Former Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander was in the middle of a promising run for mayor of Kansas City when he unexpectedly dropped out of the race to seek treatment for mental health problems he was experiencing as a consequence of his time in Afghanistan. In a new book, “Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD,” Kander explains how he finally realized that he needed help — and how that realization led him to a whole new life.
[Deconstructed theme music.]
Ryan Grim: If you remember the name Jason Kander, it might be from this mega-viral ad that raised gobs of money for his 2016 run for the Senate.
Newscaster: A Democrat in this race, Kander, might have had the best campaign ad of the entire season.
Newscaster: He was putting together an AR-15 rifle — blindfolded.
Jason Kander: I’m Jason Kander. Sen. Blunt has been attacking me on guns. Well, in the Army, I learned how to use and respect my rifle. In Afghanistan, I’d volunteer to be an extra gun in a convoy of unarmored SUVs. And in the state legislature, I supported Second Amendment rights.
I also believe in background checks, so that terrorists can’t get their hands on one of these. I approve this message, because I’d like to see Sen. Blunt do this.
RG: On election night, Kander was expected to narrowly beat Blunt, a result that would have been seen as stunning just a few months earlier. But he ended up losing by just a hair.
But his performance put him on the national map, and soon Barack Obama was floating him as a potential 2020 presidential candidate. And though Kander never declared, he was running: crisscrossing the country, giving speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire, and building what very well could have been a credible campaign for the White House. At the last moment, he decided against the presidential run, and instead put himself up for mayor of Kansas City. And just ahead of the election, he made a shocking announcement.
Newscaster: Veteran Jason Kander was running for mayor of Kansas City and was expected to win when he made a stunning decision: He was dropping out of the race because he was suffering from PTSD as a result of his time spent in Afghanistan. Since his deployment 12 years ago as an Army Intelligence Officer, Jason Kander has struggled with depression and anxiety.
JK: You know, I went almost 12 years without a good night’s sleep. I mean, just violent nightmares every night. A lot of nightmares about being kidnapped. Over time, those evolved into nightmares about people kidnapping my family because I had been home for longer.
And then I’d do things, like I’d get up in the middle of the night and sort of patrol my house because I was convinced someone was trying to get in.
RG: Jason Kander went to some very dark places, and this interview does too, but it’s the type of conversation that is too often avoided. He’s now documented his journey in an important and riveting new book called “Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD.”
Jason Kander, thank you so much for joining me.
JK: Thanks for having me.
RG: And so Jason, you might be the first candidate in American history who ever dropped out of a race saying that they were wanting to spend more time with their family and actually actually meaning it?
JK: [Laughs.] Yeah.
RG: I’m trying to go back through all the way back to our very first elections. And I think you might be the first.
JK: [Laughs.] Well, somebody had to break that ceiling.
RG: [Laughs.] Yes, that ceiling. The not-lying ceiling when you leave a race? So could we start by going back to October 1, 2018?
RG: This is how your book starts. It’s a prologue that really grabs you by the throat in a way that very few do. You’re walking into the VA …
JK: Yeah, absolutely. So, I walk into the VA. And I’m ready to finally get some help for the PTSD, and subsequent depression and suicidal ideation that I’d been experiencing. And at that moment, I was the primitive front runner for mayor of Kansas City. We were off to quite a lead. And we were in a position to win — which sounds like bragging, but I mean, the reality is that that’s the position you should be in if you were about to announce for president and then decide to run for mayor of your hometown instead. You really ought to be the frontrunner, or what are you doing.
And so that’s where we were, and I go in ready to get help, but also kind of mortified at the fact that I looked like hell, and everybody in there was recognizing me. And few minutes later, I find myself basically in the suicide hold the room. They’d taken away all my belongings, and they’d given me a pair of scrubs that were, like, several sizes too big. And so I’m sitting there, and, you know, again, people are being kind of at it, but I can tell by the double-takes that like even back in like the suicide hold area, I’m being recognized. And then when this young psych resident comes in to speak to me, who I guess was from out of town, I at first was really relieved that he didn’t recognize me. And we talked for about a half hour and I laid out the symptoms that I had been having that I really had never talked to hardly anybody about, other than my wife, which was everything from you know, night terrors for 11 years that kept me from having a good night’s sleep, self-loathing, shame, depression, a sense of being in danger all the time or my family being in danger all the time, just this low-level of simmering anger that existed constantly — and, as a result, just complete exhaustion.
And then all of that had also spiraled into just feeling depressed and eventually having suicidal thoughts. And so I lay all this out. And we talked for about 30 minutes. And then toward the end of the conversation, he just happens to ask me, he says: Do you have a particularly stressful job or something?
And I say: Well, I’m in politics.
And he is like: What does that mean?
And I just kind of laid out for him: Well, I was in the state legislature; then I was Secretary of State; I ran for the U.S. Senate; I was getting ready to run for president, now I’m running for mayor, but I’m gonna call that off tomorrow because I want to get help for this. And he’s taken aback by it. And he’s just like — I mean, remember, I’m sitting there with my arms wrapped around my knees in scrubs that don’t fit.
And he’s just like: What do you mean, you’re gonna run for president? President of what?
And I’m like: Well, of the United States — which felt silly.
But then he’s like: What does that mean?
And I’m like: Well, you know, I was going to Iowa and New Hampshire a lot. And so he just looked so skeptical that I’ve gone from being mortified that everybody in there is recognizing me to being a little irritated that this guy doesn’t believe me.
And he finally asked me, he says: Well, who told you you could run for president?
And I’m like: I don’t know, man. I sat with Barack Obama in his office, just me and him for like, an hour and a half. And he seemed to think it was a pretty good idea.
And so he takes a beat and thinks about it. And then he asked me: How often would you say you hear voices?
RG: Just perfect.
RG: Just perfect.
JK: So that’s how I opened the book. And then from there, it kind of goes backward to tell the story of how I got to that point. And then eventually, in the third act, it tells you what happened after that, and how I got to a place in my life I refer to as post-traumatic growth.
RG: And I want to talk about how you got to that. And I think a big part of it revolves around our idea in the United States of what trauma is, who is allowed to experience trauma, and what effect that is allowed to have on us. And I recently interviewed a veteran named Jon Lubecky, who said something kind of disturbingly profound or profoundly disturbing, I’d say, actually. He said something like: Veterans are lucky because our trauma is socially acceptable.
So it’s not it’s not that veterans are lucky because they have trauma, but because our country assumes that they had some type of legitimate trauma, that therefore they’re allowed eventually to be able to seek treatment. But there’s also a lot of layers inside there. Because within the veterans community, and from veteran to veteran, what counts is different. You talk about having a friend who said to you: Look, somebody always has a story that you consider to be worth, I think his example was: There’s a veteran at a VFW right now saying: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was in the first wave on Normandy, but I was actually in the back of the boat, not in the front of the boat. So somebody always has a tougher story than you. And so it became hard for you to kind of identify with that experience. How common is that among people who have PTSD?
JK: I think it’s nearly universal.
And yeah, so it starts with sort of the degrees of it within the veteran community. And then, absolutely, I agree with your friend that you talked to because it just ripples out and gets worse from there. So you know, in the military, there’s this very necessary form of brainwashing. As soon as you get off the bus at basic, it’s made very clear to you that what you’re doing is no big deal and that a lot of people have it worse.
And that drumbeat never really stops. And the reason I say it’s a necessary form of brainwashing is because like, in my job as an intelligence officer going into meetings with people who I didn’t know what their allegiances were, me and my translator were basically by ourselves and there’s no backup, nobody knows where we are for hours at a time in the most dangerous place in the planet, in order to keep going into those meetings, recognizing that you may not get out and that you’re outnumbered and outgunned, and you may be about to get your head cut off on YouTube, you gotta really believe that this is no big deal and other people are doing much harder stuff. And as long as you believe that, you can keep doing it.
And it’s true for my buddy Stephen, who was in firefights constantly during his tour and lost friends right next to him. If he doesn’t believe that somebody else has it much worse, he’s not going to keep doing that. Right? And Stephen was the one who gave me the example of the D-Day vet.
So it gets worse from there, right? Because, well, first of all, the problem with that is that when you leave the military, they don’t sit you down and flip that switch off. They don’t say: OK, now that you’re leaving, you should know that actually, that was some crazy shit.
JK: And you’re gonna need to deal with this. Because actually, like, yeah, there were people who had it worse, but it doesn’t really matter. And it was serious. Like that was real stuff that you experienced.
It’s not validated in that way. And so while we say, often, to veterans, our culture has got this drumbeat of: It’s an act of strength, not an act of weakness, to get help. That is only half the battle. The other half is letting them understand: No, that was a big deal and like you earned your PTSD and you can get better.
So what happens with me all the time, ever since going public with my own trauma, is that people approached me and they told me that it meant a lot to them that I did that. And oftentimes those people aren’t veterans, and they will couch their comments to me by saying: You know, I wasn’t in a war or anything
And I always stop them, and I’m like: That has nothing to do with it. Like what happened to me has nothing to do with what happened to you. Your brain doesn’t know what my brain experienced; you can’t rank your trauma out of existence — I tried for a long time to do that.
JK: So, it’s important that people understand if you had a bad car accident, a bad injury, you survived cancer, you lost a loved one, maybe you just went through a bad divorce, maybe it was a very difficult childhood; I mean, good Lord, if you were responding to Covid during the last few years as a medical professional. So all of these things are trauma. And I am really adamant that we not gatekeeper trauma, because trauma is trauma. It doesn’t really matter what another person experienced.
RG: Yeah. And as I was reading the book and thinking about this interview, I thought there was a moment in it that really jumped out at me as something I connected to and identified with. And I was like: Should I even bother mentioning that, because, like you said, I wasn’t in a war. So does this even count?
But then, as I thought through what you were saying towards the end of the book, I thought, no, actually, this is worth talking about. And you really described this kind of low hum of, I don’t know if the word is fear, but in a way that I hadn’t seen it put quite like this before.
And my quick story was that in fall of 2005, as I’m trying to become a journalist, I’m like 28 at this point, I’d had a whole — I wouldn’t call it a career. I’d had a lot of different jobs, and nothing was panning out. And I said: Why don’t I try journalism? This is what I’ve always enjoyed doing on the side, why don’t I try to actually make a career of it?
And a friend of mine had a translator and a driver for a trip to northern Iraq, and invited me along with him. My friend, Christian Parenti, is still a journalist doing great work today.
I said: Great. Let’s go.
This is the fall of 2005. We go to Northern Iraq, so a relatively safe place. I mean, at the time, Iraq itself, as I’m sure you remember it, even though you weren’t there, but you remember that in 2005, Iraq was an absolute catastrophe everywhere. And so there was no airport yet in Erbil, so we drove through Turkey, and then drove from the border; catch a cab at the border to get over to Erbil.
And the middle part of Iraq — Mosul, in particular — was a place that was hotly contested and the Sunni insurgency was on fire. And the rumors going around was that the price tag for an American was about $100,000. So the whole time you’re going through this area, you know you have this blaring $100,000 price tag on you. And we had this moment: So we pick a cabbie, after we go across the border. I mean, we decide like, we’re not going to Mosul. Like there’s no way we’re letting this cabbie take us to Mosul. Because he can either get his couple $100 —
JK: [Laughs softly.]
RG: — to take us to Erbil, he could get $100,000 — $200,000, actually, because there’s two of them — to go to Mosul.
And I remember we get to this traffic circle. And we hold our breath as we’re going around the traffic circle, because there’s a sign that says Mosul, south, and then the third turn-off is Erbil. And as the car goes past Mosul, we both look at each other. And we exhale. And we’re like, we don’t have to do what we had been thinking we might have to do. And who knows what that is? But we’re not good at letting this car go south.
So then it goes into Erbil, and we spent about two weeks in northern Iraq. And the entire time there was there was never anything traumatic that happened in a kind of micro way. Like nobody shot at us. Nothing like that. But just the entire time you’re there. There’s this kind of low level electric hum of like: Is something going to happen?
RG: And nothing did. I came back. I’m fine. Like, I didn’t suffer any PTSD as a result of that. I did get some giardia and didn’t have insurance so my brother shipped me some cipro. He was over in Thailand, and that took care of that. Maybe Giardia actually helped me not think about it. But that low level hum of anxiety, you described having that for basically the entire time in Afghanistan.
When was the point that you realized you were feeling that? And how common is it that that is the kind of trauma that stays with people?
JK: It’s hard for me to speculate about how common it is for others, although I think whatever the commonality is, I think it’s greater than we estimate. But the interesting thing for me was, and I don’t know if this was true for you as well, I was only vaguely aware of it while I was there.
JK: And in my case, it’s because when I first got there, for the first week or two, everything you’re doing, you’re doing for the first time, right? The first time out on the road, first time in a meeting with somebody who you’re like: I’m not entirely certain about this person. You’re very aware of that. And, in my case, I would get a little bit nauseous at first — and that kind of thing. I mean, basically —
RG: Right. And I only did two weeks, so —
JK: Right. Well, but it doesn’t matter. Like, you still were exposed to the experience that most humans, at least certainly most Americans, thankfully, don’t have, which is the genuine realistic fear of being killed violently. And so in my case, the only thing I would add to that is also the readying yourself to kill violently as well. Right?
JK: And so the first couple of weeks, I was aware of that, but I also was very excited. I mean, probably like you, I had gone out of my way to get there. I wanted to be a part of this, right?
JK: So after a couple of weeks, your body still experiences the same thing, but it just doesn’t manifest the same way, because now it’s your job, and it feels normal, and the people around you are doing it. Like, in my case, it didn’t mean I wasn’t scared. It was just, my body was like: OK, I know what this is. And I had a couple of guys I worked with who were doing similar jobs, which fed into what the Army had taught me: It’s no big deal.
And so, as a result, I spent most of my deployment just — [laughs] it sounds so corny — just super grateful that I got the chance to do it. Because to me, I knew it was a unique experience. And I knew that I was getting to do things that usually you just kind of see in the movies, right?
And I knew it was a life experience. And most importantly, this was 2006/2007. I was in Afghanistan, and at that moment, we all still felt pretty good about our mission in Afghanistan. And I thought what I was doing was really important, and meaningful. And it felt that way.
So it wasn’t until I got home and started to experience some of the symptoms that I even began to lightly entertain the possibility that it had had this effect on me.
RG: Yeah, and Christian, about six months before that, we’d been in Bolivia during an uprising — actually the one that brought Eva Morales to power, and while we were there, dynamite was thrown at our feet. It turned out to be only a blasting cabinet — no dynamite in it — rubber bullets, the tear gas blasted right out. They’re supposed to shoot it at the ground. Instead, this one officer shot it just right next to us from 10 feet away. But I just think about that as an experience, whereas that low-level hum kind of has lasted longer in a way.
JK: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, I’m not a clinician. But here’s how this has been explained to me, a couple of things: One, the awareness and exposure to just things lasting for a while, like for me, it was just a long period of time being in a state of alert and readiness.
But the other thing that has been explained to me, which isn’t really an explanation, but it’s kind of the best I have to go with is: We don’t really know. We don’t really know why some people respond, their brain responds a certain way to certain events and other peoples’ don’t. I mean, there’s plenty of case studies of situations where you have two guys or gals who are in the same squad who witnessed the exact same event, but one of them is standing 10 feet to the right of where the other is standing. And so one of them ends up with PTSD, and the other one doesn’t, and they don’t know if it’s because of the vantage point; they don’t know if it’s because of something in the way that person’s brain is made up, if there’s something chemical, if there’s something about their childhood that made them more vulnerable to developing those kinds of symptoms. They just don’t know. There’s a lot of work to try and figure that kind of thing out.
But, in my case, that just looked like I had a lot of work to do to get to the point where I could go: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know why I know people who were there much longer than me and in my own subjective view experienced more trauma than me, who haven’t had night terrors, but have had hyper-vigilance. But I had both. I don’t know why. And at some point, I just had to go: It doesn’t matter. At some point, you just go: Well, how come I don’t need eyeglasses, and somebody else does? Does it really matter? No. And so it just becomes: I’m just gonna treat it.
RG: To pick up on something you alluded to earlier, which was the preparing yourself for the willingness to kill, a journalist that I used to work with at The Huffington Post, David Wood, did this phenomenal series and then turned it into a book on what he described, and I don’t think he coined this term, but the term of “moral injury” — most basically just preparing yourself for the willingness to kill creates a moral injury inside yourself somewhere. That it’s a spiritual kind of wound.
And can you talk a little bit about that experience that you had with the driver, where you hadn’t learned that there was a new route that he was taking? Because I think this speaks to that moral injury in one of the most clear ways I’ve seen.
JK: Yeah, there’s a couple of things like that, where, I can’t help but see it from the other person involved’s perspective, right? Well, let me provide some context, which is: I lived in this set of safe houses — most of us did — on my little camp in Kabul, Camp Eggers, which was apart from Camp Eggers itself. And so in order to go to where I would sleep at night, you had to get in this little shuttle driven by a local national, which wasn’t the smartest setup, and I think they stopped using it after this. And we were always told: Hey, watch carefully the route that your driver’s taking — not unlike your experience — because you don’t want to be taken somewhere else, and kidnapped, and taken away.
And the other piece of this is that in my day job as an intelligence officer, that’s what I was on alert for all the time anyway, right, was kidnapping. And that was the greatest threat to me, over there.
JK: And it later would become the subject of my literal nightmares, and that kind of thing. So it was late at night. And we were never supposed to go in one of these shuttles alone. You’re always supposed to have a buddy with you. But I had been up for like 24 hours or something. And I knew I was getting up in a few hours to get back to work. And I just wanted to get a nap in. It was like: the middle of the night. And I was waiting for somebody else to show up to take the shuttle. And nobody did. And I was like: Screw it. So I got in.
And the guy takes a different turn than usual. And so I start trying to yell at the guy, what’s he doing, that kind of thing. He’s not paying attention. Eventually, I’m yelling. He’s yelling back because he don’t speak English and I don’t speak Dari. And we’re not communicating at all. And finally, I put my pistol to the back of his head and I’m thinking: Am I gonna have to blow this guy’s head off so the vehicle stops so that I can jump out and run away before he takes me to wherever this Taliban snatch crew is?
And right as I’m like, having to make this decision, I see the back of the safe houses. And apparently somebody had changed the route — which is a smart thing to do, you don’t want to have the same route all the time — but had changed the route without notifying us. And so we went into the back of the safe houses instead of the front. And I didn’t know what else to do. So I just said: Sorry — which he didn’t understand, I’m sure and left.
And yeah, so I was left for years thinking about what impression I left that guy with, what trauma I left that guy with thinking about the American maniac who was threatening to execute him for what he could tell for no reason. And there were other incidents like that.
But the other thing, and this is more part of the way that we tend to diminish our own trauma is that some of my very complicated feelings about that, and about another incident, were really about my friends who I knew who had had, in my view — this is me, again, fighting the urge to rank my own trauma out of existence, which doesn’t work — but I knew guys who had been in situations like that, and they pulled the trigger. And it’s not that I was like, more alert. I was fortunate that what I saw popped up, which was the back of the safe house. If I hadn’t, that’s the situation I would have been in.
Or I had a situation where I came within a split second of shooting a young boy, because he had startled us and he had snuck up on our vehicle at a time when that’s what suicide bombers were doing. And I know people — people close to me — who were in situations like that, where they weren’t able to see as clearly in that situation as I was — and again, not having to do with skill or anything on my part, just total circumstance — where they did take a life, and knowing almost immediately afterwards that the person was was not hostile, and that they had taken an innocent life. And so that complicates the feelings as well, because it causes me to sort of embody their feelings and feel how fortunate I was, but also just how sick to my stomach, it makes me feel for them.
So, yeah. I guess you could count that as a moral injury, sure. And I think the term is apt — perhaps overused sometimes, but I suppose that’s a smaller example of it.
RG: How so? How do you think it gets overused?
JK: Overused is maybe too general. What I mean is it’s generalized sometimes to all of trauma —
JK: — all of post-traumatic stress, whereas, for instance, if you just go through a traumatic event, it is an injury. And I think of it as an injury and I talk about it in the book as an injury; PTSD is an injury. But to me moral injury is more the trauma that is associated with seeing something or being a part of something unwittingly — or even wittingly, I suppose — that really shakes your idea of morality and of justice in the world.
RG: Right. That’s how I think of it, too. The story of the young boy, too. Just on a very basic level, we think of ourselves as good people, we know that good people don’t kill innocent children. And yet you have to reconcile this experience of nearly having done that. And like, for people who actually did do that, it’s just a brutal moral injury.
JK: Well, sometimes it’s just seeing the dead body of a child. Like, your connection to it can be completely — you don’t need a connection to it.
So to me, and look, again, I’m not a clinician, so I’m just talking out my fourth point of contact here. But to me, it can be just as dramatic to see that kind of thing because it exposes to you this brutal nature of the world, that once you’ve seen, it’s hard not to see.
RG: And not just the brutal nature of the world — I’m curious for your take on this — the brutal nature of the project that you’re willingly participating in.
RG: Even if you do everything perfectly and ethically, and personally never commit any harm to anybody, if you see a dead child in the street, you’re reminded that that may not be happening if this occupation weren’t happening, or this project weren’t happening. Does that play a role? Or because it was early enough in the operation and occupation, and people still had hope that it was making the world a better place, that it didn’t piece together that way?
JK: Yeah, I can’t say in my case that that played a role. And I also want to be clear: I didn’t have that experience, I just used it as an example.
RG: Right. Right.
JK: But during my deployment, I am very thankful that I didn’t see that particular thing. But I don’t know. I’m not a clinician. I don’t know what the actual definition is. But I do know that from a basic trauma point of view, our society sends people off to war and then basically expects them to be the same person when they come back. I mean, that’s sort of the expectation we set up. And the truth is that no matter what you experienced, there is a sense of: you’ve seen things that other people haven’t seen. And so I don’t know that you classify this as moral injury, but it is part of this, that you come back. And now you’re supposed to go back to your job, and you’re supposed to care about how good the Wi-Fi is.
And sometimes you do like. Perspective is perishable; sometimes you’re just pissed that your Wi-Fi doesn’t work. But sometimes you hear somebody in line at a coffee place, and they’re frustrated that their order was wrong, and you just want to be like: What are you fucking talking about? Right? Because you’ve just seen things that other people haven’t seen.
And so, for me, when I went to the legislature, and I’m working on ethics reform, and I’ve got Democrats and Republicans telling me they’re with me, but they’re afraid that they’ll lose their parking spot, because the Speaker will be mad at them if they sign on to the bill. And — it’s just impossible to process, right? Because I’m like: Are you kidding me? Like I’m seeing 19-year-old kids climb into vehicles, when they’re so scared they’re about to puke, but they still get into them, because they know it’s the right thing. And you don’t want to walk another 30 feet to your Corolla? That would just send me into a quiet rage — and sometimes not quiet.
RG: So you write about how you came back, and you threw yourself into politics.
RG: First winning a state legislative seat, going on to win a Secretary of State race, out-working everybody and then running for Senate, which probably most of our listeners remember in 2016. And I’m curious, and actually let me ask you this first: So 2016, people who’ve gone back and looked at the movement of the polls, they pinpoint two places: the Comey announcement coming out knocks a couple points off of Democrats nationally, and then Comey coming out with his letter again, where he bizarrely kind of cleared Hillary Clinton in the week before the election, turns out, paradoxically, that actually knocked another couple points off of Democrats because it fired up Republicans. They thought it was rigged. And for Democrats, they’d never thought she was guilty of anything, so it didn’t move them one way or the other.
And so you had a bunch of Senate races like Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania, yours that may have been moved by that. And so this is the first part of a two-part question. Do you think that that moved your 2016 race enough? Or didn’t move it at all? Or were you kind of in a different orbit from the national conversation?
JK: No, I think that’s probably why we lost. [Laughs.] Like, to be honest.
RG: Right. Right.
JK: Look, I mean, we were on a very steady climb. And Republicans in Washington were starting to write off the race as a loss for them; from my understanding is that our opponent’s polling had us as a few points ahead even going into Election Day.
RG: I’ve heard the same from their side.
JK: Yeah. And I don’t think I’m talking out of school to say that, at least from what I’ve heard, my opponent was surprised — not shocked, but surprised when they won. And I actually, believe it or not, I have a pretty good relationship with Sen. Blunt now. We still don’t agree on much, but we have a good relationship.
RG: He’s an amiable character, old school, Republican kind of guy.
JK: Yeah. I mean, look in the environment that we’re in where the junior senator from my state is basically participating in a violent insurrection against the country, it’s not too hard to feel like I can have productive conversations with Sen. Blunt. And I do.
So, that said, yeah, no, I think that’s basically what it was. I, interestingly — and for a guy myself, who, with regard to my deployment and my service, spent a lot of time thinking about the past, because I was stuck in these intrusive thoughts and disruptive memories — I’ve never really spent a lot of time thinking about how things could have gone differently in that race, because I know that I did literally everything humanly possible to win. And that it just turned out that on Election Day, it was an unwinnable environment.
I mean, Secretary Clinton lost our state that day by 19 points. We lost by 2.8. And we set out in that race understanding that, you know, I had won the Secretary of State’s race four years earlier when President Obama had lost the state by 10. So we felt like we were on a trajectory that if the losses at the national level in Missouri could be held to 15 or under, then we thought we could survive that. It turned out we were right about all that, right? Because we lost by less than three points when their margin was actually four points bigger than we were hoping it would be. And I do think that those four points were probably the events in that last week or so.
RG: Which still reverberates today, if a Democratic Senate Majority today with 53, rather than 50, is a whole different situation. But I’m curious from your perspective — I think from the Democratic Party’s perspective, they would be obviously delighted to have 53 rather than 50 — but what about you? Would it have given you the opportunity to get the help that you needed? Or do you think that you would have felt the responsibility? Because your term would be up in 2022.
JK: Oh, I’m so grateful that I’m not a U.S. senator.
JK: Like, personally, yeah. I mean, hey, look, let’s just do politically first. I mean, politically, I ended up with a platform where, look, I’m like anybody else, I would rather there be more than 50 Democratic votes in the Senate, because there’s things that aren’t getting passed that I’d like to see get passed. But, you know, set that aside for a second, and I ended up with a platform and was on track to go run for president, which I was going to do, right? And had I won, it wouldn’t have been a dissimilar situation, right? I mean, assuming Secretary Clinton still had not won the Electoral College, I would have been in the exact same spot. But what would have happened is that it would have all accelerated so much faster. There’s no way I would have gone to get help. And I wouldn’t have been in a position like I was where I was going to run for president. And then I was like: No, I’m gonna go run for mayor. And then I was able to say: No, no, no, I’m gonna stop all this and go get help. I mean, if I had been a U.S. senator, I don’t know that I’d have done that. I don’t know what I would have done. I think that there’s a reasonable chance that I would have committed suicide in office.
JK: And so here I am, I’m in a part of my life, where I’m really enjoying my life. So I wouldn’t in any way change that. And there’s also no part of me right now that wants to be a U.S. senator. [Laughs.] I mean, I love the job I have. I’m the president of the national expansion of the Veterans Community Project. I love the life that I’m leading. And the things I get to do.
I mean, today, I’m going to coach my son’s Little League team. I’m the head coach of his Little League team, and then I’m going to leave from the Little League game, and I’m going to go directly to my game, which is not slow-pitch softball. I play on a pretty serious adult men’s, wood bat, over-30 baseball team, and I’m gonna go play in that game and play center field and be diving into second if I get a chance to steal and have a hell of a time with a bunch of guys I really like. So yeah, I am grateful for how things turned out.
RG: I was thinking the same thing is, as I was reading through it, because in your letter when you dropped out, you talked about having suicidal thoughts. And then you talked about your VA therapist assessing that you’re basically in the first round of that. And I think it’s important for people to understand the stages of this. That the first moments come, you’re not making plans to do it, you’re not giving your things away. But you’re just starting to have thoughts of: Well, maybe the world would be better without me in it.
RG: And then he talks about how that’s a dangerous place. You’re not in immediate danger. But if you don’t get help at that point, you start moving to the next phase. And was it those thoughts that triggered you to get help? Or was it more a kind of global collapse that you were feeling?
JK: It was a combination. I mean, I think I had been on the trajectory of where I ended up for a while in the sense that when I first came home to run for mayor, I also told myself I was gonna go to the VA. I wasn’t ready to admit to myself that it was PTSD, or really even that it was service-connected, because I just was denying myself that because I felt like I hadn’t earned that. But I clearly had an inkling — more than an inkling — whether I was ready to admit it to myself or not, right?
And then eventually, I got to the point where it was this combination of understanding that things had been getting worse for a long time. But now they were getting worse faster. And I was increasingly having these feelings of feeling as though I was a burden to my family, and they’d be better off without me and that I would be better off dead. And that was scary to me. I didn’t want to die. And so that’s when I just said: You know, I gotta try something else. And that’s when I called the Veterans Crisis Line, the VA crisis line.
And what really was a bit of an epiphany for me was when I was talking to the woman on the other end of the phone and I could tell by the tone of her voice that I didn’t sound any different than anybody she’d typically dealt with in that job. And up until that point, I had been telling myself: Well, I didn’t really earn this like the other people who have this problem, or it’s not really PTSD. And when I could hear the way she was talking to me, I knew I was just like everybody else. And so I went, and I had done this so many times to prove to myself I didn’t have it, I went and googled PTSD and read it with an open mind. And it was like somebody had written it about me. And that was when I said: OK. I don’t want to do this anymore.
RG: Another thought I had reading through the book is just how lucky you are at the choice of your life partner.
JK: Oh, my god. In every possible respect.
RG: And also, she contributes to the book in ways that are, I think, just extremely helpful from an artistic sense. It’s really interesting. For listeners: She chimes in with one-page, two-page, sometimes three-page reflections that really put where you’re coming from in context, in oftentimes a fun way, an interesting corrective.
Any advice to people who are in a relationship with somebody who’s going through what you were going through? How to recognize the signs of PTSD?
RG: Because you talk about how she got secondary PTSD. I mean, it sounds like you were just a nightmare to live with for a very long time — and it was contagious.
JK: Yeah. I wasn’t much fun.
Yeah, I guess the advice, because I get some version of this question a lot and it is one I struggle to answer. I feel like we, in the whole, do a pretty good job of answering it in the book. But if I had to boil it down, I guess one of the things that I often say to people is: Look, you can’t make them get help, and you can’t do it for them. But what you can do is you can love them. And you can try and help them get there, but you can’t force it on them. Because I think one of the things that happens often when we see somebody in a spiral like that is we try to treat it sort of like what you’re taught to do with a drug addiction, right? Which is tough love, I-gotta-get-your-attention sort of thing.
RG: Doesn’t work in that setting, either. But yeah.
JK: Yeah. And in this case, it’s like — at least for me, all I can do is speak for me — I wasn’t able to get better until I decided that I wanted to commit myself to getting treatment and getting better, until I got to a place where I had just run out of ideas. And it helped a lot that I had Diana, and I had my friend Stephen, and I had people who were saying to me: Hey, here’s some possible options.
Stephen, in my case, he basically mentored me through what that would be because he had gotten his own version of help. It was really important that I had those things. But sometimes that’s not enough. And ultimately, I had to choose. Ultimately, I had to have that moment where I said: I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to feel this way anymore. And so I guess the advice I give people is: Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’re able to do this for them. You can be there for them; you can be supportive; but you’re not going to be able to just convince them to do it.
RG: And so you also write about the Veterans Community Project, where you still are, and you talk about touring it as a mayoral candidate the way that candidates tour these types of projects and facilities all over the place, but being deeply impressed by it.
And I feel like the idea’s importance in our society has only increased since then, as we’re seeing the broad housing crisis, the Fentanyl crisis, the homeless crisis around the country. And so I’ll really quickly describe it. But I’m curious about how much you’ve been able to scale it and what the obstacles are, and if this is something that can become a bigger part of the national conversation. But, basically, you’re kind of rebuilding barracks in a way or you’re building housing for veterans that takes them back to that last place where they kind of felt safe. So these are single-units — because if you’re suffering from PTSD, you can’t sleep with strangers, the beds are facing the doors, no windows looking in other places.
And it made me think of this interview that I saw with a homeless person recently, where they said: Look, the other problem on top of all the other problems that I have is that I can’t just decide today that I’m done with being addicted to drugs and being unemployed and being homeless. There’s no path for me to show up somewhere and say: Hey, yes, I have 12 misdemeanors; yes, this is what I’ve been doing the last five years; but I am done, and I’m committed to getting better, please give me a job, please give me a place to stay.
That almost doesn’t exist now. He was saying it doesn’t exist. It sort of exists in small pockets. But certainly, that’s how a lot of people feel, that there isn’t a place, there isn’t a way. And so you just go one day to the next. Like: This is just who I am.
So can you describe the VCP a little bit and how it fits into our national conversation around homelessness, crime, PTSD?
JK: Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate you asking about it.
So Veterans Community Project, what we do is we build these villages of tiny houses with wraparound case management services and the whole concept is just as you described, to put people back in a place where they were most recently in their life stable and successful, and then restart the military-to-civilian transition back at day one, so that they’ll be successful in it.
And we have an 85 percent success rate of getting people into permanent, independent housing and them staying there and being successful in it; the other part of what we do is the walk-in centers, which is the part of it that I took advantage of, which helps any veteran in the community with any need that they would have. In my case, they helped me get my VA paperwork done quickly, so that I wouldn’t have to wait months to start getting weekly therapy. So, in that respect, and in the respect of the residential side, we’re saving lives.
I, after I had gone to therapy for a while and was really starting to do much better, was advising VCP’s co-founders, kind of mentoring them a little bit through how you might build a national organization, because they were getting all these invites to go into other communities and replicate what they’ve done in Kansas City, and I had built a national organization with Let America Vote.
And so finally, Bryan Meyer, who’s my good friend and is the CEO and co-founder of VCP was like: Hey, man. Why don’t you just come here and do this full time?
So now for three years, I’ve been the president of national expansion. And in that time, we’ve expanded to the Denver area, the St. Louis area, Sioux Falls area, and Oklahoma City, all in varying levels of progress so far. In some cases, we’re building villages; in some cases, we’re providing services. But we’re eventually going to have full operations in each place. And then we’ve got some other places on the horizon as well.
And yeah, I absolutely think that this model that says: Hey, we don’t care what the nature of your service was, we don’t care about any of that stuff. We don’t have any follow-up questions. Did you raise your right hand and swear an oath? Did you wear the uniform for even a day? Yeah. Boom. You’re a veteran. You qualify for 100 percent of our services. And it makes a huge difference when people are able to buy-in in a real, full way because they know that there’s not going to be a point at which they’re going to be told: Oh, I’m sorry, you’re one year short on your service, or one deployment short, of being able to qualify for x. We don’t do that.
RG: How much of an obstacle are the NIMBYs in these areas? And what are the biggest obstacles to scaling this?
JK: Yeah, the biggest obstacle, frankly, to scaling it, tends to be resources, which is to say: Obviously, money, philanthropic support. But also part of that is as we grow this business model out, making sure that we’re growing at a pace that makes sense and allows us to maintain the quality of what we do, like our case management method, our approach is really unique and revolutionary. And we don’t want to compromise that in order to expand quickly. And so we’ve grown in a deliberate fashion in order to make sure that’s the case.
But then the sort of NIMBY aspect, it’s interesting. Sometimes when you first start working with a community, there’s some hesitancy, maybe in a neighborhood or in certain pockets of a city about this. And then when they actually see what it is we’re building, it’s embraced pretty quickly, because we don’t build sheds with beds. I mean, our houses, for instance, they’re just like yours or mine, they’re just smaller.
JK: And these are beautiful facilities that we build. So what ends up happening is we build it and the community, like the people who live in that area, tend to go from maybe at first being a little hesitant that it is going in there to once it’s there, like when you ask them what part of town they live in, they’ll say I live over by VCP, because they’re proud that it’s there.
And so we have a pretty unique thing we’re able to brag about, which is we move homeless people into an area and increase the property values as a result, because of the quality of what we build and the enormous success of what we do.
RG: How big is it at this point? How many beds have you been able to put together?
JK: So we have 49 units in Kansas City, and we are just going vertical on new units in St. Louis. And then shortly after that, we’ll be doing the same in Colorado.
So it’s interesting, we’re fully operational in our original location, but because of Covid, and some other things — the organization as a whole is only five years old, and it’s only been a couple of years that we’ve been on this let’s-go-national thing. So we are just about to have our first fully operational units for housing folks outside of Kansas City, but we’ve been serving veterans, like in the Denver area, for instance, for about a year, and housing them — just not at our own facility. But that’s going to change soon.
RG: And last question is, I know you didn’t deal with this personally, but I’m curious what what your take is on psychedelics, MDMA — mostly MDMA, but I guess psilocybin is starting to be used as well for treatment or is, in some countries, for treatment PTSD? How accepted is that becoming in the veterans community? Is that something that you’re seeing make progress?
JK: It’s definitely something people are talking about more and more. And I’ve talked to several people about it, including a lot of people who have used it as part of their treatment plans.
I can only talk about my own experience, right? And my experience is I went into therapy, thinking: I’m going to do what I need to do to improve and to get better. And so my therapist said to me said: Look, I think you’re a really good candidate for Cognitive Processing Therapy and prolonged exposure therapy and we’re going to do those, and if there’s still a lot left to be done, and if those can’t really achieve all that we want, then we’re going to go into EMDR, which is the eye movement therapy.
It turns out in my case, we didn’t end up going to the next step. I don’t know if it was the next step — but in my case, it would have been the next step — EMDR. I don’t rule that out. At some point, if that’s beneficial to me, I would do it. But if I had done all three of those, and I didn’t have the progress that I was looking for, then absolutely, I would have been saying: OK, well, what else can I try?
And, again, I’m not a clinician, but as somebody who’s been talking about this a lot over the last couple years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of clinicians. And I guess one of the takeaways that I get about this stuff from them is that look, what needs to be understood is that there’s really three main evidence-based therapies — which are cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure, and then EMDR — that are proven, studied, and it’s like, these are the main ones. But they’re not saying: Don’t do any of the others. They’re just saying: That has to be the basis for your treatment.
And then if you want to try the other things, a lot of them are saying: Work with a doctor, work with a therapist, and make it part of those.
That’s what I’ve learned about it, right? It’s just that there seems to be somewhat of a misconception out there by some that it’s a matter of: take this drug, go on this trip — and, when you think about it, nothing really works that way, right? It’s like: Oh, this is a piece of an overall therapy approach in some cases.
RG: And my father, actually, as a clinician, has done some of the EMDR, which is just fascinating. Correct me if I’m wrong, my understanding is that — I think it’s something like eye movement desensitization reprogramming — where you re-experience the trauma while moving your eyes back and forth to try to simulate REM sleep to help your mind? Because REM sleep is the place where you know your experiences become processed into memories. That’s how he explained it to me. Do you know people who’ve gone through that? Is that more or less what it is? Have you found people who found that to be pretty effective?
JK: Well, first of all, let’s go with your clinician father’s definition, because I wouldn’t know how to define it. But that’s what I’ve observed when I’ve seen it on video and that kind of thing. And I do have friends who have done it. And most of the people I know who have done it spoke very well of it.
And so I guess what I try to get across with this stuff is that it’s really important to me, just as it’s important to me that nobody reads the book and says: Oh, well, that experience only applies to if you’re a combat veteran who was going to run for president of the United States.
I don’t want people taking that away from it, right? But I also don’t want people in the same vein, taking away from my story: Oh, well, what’s supposed to work for you, is CPT and PE, and if that doesn’t work, then what the hell’s wrong with you —?
Like no. That’s just my experience. And what I try and get across to everybody is that post-traumatic growth is worth pursuing, period. And whatever you’ve got to go do, however many steps it takes, however long it takes, it is worth it. Like, keep trying new things and commit yourself to those things and follow the advice of your mental health providers. And just commit to it.
Because what I ended up learning later on in the process is that the biggest differentiator and the biggest reason why actually the majority of people who do enter treatment for PTSD, do get better — although we never hear about that — is that the big determinant is: Did they commit to the program? Did they do their homework? And whatever that ends up looking like for you, commit to it. Throw yourself into it? And if you’ll do that, you’ll be pleased with the results, I believe.
RG: Well, Jason Kander’s new book is called “Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD.”
For people who want more of Jason Kander, your podcast is back, Majority 54. As you said, you’re now president of national expansion for Veterans Community Project; also the author of a previous bestseller, which I have not read, but now I’m gonna have to go back and read that one because I really appreciated this book a lot. And I wanted to thank you for joining me here.
JK: Thank you. I really appreciate that. The last thing I’d add is that all of my “Invisible Storm” go to the fight against veteran suicide and veterans homelessness by benefiting Veterans Community Project. So, thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about the organization as well.
RG: No, thank you.
[End credits music.]
RG: That was Jason Kander, and that’s our show.
A quick thank you to Jon Schwarz for filling in last week as a guest host. I’m taking a bit of time off this summer to work on my next book, and we’ll have a slightly slower schedule of shows, and also some other guest hosts I’m excited about that I’m sure you’ll enjoy. Thanks, as always, for listening and for your support of this podcast.
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