A Soldier's Memoir of Politics and PTSD
By Jason Kander
Reviewed by Betty Ann Dean
Those of us who live in Kansas City, Missouri, where Jason Kander lives, may be familiar with his story. Raised with a desire to serve, Jason joined an ROTC program while in law school at Georgetown University. This led to his joining the Army National Guard after the first year of that training and graduating as a second lieutenant. He says, “At last I knew what I was doing and what I was doing it for. I knew what clothes I was wearing, I knew who my boss was, and more than that, I knew what my mission was. I’d found what I wanted to do in life…I wasn’t an imposter. I had the real uniform. Now it was time to earn it.”
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Kander was deployed to Afghanistan as an intelligence officer. “In the Army there’s a really necessary brainwashing that goes on, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, “ Jason said. “As soon as you start training, it is ground into you from day one that someone else has it tougher than you–that everybody else has it tougher than you–that this is nothing…My combat was not the conventional thing you see in a John Wayne movie, I was fortunate,” he said. “I didn’t have to take anybody’s life and I didn’t have bullets whizzing by my ear. For me, combat was sneaking around trying not to get kidnapped, and being scared that I would.”
After returning home from the deployment, Kander couldn’t sleep. He developed an eye twitch, was unsettled, and easily angered. As he says, “After a while I figured the problem wasn’t ‘battlemind’ alone–it was also some type of survivor’s guilt…I confessed that I felt pretty lousy for leaving after only four months. In fact, I was ashamed of it. I knew how much I had to look forward to, and I had been on active duty away from home for most of the past fourteen months, but the truth was, a four-month deployment was pretty small potatoes. I should have done so much more…it feels wrong to leave.”
Kander turned his energies toward the political world and was the first millennial ever elected to a statewide office, serving in the Missouri House of Representatives after his election in 2008. His political career began to further take shape in 2011, when Missouri’s secretary of state, Robin Carnahan, announced that she would not seek re-election. According to Kander, “Getting the gig was a pretty serious long shot for me. I was a thirty-year-old progressive Democrat in Missouri without any statewide name recognition. It would be a slog…Just like that I went from asking thirty-five thousand people to vote for me to asking six million.”
During this campaign Kander’s symptoms began to worsen–the panic attacks, night terrors, nightmares were so persistent that he often patrolled his home with a loaded revolver. When his son was born the symptoms again escalated–fear that the child would die of SIDS, fear that an intruder might escape the alarm system he had established in their home, and fear that his son would be kidnapped.
“But then, eventually, day would break, the night terrors would dissolve, and I would remember to feel grateful for everything I had….I thought I was okay. I thought I was handling it.”
In 2015, Kander began the process of investigating a run for the U.S. Senate and announced his candidacy at age thirty-three. The pressures of this campaign brought symptoms of back pain, weight loss, insomnia, and more intense nightmares. Kander states, “I felt like I stopped being human. I was just a vessel for a campaign, one that was challenging my idealism more and more every day.”
Although Kander was defeated by Roy Blunt, he was seen as a rising star in the Democratic party–in fact, Barack Obama named him as an upcoming politician who gave him hope for the future of the United States. After he lost the election, Kander came home to Kansas City to consider a run for mayor of the city…and also to get some help for his symptoms at the VA. When filling out the paperwork for treatment at the VA, he minimized his symptoms, concerned about how the public might interpret them. The result? He was turned down for treatment.
“My request for help had been rejected. Running for mayor would have to do.”
Finally, even though he had a commanding lead in the mayoral race, Kander finally realized he must seek help. “Just like there was no single moment of trauma that caused this trouble in the first place, there was no single event that caused me to reach for real help.” He tried the VA again, and this time was encouraged to check into the system.
You may know the rest of the story–Jason Kander dropped out of the race to get the treatment he needed. He is now the president of national expansion at Veterans Community Project, and while his political career is undecided, his mental health is his priority.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a term that has become quite familiar to most of us. PTSD has been known by other names, such as “shell shock” during the time of World War I and “combat fatigue” after World War II. However, the symptoms of PTSD do not just apply to those who have been combat veterans, political figures, or are somehow in the limelight. Witnessing or being a part of a traumatic event or abusive situation can trigger symptoms. We have recently become aware of those caring for those with Covid-19 experiencing PTSD. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “PTSD can occur in all people, of any ethnicity, nationality or culture, and at any age. PTSD affects approximately 3.5% of U.S. adults every year. As an estimate, one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime.”
Kander says it best: “My decision to go public about my mental health came with certain challenges, but it definitely helped me heal. Not having to put on a show for myself or others made a big difference. I encourage everyone to be upfront about their own struggles, in their own way. You don’t need a huge platform. Just letting some coworkers or your circle of friends know what you’re going through can have strong positive effects, and you’ll be glad you did it. In this age of social media, we all live a public life to one degree or another, and you never know who might see your story, follow your example, and give themself permission to seek help.”
Recently we have seen an emphasis on prioritizing mental health issues, but there is much work to be done. Thankfully, those like Jason Kander who are willing to share their powerful stories, give us hope for understanding the struggle that is so real for so many. Being willing to share your own story may be just the gift of hope you can give another.
Betty Ann Dean, R.N., B.S.N., has worked in various settings as a registered nurse. In 2008 she began to explore energy medicine as taught by Donna Eden as a way of healing the body in addition to traditional medicine. She is certified as a practitioner of Bowenwork, a hands-on healing therapy, and brings a rich background of corrective exercise to her healing modalities as a result of her 10 years of experience as a personal trainer. In 2020, Betty Ann was certified at the Masters level as a medical intuitive and continues to study with her mentor, Tina Zion.
Her practice, Vibrant Bodyworks, is located in Liberty, MO, and Parkville, MO. www.vibrantbodyworks.com