma is still out there," Graham warned.

He is now director of Vets4Warriors, a Pentagon-backed call center that connects troops with help for grief, transition, job struggles and mental health concerns.

"We need to do as much as we can before people are in crisis," he said.

Tom Roeder, The Gazette