In 2008, Jason Kander was an honorably discharged Army Captain and a Democratic rising star. That year, he was elected to the Missouri state legislature and in 2012 as Missouri Secretary of State, making him the first American millennial elected to statewide office. Though he narrowly lost a Senate race against incumbent Roy Blunt, he then publicly acknowledged that he was considering a 2020 presidential campaign with the blessing of President Obama. From the outside, Jason seemed to have it all together. However, on the inside, it was a very different story, as Jason was suffering from undiagnosed PTSD.
**TRIGGER WARNING. This episode contains conversations about suicide, PTSD, and other mental health issues. If you are triggered or would like to talk to a confidential advocate, please dial the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. If you want to learn more about mental health and find possible resources, please visit this Ruderman Family Foundation link.
Jay: We’re living through crazy political times – from the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade to the January 6 hearings. Of course, we’re wondering how is this going to affect the midterm elections? One of the shows Iv’e been listening to to guide me through this turmoil is Majority 54. While there are many great political podcasts, there are few that engage beyond their echo chambers. No one does this better than the hosts of Majority 54. Jason Kander and Ravi Gupta are political veterans that have run successful Democratic campaigns in deeply red areas. On Majority 54, they welcome guests on both sides of the aisle for meaningful conversations that change minds. Check out Majority 54 every Thursday wherever you get your podcasts.
Jason Kander:When you leave the military, nobody is like, Actually, yeah, that was some crazy shit. And you might need to address it.
Jay VO: Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman, and welcome to All About Change: a podcast, showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.
This is all wrong. I say put mental health first because… I stand before you, not as an expert, but as a concerned citizen.
Jay VO: In each episode, we bring you in-depth and intimate conversations about activism, courage, and change.
Jason Kander: I have it on good authority that what I did was no big deal. So this can’t be PTSD. This just has to be something that’s wrong with me.
Jay VO: Today on our show, Jason Kander: attorney, author, politician, veteran, as well as advocate for voting rights, mental health, and veterans affairs.
Jason Kander:I think I was like, I gotta save the world or I’m not worth a shit because I didn’t do enough for my country or, or really I didn’t do enough in Afghanistan compared to the other people who I know who did more.
Jay VO: In 2008, Jason was an honorably discharged Army Captain who was becoming a Democratic rising star.
Jason Kander: I was constantly in search of something that would make me feel like I was really involved in something greater than myself.
Jay VO: He then served in the Missouri House of Representatives, was the youngest millennial to be elected to state-wide office as the Secretary of State of Missouri, narrowly lost a Senate race against incumbent Roy Blunt, and, was considering a 2020 presidential campaign with the blessing of the sitting president. From the outside, Jason seemed to have it all together. However, on the inside, it was a very different story.
Jason Kander:I just felt like I’d be better off dead. I felt like a burden to the people around me and that drumbeat in my mind had just been getting steadier and steadier. And that scared me because I didn’t want to want to die.
Jay VO: Through treatment, Jason developed mental health tools to help him rebuild his life from the ground up. Today, he works to fight veteran suicide and veteran homelessness as President of National Expansion at the Veterans Community Project. He also shares his experience in a powerful and brutally honest memoir, Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD.
Jason Kander:`I want people to read it and be like, “Wait. I think I should go to therapy ’cause it seems like his life is a lot better.
Jay VO: before we dive, just a quick trigger warning that our conversation does touch on the subject of suicide.
Jay Ruderman: Jason, welcome to All About Change. I really enjoyed your latest book, Invisible Storm. How are you doing today?
Jason Kander: I’m doing really well. I’m in a phase of my life that I refer to as post-traumatic growth. I’m having a pretty good time. Thanks for asking.
Jay Ruderman: Can you tell us a little bit about, you know, growing up in Kansas City, what it was like, and maybe what led you to join the army?
Jason Kander: Sure. I’m fifth generation, Kansas City. I grew up in a house where my parents had been juvenile probation officers. That’s how they met. My dad was a cop part-time. As I was growing up. They took in kids whose own families were struggling so the example my parents set was you have an opportunity to help people you do it. I didn’t come from a particularly rich military tradition in my family. I was just like most people my age. My grandfather and my great uncle had been in World War II. And then their dad, my great grandfather, had been in World War I, but I never knew him. But they had just joined up, served, done their duty and then went back to their lives, like a lot of people.
So it wasn’t like expected of me, but then I was going to school in DC at American University when 9/11 happened and it just flipped the equation in my mind. And I decided, well, I’m gonna go serve. And then I’ll get on with my life after that. So rather than becoming like an army lawyer, I did ROTC while I was in law school and I became an army intelligence officer.
Jay Ruderman: Let me ask you about Diana. You guys were high school sweethearts, your wife. How did she take this?
Jason Kander: Well, one of the things we bonded over when we were very young was that we wanted to change the world. We didn’t really like have terms at our disposal of like public service. We just knew we wanted to make a big difference in the world.
I had gone that day down to the capital to try to give blood. And after a long period of waiting in line, they had come out and said, “We can’t take any more blood. Hope you find another way to help.”
And I had decided right then, like, I’m joining the military. And I told her that that night, and I remember she said, “Can’t you just go back tomorrow and see if they can take blood.” my family, they knew my makeup and everybody knew that I, I was probably gonna make that decision at that time.
Like one of my brothers had emailed me that day and said, “I know you’re gonna join the army. Just don’t join today.” So that was who I was. And she understood that. She writes in the book ’cause there’s several, as you know, first-person passages from her in the book. And she wrote that the first day I came back from army training, the way I was just completely lit up about it, and the way I had responded to it, she knew that I had found my thing. While she was worried about what our future would look like with this and she was worried about my safety, she understood how much it meant to me. And so she was really supportive of it.
Jay Ruderman: Did ROTC and The Army become more important to you than law school at a certain point?
Jason Kander: Yeah, law school was like an annoyance. It was getting in the way of all the army training i had been doing. In ROTC, I had been up for days, I had to go be the platoon leader on a training mission and I’d make a mistake.
I’d make the wrong decision. I’d get the coordinates wrong. I’d give the wrong order and somebody would be quote, unquote, killed in the training operation. You know, they’d say, “Oh. You got that person killed.” And that only made me love it more. Just the fact that it seemed really hard. And it was exhausting and it required everything of me, And it was exactly what I’d been looking for. So by, the time I got my commission as a officer in the army, I had gone from a law student and aspiring lawyer and maybe politician to first and foremost at that point, in my mind, a soldier.
Jay Ruderman: Jason, let’s talk about when you’re deployed and you end up in Afghanistan. What were your impressions? And did you ever feel like, wow, what did I get myself into here?
Jason Kander: My idea of what combat was… it was Black Hawk Down or conventional, force-on-force combat. And anything short of that didn’t count. And I also thought, because I’d been through intelligence school and everything that when I went places, there’d be like a convoy of armored vehicles.
We would roll the way we were taught everything was gonna work in training. Neither of those things really turned out to be the case for me. I never fired my weapon my whole deployment. And I had a huge hangup about that for 11 years and would tell myself I wasn’t a real combat veteran. But the reason I never did is because my job as an intelligence officer was to go out and to have meetings with potentially very unsavory characters, risk walking into a trap, just me and my translator, develop relationships with people who, oftentimes, their allegiance was not to us. You know, it could be to the Taliban, to Al Qaeda, to a mix of all three, but there was a real potential for never being heard from again. And that was what combat was for me. And I would be oftentimes out just me and my translator, more or less alone, with nobody knowing where we were. So nobody was coming to save us if things went bad. That experience being very different than what I had anticipated combined with not being the version of combat that I was raised by movies to believe was combat, for a long time had me believing that I wasn’t a combat veteran and therefore had no right to treat what was going on with me as a reaction to trauma.
Jay Ruderman: There’s a portion of the book where you talk about your typical dayin Afghanistan. And you write about it as like, well, it was pretty routine,
Kander excerpt from book: 22: Day in, day out, Salam and I would hit the road in our anonymous midsize SUV, looking for all the world like two regular Kabul dudes in a janky Mitsubishi. Outside the wire, we weren’t on comms, we weren’t being tracked; we were almost entirely free-range. Often I’d be gone for an entire day, and no one would know where I was.*
it sounds scary as hell. Like Did you feel that fear at that time?
Jason Kander:It’s interesting how something can become normal. After a while anything becomes a job. It can fade into the background and just become what you do. Particularly when everyone around you is doing it too. Everyone around me was also in Afghanistan.
They had similar jobs to mine. They were going out and they were doing these high stakes meetings and, you know, risking their life to do it. And so if they’re doing it, like how unique can my stuff be? I was aware of the threat, for sure. I was hyper aware of the threat and there were times when yes, I was fearful, but it was also just my job.
And you can get to a point where you go, well, this isn’t that big of a deal. This is also because the army teaches you, that what you’re doing is no big deal. It’s a really necessary form of brainwashing that they start teaching you right away. Because, if you don’t teach somebody like me that what they’re doing is no big deal that compared to what somebody else is doing, then I’m not going into the next meeting to get the valuable information that we need in order to accomplish our mission. And another soldier is not going back out on patrol if they got shot out the day before unless they believe that what they’re doing is really not that big a deal compared to what someone else is doing.
The problem with that is that nobody flips that switch off. That when you leave the military, nobody is like, Actually, yeah, that was some crazy shit. And you might need to address it. So instead you go into civilian life and you’re having these symptoms and you’re going, I have it on good authority that what I did was no big deal.
So this can’t be PTSD. This just has to be something that’s wrong with me. I gotta address it on my own.
Jay Ruderman: Well, you write about an experience where you had a driver who was a new driver, and he took you in a direction that you were not familiar with. And that later impacted you when you were taking an uber on the campaign trail, can you talk a little about what went on there?
Jason Kander: Yeah. At Camp Eggers in Kabul, a lot of us lived in safe houses that were not on the base. And so you had to take these shuttles, but they were driven by local nationals and these little soft skin, little like minivan things. What we were taught was you’re never allowed to get into the shuttle by yourself because you know, there’s a risk of like somebody paying off a driver and taking you somewhere other than where you’re trying to go.
But I’d been working all day. It was really late. I knew I had to get up in a few hours and I was just tired and I wanted to get back to my rack and, and get some rest for like three or four hours. It was just me and this driver who didn’t speak any English. And I was like, “Let’s go.”
So I climb in and we pull out the gate and we turned the opposite direction and I’m… what is going on. And I start yelling at the guy and of course he’s confused, no response.
Kander book reading: P. 94: By this point, I was envisioning the Taliban snatch crew waiting around the corner to tape my mouth, bag my head, and throw me into a trunk for an appointment with a decapitation video. Frantic, I put my pistol to the back of his head and screamed at him to stop the vehicle, but he kept going, shouting back at me something I didn’t understand. I was thinking, Do I really need to blow this man’s head off and run for it? I knew I had only seconds to decide. And just as I was steeling myself to do that, I looked up—there was the back of my safe house. The route had been changed, and no one had told me. I had been threatening to execute a man whose only crime was not speaking English, a language he had no use for until we invaded his country. I caught my breath and holstered my pistol. “Sorry,” I said, because what else was there to say?
I included that story one, because it was something that I would reenact in my mind a lot as I was traveling the country, going to fundraising meetings and that kind of thing, particularly like when I got an Uber and they sort of kind of fit the profile, reminded me of the person. But, also, because the thing about war is it’s not just dangerous and scary and traumatic in those like moments that are the kind that we see in movies. Its also just all sorts of random ways that it’s dangerous and traumatic. And that there’s this hum of danger that is just below the surface all the time.
Jay Ruderman: People who are civilians, who are related to service men and women, they also experience PTSD. So can you talk a little bit, how your deployment affected your family?
Jason Kander: you know I’ve always had a very close family. I’ve always been very close to my parents and my brothers. And over the course of time after I came home, I became more and more isolated and withdrawn from the people closest to me, including my wife and I developed a very low opinion of myself and I was having these problems and I felt like, you know, nobody understood them. And now I was so busy trying to quiet the storm in my mind with my professional pursuits I wasn’t emotionally or mentally present, even when I was on the rare occasion physically present, my mind was elsewhere either.
You know, in my own trauma or more often thinking about my career because that’s what occupied my mind enough to quiet the intrusive thoughts in my mind. And that drove a real wedge. And then on top of that for my wife, she was going to sleep next to a person who was having these really, really severe night terrors.
And then I’m waking up and I’m telling her all about them and they’re about something going wrong. And I get kidnapped in Afghanistan. And then, eventually, they evolved and they became set in my modern environments. So they were about people hurting me or my wife or, or our son. And I was also having these, this symptom that I now know is hyper-vigilance, but I didn’t know it was a symptom.
I just thought the world is a very dangerous place. And all these naive people around us don’t understand how dangerous it is. And we need to be constantly controlling for this danger and thwarting it. And so it was always about safety measures and what we can do to be more safe. And, over time, even though she didn’t go with me to Afghanistan, she developed a lot of my symptoms as well.
Kander reading: PTSD tricks you into feeling that there is something wrong with you, that no one will understand what you are going through, that they will judge you for your dumb thoughts, that they won’t like you anymore. That includes family and significant others. It makes you think that you’re protecting yourself, but really, you’re left all alone with your intrusive thoughts swirling loudly inside your head.
Jay Ruderman: So Jason, When you’re going through 12 years of really not sleeping and, you know, having nightmares, at any point do you say, “Hey, this isn’t normal. There’s something that I have to deal with here.”
Jason Kander: Yeah, I knew it wasn’t normal. I thought that the reason that I was having nightmares, I always thought that it was probably triggered by something. And so, I thought, well, if I don’t consume media about war or about kidnapping, or I don’t read about Afghanistan, then that’s what it’ll stop it.
Right? And I always had a story to tell myself about that because I was thinking about the war all the time so I could tell myself, well, I saw that thing that made me think about this and that must be what caused it. So I would try to avoid that stuff. And so, I mean when you go 11 years without a good night’s sleep, some things happen. One, you get really exhausted all the time. And two, when you’re exhausted all the time, it can eventually be pretty depressing.
And then that depression can lead to other symptoms. I just eventually kind of gave up and I was like, I guess I’m just a person who doesn’t need sleep. That’s the story I told myself. Now, in therapy, what I learned was all that stuff I was avoiding that’s called “avoidance.” And that that was actually causing my nightmares, which was like an M.-Night-Shyamalan-level twist.
My mind wanted to deal with these memories and these intrusive thoughts and these emotions, but I was playing whackamole with them all the time. So I was finding other things to do, distracting myself and what my therapist taught me was what you need to do is you need to deal with that when you’re conscious, because when you don’t, your subconscious is like, “Hey, we are going to deal with this shit. And now that you have let your guard down, ’cause you’re asleep. That’s when we’re gonna deal with it,” which kept me from sleeping. And then I’d wake up with this adrenaline rush and then I had this hyper-vigilance issue. So then I’d be convinced somebody’s in the house. I’d go. I have all this adrenaline I’m ready to fight.
And now I’m searching the house, thinking somebody’s gonna come in and take my kid. This cycle that perpetuated itself. So one of the things I did in therapy is my therapist was like,” Hey, you know, all that stuff over the last 10 years, all that content that’s been created about military stuff that you’ve avoided?” He’s like, “I want you to go watch a bunch of it and read a bunch of that stuff.” And then I found all of a sudden I was sleeping way better, ’cause my brain was processing the stuff during the day.
And so I still get night terrors. Now they’re more like nightmares. And I get ’em, you know, every couple weeks, but I know what to do. Like now I’m like. I have something I’m not dealing with. And so, I’ll just deal with it. I’ll be like, you know what? I’m not gonna distract myself. What is it that’s bothering me. And that helps.
Jay Ruderman: So what was the hardest thing coming back into civilian life? And does it help veterans in general to speak to each other?
Jason Kander: It helps enormously. Like now, I’m the President of National Expansion, Veterans Community Project. And almost all of the leadership of VCP are fellow combat veterans. And almost all of us are also veterans of the Kansas City VA PTSD clinic. So we have lots to talk about, and I like to joke that I work in one of those places where you know that you are loved because you’re treated just the right amount of badly. Because it’s like a barracks, you know, it’s like we just bust on each other all the time, but we can also talk to each other about anything.
And that is valuable to me. It does help. And when I came home, and I think a lot of veterans of my generation have experienced this, you come home to a world where people don’t understand your experience. Sometimes they want to understand your experience. Sometimes they don’t. They’ll ask you questions about it, but you pretty quickly come to recognize that people may act like they want to hear about it, but oftentimes they don’t and you learn which stories you can tell and which stories you can’t. Or, which stories you can tell and sanitize and which you just shouldn’t tell it all because people will see you differently. I came back and I started working at a law firm. Like I didn’t really feel like I could just tell people about the time I almost killed my driver who was totally innocent and have them just see me as just the guy who was in the office next door.
And that’s because, you know, it’s thelongest period without some form of mandatory service that we’ve ever had in our history as a country. And so, you’re not around a lot of people that are like you, whereas like my grandfather came home and like his brother had just had a similar experience. His two best friends had just come home. So you have people that talk to about it. But you, also, in his case, didn’t have the feeling that you were so apart from your own community. And I do think that that is something that exacerbates this sort of trauma for returning veterans.
Jay Ruderman: At what point do you decide? You know, I want to get into politics.
Jason Kander: Well, I, you know, I was very politically oriented anyway, in high school, there were two things I cared about. Baseball and debate and sometime around 16,when, uh, I stayed the same size and everybody else kept getting bigger, I realized perhaps I’m not going to make my living playing baseball. And I had already been doing debate for a couple years and I was pretty good at it. And so I started really focusing on that a lot more and it allowed me to kind of fall in love with policy and politics. And then I went to American University as a political science major and it was like, okay, I think what I’m gonna do is I’m gonna be in politics. I think I’m gonna run for office, but I didn’t really know what the heck that meant.
I saw politics as an extension of the competitive juices that I got out of baseball and out of debate growing up. You know, I knew what I believed I was a Democrat. But, like, it was another opportunity to be really like competitive and to compete on a playing field.And then I went to Afghanistan and that was the first time in my life that I’d ever been on the receiving end of decisions made by politicians that negatively affected my life.
I had grown up with enough privilege that nobody could make a decision that would take food off my family’s table. But, now, here I was in vehicles without armor. And having it explained to me that, you know, a lot of the resources were going to Iraq. Or, I can remember doing a mission where we had to go through this pretty dangerous territory through the mountains.
And we had to go over the road. And, initially, we were planning to go via helicopter. And it was explained to me – whether this was correct or not – somebody just said, “Well, look. Those assets are on Iraq now.” And so I felt like I had been put in greater danger by politically driven decisions. And when I came home, I had a good idea of what I was gonna do.
I had already had a committee established. Hadn’t done much with it, but had filed the paperwork to run for a state legislative seat. But it really changed the way I thought about it. It went from, this is the game I want to be in to a through line between the people in my state who had been cut off Medicaid and the vehicles that didn’t have armor overseas that should. I had a really righteous anger.
Jay Ruderman: You had a very successful political career. You went from being a state rep to the Secretary of State of Missouri to running and almost winning a seat in the senate Is there analogy to what you experienced in Afghanistan? Like it’s a series of battles and you’re going from one battle to the next battle?
Jason Kander: I was constantly in search of something that would make me feel like I was really involved in something greater than myself. I had this sense that I hadn’t done enough. My deployment was only four months.
I had friends who had done multiple deployments. I had friends who had been hurt physically. And, I was like, I’ve gotta redeem myself. I look back now. And I think that that is really wrapped up in the American myth.The central message of a lot of American movies that involve somebody who went through a trauma, is you conquer it by singular acts of redemptive heroism. And so,I think I was like, I gotta save the world or I’m not worth a shit because I didn’t do enough for my country or, or really I didn’t do enough in Afghanistan compared to the other people who I know who did more.
And so, I think politics was all those things, but it was also like I wanted to make the world a better place. And I’ve gotten better at not robbing myself of credit for that. You know, I wasn’t just in politics ’cause I had sustained trauma. I went about politics at the breakneck pace that I did probably in part because of Trump definitely in part because I had, I had been through something traumatic, but I was involved in it and I chose the things I cared about because that’s how I was raised.
Jay Ruderman: So after your Senate campaign where you did fairly well and almost beat Roy Blunt, you became a national figure and running for president was a possibility. You write about sitting down with Obama and him saying, yeah, you’d be a good fit. At what point do you say? Yeah, I’m not gonna run for president. I’m gonna run for mayor of Kansas City.
Jason Kander: By this point, we’re in like the first half of 2018. And the one thing I had figured out about my mental health was that if I could string together enough endorphin producing high moments and performances, then I felt okay. I went to, I think, 47 states in period of 18 months. And I gave speeches in all of those places.
And, a lot of those places, I went to more than once, like Iowa and New Hampshire, where I went to each like a dozen times and I had these big moments. Sometimes it was just big meetings with major donors or major media interviews. But a lot of the time it was just big crowds and it was like each one was an opportunity to show like, “Hey, I’m, I’m the guy.”
And those were adrenaline inducing moments. And they would create an endorphin high when they went well. that would usually last me a few days until the next one. And I got to a point where it all kind of came to a head.
McIntyreShaheen Dinner Speech: New Hampshire Democrats, please pick up those thunder sticks and give a good New Hampshire welcome to, president of Let America Vote, Jason Kander.
Jason Kander: In 2018, I was giving the keynote speech at the McIntyreShaheen dinner in New Hampshire, which is like this huge deal night in New Hampshire, democratic politics.
Somewhere in that like four year period, it was like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Jason Kander, Elizabeth Warren in some order.
It was the zennith moment of my political career. My parents were watching it at home live, ’cause it was on national television. And I was giving this speech to this room of New Hampshire democrats where I was pretty much saying I was running for president. A bunch of people from Missouri had come up to be there.
It was a special moment. Mayor of Kansas city was there, the future mayor of St. Louis. And I don’t nail all my speeches, but I did nail that speech and I knew I did. And it felt great.
McIntyreShaheen Dinner Speech: We will not let them roll back the progress that President Obama and so many people before him made. We won’t let it happen because we’re patriots. And because we understand that patriotism is not about making everybody stand and salute the flag. Patriotism is about making this a country where everybody wants to. And we can be that country again. And, in January of 2021, when we get a new president, we will be. Thank you. Thank you. New Hampshire. Thank you.
Jason Kander: And I was totally high on the, that endorphin rush. And the next morning I was still feeling good. I went to the airport in Manchester and the TSA guy looked at my ID and was like,” Ah! Next president of the United States.”
So I’m feeling great. And I get on the plane and it was gone. It all flooded right outta me. I felt numb and just empty. And I remember thinking, well, that’s not good. Because This is the biggest moment. And this really should last a couple of days. That’s really not a good sign. And I wasn’t ready to admit what it was that was going on with me to myself, but I knew something was really wrong.
So a few days later I raised the issue with my campaign manager, Abe. And I was like, “What if I didn’t run?” Because I had just, I was so exhausted at this point and he just kind of threw out there the idea of, you know, you could quit flying everywhere and stay home and run for mayor of Kansas City ’cause there was a mayor’s race coming up. And I just grabbed onto that, like a life raft. In my mind, what I was doing was I was gonna go to the VA and get help.
I wasn’t, again, ready to admit to myself it was PTSD, but I was like, I need something. And then the other thing I was gonna do was I was gonna serve my hometown. You know, I’m fifth generation, Kansas City and I love my hometown. And I was like, well maybe if I can serve my hometown, that’ll be the redemption I’ve been looking for and I’ll feel good.
So I went home, started running for mayor.I didn’t keep my promise to myself of going to the VA. I was afraid of the stigma of it.
And everything was going well in the mayoral campaign.
I had a hundred percent face recognition. Like I would knock on doors and people would come to the door with my book, which had just become a best seller. My first book and asked me to sign it. I was talking about running for mayor on Morning Joe and Late Night with Seth Myers. It was like unfairand I knew like this should feel great. I had never been the front runner for anything ever. I’d always been the underdog. Meanwhile, I just was angry all the time and nothing would cheer me up. No amount of good news would make me feel good. And I was increasingly thinking about ending my life.Thankfully, I had not gotten to the point whereI like had a plan or anything like that. I just felt like I’d be better off dead. I felt like a burden to the people around me and that drumbeat in my mind had just been getting steadier and steadier. And that scared me because I didn’t want to want to die. I wanted to live and, and have some prospect of being happy. But you know, after 11 years of not getting a good night’s sleep and then developing depression at some point, it’s kind of a natural evolution because I was just so exhausted from all of it.
And that’s when I finally just run out of ideas and I called the veteran’s crisis line.
Kander Reading: p137 : The woman on the other end of the phone line took me by surprise with one of her first questions: “Have you had suicidal thoughts?” she asked. I had never acknowledged this to anyone except Diana. I said yes. I expected the woman to be shocked. She wasn’t fazed at all. She just asked me to walk her through it, to tell her where I served, how I was feeling. I started crying..
the way that lady spoke to me on the other end of the phone, I kind of finally had the realization that I wasn’t different than any other veteran who I had encountered with these problems. ‘Cause I could tell by her reaction to me that I wasn’t, and then I looked up PTSD and finally read it for real.
Instead of trying to read it, to convince myself I didn’t have it. And it was like, it was written about me. And I remember saying to my wife that night, “I got hurt over there. All these years, I had no idea I got hurt over there. And then also saying, I don’t wanna do this anymore. And that’s when I decided to drop outta public life and go get help with the VA.
Jay Ruderman:that must have been quite a shock to everyone around you.
Jason Kander: Yeah, I mean, it had been a kind of a big surprise to people that I was running for mayor in the first place. When I announced for mayor the front page of cnn.com said “Perspective 2020 candidate Jason Kander announces for…mayor?” You know, and then you add onto that like three months later, like I’m gonna vanish for a while and get help and I’ve been having suicidal thoughts. One thing I had figured out at that point was I needed to try to live the experience and not live within the story of the experience. And so I told my wife and the people close to me like, “Hey, I’m sure it’ll make the news. Don’t talk to me about the story. I don’t want to live in the story. I just want to try to start focusing on getting better.” And so it was several days before I knew that it was like an international story.
Jay Ruderman: Can you talk to us about what that was like the first time walking into the VA? I mean, you’re a super famous person. You walk in there and you’re like, I need help.
Jason Kander: When you step back from it, the act of running for president, while you have an untreated secret psychological disorder, there’s no way that that’s not funny. Like once you’ve survived it, like that’s objectively a humorous experience. And so, first day at the VA, I’m one of the best known people in Kansas City.
Granted like, Patrick Mahomes, better known than me, but, you know, I was not that far behind him at that point in terms of people knowing my face. And I look like hell and, and it’s kinda humiliating cuz even though most people are not saying anything to me, like, the staff, they’re doing double takes and now I’m in the emergency room and I’m getting checked into suicide watch. And so then this young psych resident comes in, who, I guess maybe was from outta town. I’m not sure, but he clearly didn’t know who I was, didn’t recognize me. And, at first, it was a huge relief. So we talk for like 30 minutes and I tell him stuff I’d never really told anybody about my night terrors and my feeling of being in danger all the time and all that.We don’t talk about what I do for a living. And then after about a half hour, he decides that I’m, okay for that day. And he’s gonna let me go. And, he asked me, “Do you have like a particularly stressful career or something?”
I was like, “Well, I’m in politics. And he’s like, “What does that mean?” So rather than give him the long version, I said, “Well, I was gonna run for president earlier this year, but I decided not to do that. I’m running for mayor instead, but I’m gonna quit that tomorrow. ‘Cause I’d like to come here to get help.”
And he’s like, “Whoa, whoa, wait. President. You’re president of what?” And, and I’m like, “Of the United States.” And at this point, like I’ve gone from mortified that everybody’s recognizing me to relieved that this guy isn’t too irritated that this guy doesn’t believe me. Then he says, “Well, who told you that you could run for president?”
And I’m like, “I don’t know what to tell you, man. I spent about an hour and a half, just me and Obama in his office. And he seemed to think it was a pretty good idea.” And so, this doctor, he takes a beat and he thinks about that. And then he asked me, he says, “So how often would you say you hear voices?”
Jay Ruderman: Jason, you talk a lot about therapy and you go into a lot of detail about your own therapy. I feel there’s still a lot of stigma in our society about therapy did you ddo that consciously to be very open about what you went through?
Jason Kander: I did do it very consciously because to me, when I made my announcement about needing to go get help, I know because I heard from so many people that, that made a lot of difference for people and feeling seen and feeling like it made a difference in the stigma about having mental health challenges.
But, even when I went to therapy, I had my doubts about whether I could get better. And I didn’t really know anything about therapy. It didn’t seem particularly accessible to me. It was kind of intimidating. But I did it because I, I just run out of options.
And then, as I went through therapy and started to understand much more of what it was, I realized that one of the reasons that I was so hesitant about it was that I had never really seen any examples on screen or on TV of people who had gone to therapy and achieved post-traumatic growth. Like where I finally felt like I was headed.
So I brought it up to my therapist and I was like, “Hey, how is it that I’m getting better after just a few months and, you know, nobody usually gets better?” And, he’s like, “What are you talking about?” I was like, “There’s like no examples of people getting better.” So he pulls out a bunch of studies from the VA and he shows me that the vast majority of patients who commit to the homework they’re given by the therapist and commit to the treatment, actually do get to a point where PTSD doesn’t disrupt their life anymore.
And that’s why, you know, this book for me is the book that I needed 14 years ago.It’s the book that I want people to be able to read and say, not just, “Oh, well, like, he’s helped normalize that mental health is an issue for a lot of people.” I want people to read it and be like, “Wait. I think I should go to therapy ’cause it seems like his life is a lot better.” It seems like post-traumatic growth is a real and, even, common thing for people who commit to the treatment. And so I wanted to take people inside that room, the therapy room, so that it wouldn’t seem so intimidating so that people could have a sense of what it actually was.
Jay Ruderman: That’s awesome.
Kander Reading: I put my body on the line because I believed that I could help a few more Americans get home safely, but I never felt as though I’d accomplished it. In 2018, in the days after my announcement became a major national news story, I learned that calls to the VA Crisis Line had tripled. When Diana told me that, I became so emotional, I could barely speak, but I did manage to utter these words: “This is the first time I’ve ever felt as though I might have helped someone get home safely.”
Jay Ruderman: Jason, I want to end with some politics. I feel like we’re living in a time where people are really disenchanted and,
Jason Kander: No!, Yes, no, I agree.
Jay Ruderman: It feels like half the country hates the other half of the country. Where do you find hope in the situation that we’re going through right now?
Jason Kander: What makes me feel hopeful is that when I look at the platforms that have changed our lives, particularly, you know, the technological platforms, I see what the more senior generations have done with them. And I see generations that have used those platforms to drive us further apart.
And when I look at Generation Z, when I look at younger millennials, what I see are people who understand that there’s a separateness in America, that there’s a lack of national identity, a lack of shared experience, and it upsets them. And so when other people see like quote unquote “wokeness,” and they see like, you know, a white kid from the suburbs who is putting their pronouns and their profile and talking about their white privilege, you know, some people look at that and they they’re disgusted by it and they see some performative instinct.
I see somebody who has a great desire to use the resources that are available to them, to have a greater understanding and kinship with people who are not like them. And the reason that gives me hope is because, to me, the greatest dysfunction in our politics is a cultural rift. It’s the fact that we are living through a period where it’s not just these technologies that have pushed us apart.
It’s the fact that this is the longest consecutive period in American history without some form of mandatory service. I’m not saying everybody should be in the military, but I do think there is a real thirst among younger people in this country to be called to something. I don’t think that they like the idea that they’re only gonna ever know people who are like them and that those are the only people that they have to care about.
And those are the only people that they have to see humanity in. I see them actively trying to see the humanity in other people and trying to connect with other people. And so, if that’s what ends up happening with those generations, then I think it’s gonna make a huge difference in our politics going forward.
Jay Ruderman: I love that. I love that. Thank you so much. I gotta end with something wich i’m sure every single person that talks to you asks you.
Kander Reading: I can’t tell you how many times a day I see messages telling me what I have to do—I have to be the Stacey Abrams of Missouri, I have to run against whichever proto-fascist clone is trending on Twitter at that moment. And honestly, sometimes I’d like to respond, “No, Idon’t. I don’t have to do a damn thing. You do it.”
Jay Ruderman: Do you think you’ll ever get back into politics again?
Jason Kander: I do get that question pretty frequently. And the answer is, I don’t know. For a really long time, my life was such that what was going on in my mind was so difficult and so to be avoided that it was very natural for me to constantly be thinking about the future and constantly be plotting what I was gonna do politically. And I just felt like I had to keep moving to quiet that storm in my mind. I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m enjoying the hell outta my life.
Number one thing is I’m a dad and a husband. I’m super involved with my kids and with my family, like I coached the little league team. My dad coached my team. His dad coached his team. Like it’s something that’s really important to me.
I play baseball again. There’s an actual league. Believe it or not. That is the National Men’s Adult Baseball League. And it’s super serious. I’m like the only guy who didn’t play college ball. There’s guys who were pros. I’m just really enjoying my life.
I used to feel like I hadn’t done enough because I hadn’t done enough. I just had to keep going and going and giving more of myself. I now have the gift of believing that I’ve actually done quite a lot for my country.
I don’t do things so that I can do other things anymore. And I don’t do anything cuz I think I should. And I don’t feel I have to anymore. Cuz I feel like now America and I are square. So the answer to your question is I might do that one day. I don’t know. But now I’m like really okay with not knowing.
Jay Ruderman: Sounds like a very healthy attitude and thank you for your service.
Jason Kander: Thank you. I enjoyed the conversation, Jay. Thanks so much for having me.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you so much.
Jay VO: All About Change is a production of The Ruderman Family Foundation. This show is produced by Yochai Maital, Jackie Schwartz, Matt Litman and Mijon Zulu.
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