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Afghan war veteran Jason Kander was once a rising star in the Democratic Party until post-traumatic stress changed the direction of his life, which he explores in his new memoir, “Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD.” Kander, who is now president of national expansion with the Veterans Community Project, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.
Finally, tonight, our weekend spotlight, Jason Kander is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and a once rising star in the Democratic Party. Geoff Bennett recently sat down with him to talk about how politics and post-traumatic stress changed his life.
Jason Kander is in Afghanistan war veteran, former Missouri Secretary of State and a once future star of the Democratic Party. Even former President Barack Obama said as much, but in 2018, Kendra dropped out in the homestretch of a race for mayor of Kansas City that he was widely expected to win, revealing his years long struggle with PTSD and his plan to seek treatment.
Jason Kander has now written an unflinching new memoir, detailing his personal journey called "Invisible Storm: A Soldier's Memoir of Politics and PTSD."
Jason Kander, thanks so much for being with us. And this book, your new memoir, it is extraordinarily brave in that it is exceptionally honest. You open the book and this prologue. You detail what transpire. On October 1 2018, you walk into the Kansas City, VA Medical Center, and you unload on the psychiatrist. All the stuff that you had been dealing with that you'd been hiding for years. Persistent anger, even suicidal ideation, what was the tipping point for you? What got you to the point where you had to tell someone that you needed help?
We had been building up for 11 years, and it just in the months before I finally went to the VA, it just felt like well, I had been getting worse for a long time. I seem to be getting worse faster. And it scared me and, you know, I was having these suicidal thoughts. But I also knew that I didn't want to want to kill myself.
And so I called the VA Veterans Crisis Line. And I remember calling it sort of a mindset that was real sheepish kind of an imposter syndrome feeling of like, you know, they're probably going to tell me keep this channel clear. There's people who really need help and who really earned our help. And what happened instead was when the first questions I got was the woman on the other hand asked me if I'd had suicidal thoughts. This is a couple nights but for I showed up at the VA, and you know, I had never said this out loud anybody other than my wife but I said yes.
And then I got really emotional. And then she proceeded to ask me some questions about my service and about, you know, what I've experienced and when my symptoms were now. And it dawned on me during this conversation, that from the tone of her voice, she didn't sound like I sounded any differently to her than anybody else, she'd talk to you in that shift, or ever in that job. I realized, I'm just like all the other veterans who need help.
And that's really striking, because as you detail in the book, as part of your journey, you had sort of played this comparison game that when you were in Afghanistan, you did weren't shot at, you weren't in the firefight, you didn't get captured. And so you felt as if you weren't deserving of treatment, and that, you know, didn't have the right to feel the way that you did.
How did you over time come to realize that the way that you were feeling that the trauma that you experienced was valid?
I didn't get to the point where I felt like it was valid to get treatment until I was actually at the VA talking to a clinical social worker, and explaining, actually — answering the exact question you just asked, which is, why didn't you think that you should have come in here before. And so I was explaining like, look, yes, my job was to go out and meet with people as an intelligence officer who might be, you know, bad guys who want to kill me. And I couldn't know that. But I had to go into the meetings and get the information and come out.
But like, I had friends who were in firefight, and to me the movies had taught me that's what combat was what I did wasn't, and the clinical social worker at the VA said, OK, let me get this straight. You were in the most dangerous place in the planet. You were gone for hours at a time, often just you and a translator. So basically, by yourself, nobody knew where you were. So you had no backup, and you're meeting with people who may want to kill you. And I was like, yes, and she goes, yes, that's traumatic. She's like, also, that's combat.
And after your military tour, you of course, started your political career. And you also a talk about how you threw yourself into politics and in the back of your head, you're always thinking things will get better when I win.
And then once you want to race or two, the goalposts shifted, and I feel like a lot of people can connect with that, that they throw themselves into work, and that the ambition, and the success can mask a lot of stuff.
I do think that that is a relatable part that I was seeking redemption, and I was seeking, at the same time to run away from my trauma, through accomplishment, and through success. And I really believed that if I did enough, you know, if I did enough for other people, if I accomplished enough, that that would fill up the hole inside me, you know, I thought, Oh, if I get elected president, and then I can make a huge difference and save the world in some capacity. Well, that's what I need to do.
But over time, I eventually realized that there was always something on the horizon. You know, if I do this, I'll feel better when, but it never worked. In fact, I just got addicted to it. And then eventually, my tolerance got bigger and bigger, or higher and higher, and I needed more of it. And then none of it was working.
Tell me about your wife, Diana, because her insights are included in this book. It's hard enough to be a military spouse. It's hard enough to be the spouse of a politician. And she is both of those things. And she talks about how she experienced secondary PTSD by being your wife.
Yes, I was a real joy. I was the gift that kept giving for a while there. Yes, it was really important to us that people understand the effects such as secondary PTSD that can exist for people who are close to or who have loved ones with PTSD, because we didn't even find out about that until I was in therapy. And my therapist at the VA was like, Diana should maybe go see somebody too.
So even though she didn't have the underlying trauma that I had, she didn't go with me to Afghanistan, you know, waking up every night next to somebody who's having a violent nightmare. We used to joke that she was like my service animal, she had to like wake my body up from this nightmare. And then I would wake up, and we'd been together since we were 17. And I just share everything with her. So then I would tell her about this terrible nightmare. So she's half awake. And as she put it, it was horrible storytime. So that combined with my hyper vigilance, my feeling that the world was a very dangerous place. And we needed to secure everything all the time and control things.
After a while, that stuff seeps into you, even if you didn't experience the underlying trauma. And you can end up in the same boat in a lot of ways as the person with PTSD. And that's what happened for Diana, and she had to get her own treatment as well.
You say in the book that one of the questions you get the most from people is are you coming back? Are you going to resurrect your political career? You provide the answer to that in the book? But do you think you can? Do you think that by coming forward and being so candid about your experiences that you could run for office again?
I think probably so. Yes. I mean, you know, I'll let people read the book to find you know, my longer answer about whether I want to and if I will, and that kind of thing, but in a lot of ways, I feel like so much more capable to do anything than I did before I got treatment.
But I also want to be clear that I still feel very involved in public service. I'm involved in politics as an activist at times.
But, you know, I'm president of National Expansion of Veterans Community Project, which focuses on combating veteran suicide and veteran homelessness and my royalties from the book, go to that cause. But, you know, I actually think that I've had a much greater impact on the world in a positive way, since leaving any pursuit for a particular office.
So do I think I could do it? Sure. I guess I've just gotten to the point in my life, where I don't really do anything, because I think I should I do stuff because I think it's important and because it's what I want to do. And I would just say, I think we need in all respects in our leadership and public life, it would be great if we had people who had dealt with their stuff.
If you're leading on an office of four people, or if you're leading a state, it doesn't matter. If you deal with your stuff, you're probably in a better position to lead.
Jason Kander, thanks so much for your time. I appreciate you being with us.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
An important candid conversation and acute realization that those suffering from post-traumatic stress aren't alone.
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Geoff Bennett serves as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour. He also serves as an NBC News and MSNBC political contributor.
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