Ep. 501 — Jason Kander – The Axe Files with David Axelrod

And now, from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio, the Axe Files with your host, David Axelrod.

When I first sat down for The Axe Files with Jason Kander in 2017, he was a fellow at the Institute of Politics, having just run a phenomenal race for the U.S. Senate. A Democrat, he came within a hair’s breadth of winning in an increasingly Republican Missouri. So Kander was a young man in a hurry. There was buzz around him as a potential presidential candidate. But it turns out he was living a lie. Beneath his ebullient surface, Kander, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it was turning his life upside down. A year after we spoke, he abruptly dropped out of politics in public view to get the help he desperately needed. Now he’s recounted that painful journey in a moving book, “Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD.” The proceeds of the book, by the way, will go to the Veterans Community Project to help other veterans in need. Here’s my conversation with the inspiring Jason Kander. Jason Kander, it’s great to see you again, my friend.

Great to be with you again. Thank you for doing this.

You were a guest on this podcast way back in October of 2017. You were a fellow at the Institute of Politics, and you had just finished this epic Senate race the year before in which you came very close to winning a Senate seat in Missouri, which is is now a solidly red state and was trending that way then. And you told me your story, but you left out a big part of the story, in part because you you hadn’t reckoned with it yourself.

Yeah, no. I mean, that was, let’s see, so 2017. We were at that point in year nine of me having untreated and diagnosed, unacknowledged by me, PTSD.

Right. And at the same time being an actor on the public stage.

So you had a public face and then you had a private face, and they were they were very different.

Yeah, very different. And, and I didn’t understand that. All I understood was something is wrong with me. Like, that’s how I processed that at that point. Like, it was just something is wrong with me, but I didn’t know what it was. And so it wasn’t even like I was hiding it from the world. I was so busy hiding it from myself that I had no idea that I was being in any way inauthentic.

Now, you’ve written this incredible book, “Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD.” Let’s go back to the beginning of that story. And I mean, you you were a driven guy even before you went to the military. That was sort of your DNA. You know, when you write about hustle that your parents taught you hustle and drive and, and you were. So that wasn’t all the product of PTSD. That was part of who you were.

Yeah, that’s right. And what I have sorted out, not entirely, but made a lot of progress in sorting out over the last few years is what part of that is me, like built into me, the way I was raised, and what part of my, you know, the level of just attack that I put into politics over those ten years was this sort of need for redemption and to stay away from my own mind. And I think where I where I’ve come to now is that, you know, I’m a driven person. Like I’m a person who, I believe in hard work, and I like to work hard. And my dad taught me, you know, as my Little League coach, he taught me, you get out of life what you put into it, the same way you get out of baseball what you put into it. You always run on and off the field, you know, all that stuff. And and that, that’s a big part of who I am. But I think what happened was is that once I got into politics, and I was struggling with this thing, it was more like, it was as if I was in politics, and I was a driven person who was in politics, and I had this substance addiction that I used to self-medicate. It’s just what, for me it happened to be the substance was my career. That’s what was in front of me. And and I try to be really careful when I talk about this, because what I don’t want anybody to do who’s suffering is, I don’t ever want anybody who may have chosen an actual literal substance to be like, well, what’s wrong with me that I chose this, and Kander did this thing that, you know, is in some ways, you know, not entirely destructive. And I’m always trying to point out, like, look, this is what was in front of me. What was in front of me was my career, which a lot of people that’s what they throw themselves into. So it just, it just put it on another level.

And as you explain it in the book, this constant occupation was a way of, in part, not confronting those things that were troubling you.

And which is, so substance abuse is a good analogy. It’s it’s it’s a it’s appropriate, because people self-medicate to try and escape from confronting that which is hard to confront.

Yeah, the reason that I feel so comfortable using that analogy is because when I think back on those times, I can remember not understanding what was going on with me, but coming to a point where I was starting to have an idea of what could make me feel okay and what was making me. And I remember I sort of had this thing where I would say to myself, I just have to keep going. And I didn’t know what that meant. I just, I was stringing together these endorphin highs, right? So like by the time, by the time I’m in 2018 and I’m soft running for president, but you know what that’s like, I’m really, I’m running for president without saying the words that legally actionize, you know, l don’t think actionize is a word. But you know what I mean?

It should be if it isn’t.

It is now. This is The Axe Files.

Exactly. Exactly. The Webster’s people are hard at work right now.

That’s right. I mean, I’ll make up some more by the time this ends. But, you really, I mean, at that point you’re running, and and so what I had. The one thing I had figured out was, boy, I, I feel good, I feel present in the moment when I am performing, whether that be, and it just has to be high stakes. If it’s a crowd of 600 people at a major Democratic event where I’m the keynote, doesn’t have to be in New Hampshire or Iowa, that helps, but it could be anywhere where I’m like, this is helpful, and I got to nail this. Or it could be, you know, it was for me, it was like going on The Axe Files, it was doing big interviews. It was sitting down with major donors. But in between, it was very difficult. But those endorphin highs, if I could bridge one to the next, that’s that’s what I knew was a salve.

And if you’re feeling, and I actually want to get back to the narrative itself, but if you are feeling inadequate, if you feeling like an imposter, if you are feeling undeserving, then there the, the, the adoration of the crowd, the, the, the the love and the the approval of the crowd has to be a part, a big part of those endorphins.

Yes, you’ve nailed it. It was like a Band-Aid. But what I’ve thought about a lot since the book came out and doing the book tour and doing interviews is how what was interesting for me is that I sort of had these two things going in opposite directions. And I think this is more how my parents raised me, this part. My self-confidence never flagged, right? I mean, like when you and I sat down and did an interview where I was, you know, pretty well a prospective presidential candidate, or really a presidential candidate who couldn’t say it out loud, I was 36 years old. So the audacity that it takes to to be doing it, like you have to have a, I had a very high degree of confidence in my abilities. Right. Whether it was rational or not. I had been gifted that by my parents. What I simultaneously had, thanks to PTSD, and I didn’t know this at the time, was an incredibly low opinion of myself as a human being. So my self-esteem was as low as my self-confidence was high. So looking back now, I realized what I was doing was I was trying to use one to repair the other. So I was trying to use the fact that I was good at something and that people would say, you’re good at this, and try and use that to convince myself I wasn’t an irredeemable human being, but it just wasn’t working. It was just sort of it was treating the symptoms slightly, but but not the underlying problem.

And it’s interesting, that self-confidence is, those two things are both at play in this entire book, like even amid this agony that you were suffering through your parenthetically say, yeah, I nailed that speech.

I mean, I mean, you were aware that you were excelling in one way and in your mind failing in maybe even more important ways, as a father, as a husband. But let’s go back to the beginning. I’m interested, you were a, you were a law student at Georgetown, and you enlisted after 9/11. And I was wondering what attracted you to to the service, you explain it, but talk a little bit about that, because you you fell in love with being in the army.

Mm hmm. Which I did not expect. I looked at it as I admired service a lot. You know, like a lot of people my age, my grandfather, great uncle, great grandfather had served. But it wasn’t like, I wasn’t from a military family. So, you know, they had gone and served because their country was at war, and then they’d gone on with their life. And that had just always made a lot of sense to me. And there was a part of me that was envious of them, because they had a singular motivating event that made sense, where it made sense to stop doing what you were doing in your life and go do that. And I was sort of envious that that had happened. And so then when 9/11 happened, as, you know, upset about 9/11 as I was, there was a part of me that was like, okay, this provides clarity. I, I can go do this. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot more lately, because I’ve noticed in talking about the book that understandably, a lot of people don’t feel. To them they’re like, okay, but that’s not enough. Like, why were you singularly interested in this? Like, it doesn’t it doesn’t make a lot of sense. And I’ve been thinking about it more, and I think that it could be as simple as, look, I was born in 1981. I grew up on Iron Eagle and Top Gun. And, you know, like, I think that I that was formative for me. I grew up on the stories of what a man was. There was a military element to that. And and I was a kid who, you know, when I, I washed out of Cub Scouts at like Webelo. But before I did, I can remember putting on the uniform and standing in the mirror and saluting, you know, a. There was a part of that.

Your dad was a police officer at one point.

Yeah. And even though, you know, my dad was mostly a police officer before I was born, I in my mind, that was where, I that was what I thought of my dad as, right, because I so admired, you know, that sort of thing.

Your first chapter is called The Uniform, and a lot of it is about that. That that it was you. It was the the kid who’s now grown up standing in front of a mirror, admiring himself in the uniform.

It made me, I liked that version of myself very much. And. And the thing was is, that when I went in, I was like, okay, this is something I want to do, because, you know, my country’s going to war, and everybody keeps saying to me, well, look, you go to this good school, you come from this background, like, why would you go do it? And for me, I think again, the way I was raised, it was just that I couldn’t imagine saying, well, yeah, we should we should go to war in Afghanistan, but not me. Like, it just didn’t make sense to me. It didn’t feel right. But again, I was like, well, I’m going to do this. I don’t expect to be like good at it or like it, but I’m going to do it. And then I got into the army and the clarity of it, the simplicity of it, the sense of of being part of something bigger than yourself, which I don’t even necessarily mean the overall mission of the country or of the war. It was just, you know, you’re around other people ,and you feel like you’re a part of something just just through the human beings you’re around. And it turned out that I loved it. And also I was pretty good at it. And those two things were a big surprise to me.

I have to ask you this question. We talked before about your drive and your ambition. You mused when you were a teenager about becoming President of the United States. Was there any element of that involved in your decision to join the military? Did you say, this will complete me as a public person?

I think it was a small element. At first I think it was sort of like before 9/11 when I was thinking, well, maybe one day I’ll join. Like before 9/11, I it was in this category where it was like, well, maybe after law school, like I’ll become a reserve jag. And I think that was like, you know, as a resume enhancer, because I’m really interested in service. And then after 9/11, it became, this is a thing I’m going to do. And even if there was some trace element of like a resume sort of thing going in, I always say to people, you really only have to get like halfway through your first ruck march to where if you joined for any sort of personal ambition, like if that’s your motivator, you’re just not going to make it. You’re just, you know, you’re going to be like, no, no, no, I’ll go. I’ll go do something else instead, you know? So. So there was. I think there were trace elements of that, but it was much deeper.

You mentioned the physical challenges of of being in the service. They were even greater for you, because you’d blown out your ACL in a touch football game. I guess it was touch. I don’t know.

It’s even worse. Axe, my wife makes fun of me still to this day for this, is that I was the I was the dumb guy who everybody was like, well, obviously we’re going to play touch. And I was like, No, come on, you bunch of wimps, we’re going to play tackle. And my buddy, Kelly, who was on the other team, and we were rivals and everything, you know, we were that kind of friendship, who happened to be like, you know, all-state Texas safety in football. He was very kind and took very good care of me after he blew out my knee. And we still have an ongoing debate to this day about whether I scored on that.

Yeah, well, don’t do that again.

I know, that I won’t be doing it again.

So you ultimately go to Afghanistan and, you know, you go for four months. I’m not going to say only four months, because that’s part of what’s going on here.

Four months in which you took on this ridiculous assignment. Explain what you did as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan.

Yeah. So it was my job to figure out which bad guys were pretending to be good guys in the Afghan government. It was to conduct these anti-espionage anti-corruption investigations so that the more senior people, the, you know, the general in charge, the ambassador to the country, people like that, could have more information about the extracurricular activities of these people they were dealing with on a daily basis. So they needed to know, like, to what extent are they, you know, double dealing and talking to al Qaeda and the Taliban and that sort of thing. And in order to find that out, somebody had to go out and like, you know, ferret out that information. So my job was to go out, usually just me and a translator. Sometimes we would take a couple other people with us. And meet with people of pretty unsavory or at least questionable character, of questionable allegiances and, you know, gather information, build relationships. My my colonel that I worked for over there, he referred to it as thugint, which is a made up term, which is short for thug intelligence. He said, you know, your job was to develop relationships with thugs so that we could get information on other thugs.

Webster’s, if you’re listening. There’s another one for you.

And we’re not even halfway in. Yes. The word thugs is important though here, because the fact is that these people authorized killing, maybe killed themselves, and you’re sitting in a room with them. And maybe they know why you’re sitting in a room with them and have some incentive to, you know, you you’re there as a representative the United States, so there’s some costs to killing you for these people. But nonetheless, this has this is on your mind every time you go into these these you know, these crevices and corners of the Afghan world.

Yeah, there was, we were very aware that there was a reasonable chance of walking into a trap and being, you know, kidnaped or killed, or, you know, one then the other. And the thing about it was, is that for me, I went over there with this preconceived notion of what combat was, and it wasn’t that. You know, to me, combat was what you see in the movies. It’s Black Hawk Down or Band of Brothers and. And if things aren’t blowing up all around you or bullets aren’t going by your ear, well, that to me, that wasn’t combat. And it wasn’t until many years later when, you know, a clinical social worker at the VA finally explained it back to me and said, hey, look, you were in the most dangerous place on the planet. You were pretty well alone, just you and your translator. Nobody knew. Nobody knew where you were. So it’s not like anybody was coming to save you. Nobody was backing you up. And so if things went bad, you know, she was like, look, that’s combat. And it’s traumatic. And and but to me, I had spent all these years telling myself, well, I never fired my weapon, so it’s not combat. And a lot of that comes from a thing that I think a lot of people can relate to, whether they were in the military or not. It’s just more pronounced and and perfected in the military, which is this necessary form of brainwashing. That where the the drumbeat message that you get all the time is, look, somebody has it worse. This is no big deal. And it’s necessary, because for me to keep going into those meetings, for buddies of mine who, you know, weren’t going on patrols and getting shot at for it, for us to keep going out and doing our job the next day, you’ve got to believe that this isn’t that big a deal. You know, somebody has it worse. But the problem is when you come home, nobody flips that switch off. So you still believe it wasn’t any big deal, and you’re having these symptoms and you’re like, but that can’t be PTSD, because what I did was no big deal.

Yeah, let’s talk about those symptoms. You come home. How soon after you came home did you start running for office?

Pretty quick. So I had I had opened like a committee to run before I left, but I hadn’t really done that much. You know, it was just kind of sitting there. And then so I got home in early February of 2007, and I was knocking on my first door for the state legislature by August of 2007. And I was, you know, putting things in place before that. So it was pretty quick turnaround.

And the way you describe it, you didn’t run for office. You attacked the run for office.

Yeah, I went after it with a yeah. Yeah. I mean, I. To put it in perspective, that first campaign, you know, it was a state representative race where I knocked on 20,000 doors myself. And it was, it was one where, it was a primary, it was me and two other candidates who were better known and had more institutional support. But in my mind, that just meant I had to win. And not like not like a regular like politician who’s like, I’ve got to win. It was like, I didn’t understand at the time, but every threat, every every risk, every anything to me just shot right up to the top of the threat meter, because my brain had experienced the ultimate threat, which is the threat of dying. And like I, what I now know is, I couldn’t triage the difference. And so I worked at this breakneck pace, partially because, again, that was in me. I was raised to have that ability. And the Army had also given me that. I mean, you learn how to work pretty hard in the Army. But also because I could not imagine living past, not that I was like, I’m going to kill myself. I just couldn’t imagine having a life beyond being defeated in that race. And so, a three way race where I was very much the underdog, kind of an afterthought, where I ended up getting 68% of the vote because of the way we worked.

We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. You know, it’s striking to me. You went on to run for secretary of state. You ran against a billionaire, is that right?

I ran against a guy who was financed by a billionaire. Yeah.

I see. So. And also a very, you know, uphill battle.

Mm hmm. Statewide race in Missouri.

You talked to a potentially strong candidate. You bluffed a potentially strong candidate out of the race, the primary race to become the the can. I mean, you wer a pretty audacious guy. But what was so striking to me then and in your Senate race was your agonizing description of election night.

And feeling like you were going to die that night, that if you lost, that the word was going to come. Because in the first race, you didn’t find out until late in the evening that you had won. And it didn’t look good for a while.

And you’re describing these things as near-death experiences?

Yeah. It was. Yeah. That secretary of state’s race. It was a long wait for the results. And like you said, we were trailing for most of it. And the thing about it was, is that I at that point was very, very good at keeping my intrusive thoughts, my disruptive memories, if not at bay, you know, from from being disruptive, because I could feel the illusion of control over a situation. I could always be doing something, right? Like when I was running for secretary of state, I could be in call time making fundraising calls. I could be on the road going to the next county fair to shake hands. I could always feel like I was moving the ball forward. But once you get to election night, and once the polls close.

It’s, I mean, as you know.

It’s the most helpless feeling in the world. Yeah. You just.

You’re at the mercy of the of the numbers, and there’s no way you can change them.

And there’s nothing left to do.

Despite what Donald Trump says.

Yeah. Right. Yeah. There’s nothing left to do. And that’s when it was like. It was agony for me, because that’s, you know, like I’m in the back of the watch party when, you know, it’s 2012 when you all have won the reelection and everybody’s celebrating. And I am excited about it, but I can’t control anything at that moment. And so my mind is in Afghanistan, you know, because there’s nothing left for me to do to distract myself.

Yeah. What’s also really great about your book is, you made it clear this was not just your own crisis. Your wife, Diana, who you started dating when you were 17 years old, she navigated this with you. And she has interventions throughout this book that are really, really moving. In fact, I wanted to ask you why it isn’t why she did. Why isn’t your book double bylined here? Because her her her pieces in this book are so fundamental to the story you’re trying to tell, that it’s not just the person who has PTSD, but those who love them, those who are in relationships with them. There’s a wider blast field to borrow the term the term of your of the military.

Yeah. It’s a, those are my favorite parts of the book. And you are the first, I’ve done a lot of these, you are the first person to ask me that question about the double byline, and I appreciate it, because it gives me a chance to say that the first draft or the first like final draft that I submitted actually had that. And the publisher, I think, thought about it and they were like, we think it’s confusing for people. And because, like, at that point they had already picked the cover, and it was just my face, you know, and all that stuff.

And ultimately, they persuaded us of that. But you’re, but yes, my favorite parts of the book are, you know, in I think each chapter there’s a two or three page passage where it’s Diana in the first person describing either what she was observing with me at that time or what she was experiencing personally.

Which was PTSD of her own, secondary PTSD. Yeah.

Yeah. And so there’s a couple of reasons that we did that. The first is just from a writing perspective, the way that I wrote the book, I returned to my former mindset to write all of the parts of the story leading up to when I went to therapy, right? Because if I want somebody reading this book to be able to recognize these issues in themselves or in someone else, well you can’t use a term like hypervigilance or avoidance, the terms I learned in therapy, because they’re not going to relate to that, in the same way that I would have heard that term ten years ago and not understood it. But if I return to my former mindset and tell you about my running for state rep or secretary of state or Senate or president and say I felt like I was in danger all the time instead of hypervigilance, I felt like I had to keep going or else the the thoughts would flood in, well, that is something people can recognize. Now, the downside of that, the shortcoming is that you’re only getting the perspective then of somebody somebody, myself who as that narrator, my perspective was warped. And it was it was off. So it’s very helpful to have a second narrator to come in and say things like Jason was having a, he couldn’t sit still in a restaurant. He couldn’t, you know, all that stuff.

Had to have had had to have your back to the wall.

Worried that your home was going to be invaded, that your family was going to be harmed.

Yeah. And what it was like to see me wake up from night terrors in the middle of the night. And so that was valuable. But then the other, I think greater reason was we did not know that secondary PTSD existed until I started therapy at the VA and my therapist suggested that Diana also see someone. We had never heard of it. And and so that was the other thing that she and I wanted to accomplish with this book, is we wanted we wanted people to understand that if you if you live with somebody, if you’re married to somebody, for instance, who’s having all these symptoms, even without you undergoing the original trauma, you can develop some of the symptoms and that you also need to be treated.

And she absolutely did. Those fears that you had about your safety were fears that she was engulfed in over time. You know, you would call and make sure to tell her, make sure every door was locked. You would share your your fears of what might happen. And, look, there are fears in public life, but yours were magnified a thousand fold. You you you had a gun. You would wander around your house with it to make sure there was there were no intruders there. I mean, and she she suffered with that as well.

That was the thing is that throughout the whole time, there were two things that sort of were able to enable me, which is, one, being a public person, I always had this sort of way to justify for myself this hypervigilance, right? So like I’m having these hypervigilant symptoms, but I’m also able to say to myself, well, we’re the most prominent Jewish family in Missouri now. Right? So, and there had been like on one occasion, you know, some death threats by an anti-Semitic guy with, you know. So it was like, that was like, okay, I can I can see where to me that seems rational. But then the other piece of it was my symptoms would change and evolve over time. And that became a story I could tell myself about, oh, I’m getting better. So like when my nightmares evolved and they no longer took place very often in Afghanistan, but they were now, you know, someone invading my home. Well, I was able to say to myself, Well, look, they’re not connected to my service. They’re not even taking place there. It wasn’t until years later that I found out, no, actually, that’s a dangerous and common evolution with this kind of PTSD. So there’s always some story I could tell myself.

The other manifestation of this was that you were kind of an asshole at home. You were not a nice person. You brought all of this all of this angst. And since you mentioned that you’re the most prominent Jewish family, let me say you brought all your mishegoss to this, you know, craziness to. And you took it out on your wife. And, you know, you quarreled a lot. And then you had a child, a boy. True. Who came along in 2013. You didn’t have a lot for him.

And that was the thing. Like Diana would say to me, I wish we could get the version of you that everybody else gets. And and I wanted to give it, but it was like I was so exhausted from, as I put it, you know, wearing the Jason Kander suit and trying to, like, arm myself for the world, you know, wear that armor, that I would get home and poor Diana, you know, that was the only place that I could, you know, say, like what was upsetting me. And I didn’t I didn’t really I didn’t know what was upsetting me, right? So I didn’t talk about the things I needed to talk about. So it would just manifest as, you know, being paranoid about this or that. And so it was like she was getting the full on version of me, but she couldn’t tell anyone, so she couldn’t share it with anybody, because we were in politics, and and so, or so we thought we couldn’t share it with anyone. And then I, I what I struggled with and what really I came to loathe myself for was I just had so little ability to feel present with my family, with my wife and my son. And it felt like to me, I looked at it as, I can’t even love my family properly, you know, and and I so admire my own parents and and, you know, want to be the kind of dad that my dad has been to me. So to feel that I’m failing in that way was really devastating for me.

The PTSD obviously was so much present in your life. It is also true that there’s a certain pathology to politics. And so you talked to a bunch of political families, and you you often hear the same story, that the person who’s the politician is so consumed with the political wars that they don’t have time for the kids. So you had both things.

You had both things going on. And how much of this, we should just underscore, I said at the beginning, this sort of imposter thing. How much of it was that that you just you felt like a fraud, that you you know, you you were honored everywhere as a veteran. It was central to your campaigns. You did a famous ad that everyone in the political ad making business admired. I was one of them. Of you blindfolded, putting together a semiautomatic weapon and talking about gun control and why it was important. And it was an arresting ad. It was interesting, you wrote in the book, what is often the case, often the most creative ads are necessarily the ads that move votes. They get oohs and ahs from people in politics.

And money and money, but they don’t necessarily move votes. But they’re you were, putting together a weapon that you never actually fired in the military.

Never fired it in combat. And that was, the it was just, you know, it was more guilt for the for the mill, you know, with me. And and so I think a lot of that for me was this idea of redemption that I was I was I was chasing this redemptive narrative for myself. Right. That, common to people who have had trauma, I felt that I needed to be redeemed. And on top of that, I had this survivor’s guilt. You know, I, I did a four month tour. I had friends who were there when I got there and there when I left. I have friends who had been hurt, you know, that sort of thing. And it was like, who the hell am I to, you know, be, as you said, honored in this way? So it would all get on, like it would all pile on top of each other, and in my mind, it was like, well, if I can just achieve the next thing, if I can do this, then I’ll feel, like, redeemed. And I, I think that a lot of that comes from sort of the American myth about trauma and redemption. Because when you think about it, going back, you know, I’ve already mentioned, I’m giving Top Gun a lot of not that it needs a lot of like.

Doing pretty well right now.

Yeah, it’s doing okay without me. But I love the Top Gun movies. But that is such a classic American story about trauma, and it’s replicated so many times. Like after Goosse dies, Maverick doesn’t go to therapy. What does Maverick do? A week later, he kills two bad guys over the Mediterranean, and then he’s good to go. He throws Goose’s dog tags off the boat and he gets the girl. And what I think so many of us have learned in America is that you overcome trauma through singular acts of redemptive heroism. And that’s what I think I was trying to do. And what a lot of people probably in politics, as well as anybody else who’s hard charging in their lives, is trying to do is, I just I always felt like I would feel better, and there was this redemption, and it was just around the corner. It was the next office or it was it was the next fundraising quarter or it was passing this bill or getting this thing done. And it was a mirage.

Mm. Yes. And you kept elevating the stakes.

Trauma, just mental, mental illness generally in politics, as you point out in the book, don’t mix. I mean, I had this discussion with someone the other day. Lincoln was a depressive. Lincoln contemplated taking his own life. If those things had been, you know, known today, they’d probably be considered disqualifying for a, certainly for a President of the United States. So you were reluctant to get help?

Yeah, it went over this evolution, because at first I was reluctant to get help because I didn’t believe that I had earned it. I didn’t believe that I had. It felt like stolen valor to me when I didn’t believe that I was a real combat veteran. And, you know, it was like, well, who would I be to say that I have the same thing, PTSD, as these guys who were physically wounded? And then over time, even if I was inclined to recognize what I was going through as PTSD, it was almost like, well, it’s a moot point now. I’m, you know, trying to, you know, become a senator or become president and you can’t have PTSD and do those things. So then it just became like, well, that’s a nonstarter. And then the third phase I went into was a, you know, after ten years of it, when you’ve been a certain way for ten years, you kind of forget that you didn’t used to be this way. And I just sort of accepted the idea that I guess this is who I am.

You know, it’s interesting. I wanted to ask you about that, because Diana knew you before you went to Afghanistan, and she obviously lived with you after you came home. She must’ve seen the difference.

She was one of the few people who could really see the evolution, because, as you know, by the time you get deep into politics, you, it’s so consuming that you lose a lot of the prior relationships. You don’t lose them, you just don’t see those people very often, right. You don’t, you think you don’t have time. And so a lot of the people in my orbit, socially or professionally or people who knew me, you know, in that life like, well post-Afghanistan. So, for instance, my staff just understood like, Jason doesn’t like it when people sit behind him in meetings, you know, stuff like that. It wasn’t, like nobody was like, is that PTSD? And naturally they wouldn’t think that, it was just, well that’s, the boss has a preference, right? Whereas Diana had seen the difference. But, you know, we were kids when all this happened. And so. And nobody had ever taught us, the army never taught us any of this. We didn’t know what was happening. And so just like me, she didn’t know, like, oh, there is a way to treat this. Like we had no idea.

Is the military failing in preparing members of the service for what they might face? And and what about our Veterans Administration? You were able to navigate the system and get help quickly when you needed it. But originally, whoever was taking, you know, in your case said, well, it’ll be months.

Before you could see someone. And you were someone who had openly talked about whether the world would be better off without you, i.e. maybe I should do something about that.

Yeah. So let’s start with the VA. The VA does a spectacular job with this. The issue is that, yeah, at the at the at the system-wide level with the rules set mostly by Congress that narrow. It seems like the the number one concern of Congress when it makes rules about benefits or laws about benefits for the, for veterans seems to be that we got to make sure that no one who who doesn’t deserve it ever gets benefits. And to me, like, the problem with that is you’re assuming that there are veterans who don’t deserve it. And I just don’t. I mean, now that I do the work I do, that’s just not the case. I mean, I don’t care what your discharge status is. I don’t care how long you were in the military. I don’t care about any of it. You’re a veteran, and you deserve those benefits, and you need them in some cases. And we are all constantly as a country working so hard to narrow that site aperture that a lot of people get left out, or they get stuck in a delay. Once you’re in the system, it’s fantastic. For me, I was able to navigate it quickly because of Veterans Community Project helping me like it had many other vets, which is a whole other story. That’s where I work now. But yeah, but to the I forget the first part of your question. Oh, the military. As as as regards to the military, yes. I do believe the military is failing our people in this way, because, as I said, the necessary brainwashing of convincing you that what you’re doing is no big deal. I don’t fault the military for that. These are hard, and they’re frightening jobs, and if you don’t believe that, you can’t do the job. Where I fault the military is, there’s not an adequate system of flipping that switch off and of disabusing you of the notion that what you did is insignificant because it’s that. That, you know, we tend to think as a society that a lot of veterans think, well, it’s weakness to go get help. No, that’s not what we think. We just think we don’t deserve it, because that’s what we were told. And even to this day, you know, in basic training, to my knowledge, they don’t have like a day of instruction to just teach you what PTSD is, which would save lives if soldiers and sailors and Marines and airmen and coasties, if they knew what PTSD was, not only could they potentially spot it in themselves, but they would spot it in their battle buddies. But we don’t do that.

And why do you think that is? Is it part of the sort of stoic suck it up nature of of being in the military, or why this is such an obvious problem?

I think that it is out of a sense of concern that. I think I think it goes in parallel with the fact that when you get mental health treatment, I never did, but but my understanding is if you get mental health treatment, for instance, while you’re deployed, it’s not the kind that I went through at home. It’s not cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure. It’s the stuff where they give you, you know, the tools to continue to do your job, right? So it’s so I think in that same vein, there’s a thought of, if we equip people with this knowledge about PTSD and that sort of thing, and they’re wrong about this, but this sense that it will cause people to not be able to focus on their job and what they’re supposed to do. I think that’s highly problematic. But even if you were to step, even if you were to grant that, at a minimum, what we could be doing is when people separate from the service, we could be treating it the way we treat, you know, a transfer of duty station. You know where people are are going. You have their home of record. If you transfer from Fort Polk to Fort Leonard Wood, there’s a there’s a person who receives you at Fort Leonard Wood and who tells the person who sent you, hey, I got him or I got her. But when you leave the military, there’s nobody at the VA who, you know, has a relationship with the military where they go, hey, I received him, and there’s nobody in the military who’s supposed to have that warm handoff. And the thing is, when you leave, you don’t see yourself as a veteran. You still see yourself as a soldier, for instance. So if you are told your last mission, your last order, is to go to the VA in your hometown and report in, you will do it in almost every case.

We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. There is an over indexing of veterans. We have this concern now about white extremism, and there’s over indexing of of veterans. And Bob Pape, who’s a professor at the University of Chicago, is is is studying this very closely as part of a larger study of white domestic extremism. Is that a concern to you and what should be done about that?

It is a concern to me. And I think that there’s two causes for it. One that can be controlled for, one that can’t. And the one that can be controlled for is that when you come out of the service, it’s very disorienting, because you’ve had this central purpose for so long. You’ve been in this social structure. You know, it’s not like, I mean, look, this is the longest period of our history with no form of of mandatory military service. Right. The longest consecutive period. So like, when you come out, everybody around you doesn’t see the world the way you see it, doesn’t have this sense of, you know, meaning in their lives and isn’t seeking it necessarily in the way that you would expect. And you just feel very isolated. And so I think in that way you are, like anybody else who’s going through a difficult time, you are vulnerable to anybody coming to you and saying, hey, here’s a thing you can belong to that has meaning. So I think for that, what we can do is we can we can provide opportunities for that meaning. We can provide opportunities to serve. We can provide opportunities to be a part of something. That’s why stuff, you know, like Veterans Community Project, like Team Rubicon are really valuable for giving you that purpose. The other part of it that I do think doesn’t lend people to right wing extremism, but that everybody should recognize when they look at veterans that, yes, the the world of veterans are going to tilt toward a more right wing view. But people think that’s because they’re veterans. And what people need to recognize is that if you show me any workplace in the United States that is overwhelmingly male and disproportionately drawn from the Midwest and the South, I’m going to say to you, that is a workplace where the majority of people are conservative because they were raised that way.

Right, of course. Yeah. It’s concerning, though, because they come with military training. You know, we saw some of that on January 6th in the insurrection there. Anyway, let me let me return to your narrative, because, as you said, your therapy was to just do more, to go higher. And so you thought you you would die when you lost your race for the Senate, which would. But the rest of the country thought this was a remarkable performance. And all of a sudden, instead of telling you that you’re shit and you’re gone, and you’re done, people are telling you, man, you’re talented. You should run for President of the United States, including my old boss told you you should think about running for President of the United States. That is heady stuff.

Yeah, I compared it. In the book I compare it to like coming out of the bunker after nuclear nuclear annihilation and obviously being devastated that everybody has been wiped out. But finding some small solace in the fact that the other dozen survivors had been like, we think maybe you’re in charge? And so it it was it just felt like, okay, I guess I’m still in this. And it was heady stuff. But again, going back to this thing where I had this outsized irrational self-confidence in my abilities, it’s hard to explain, but I was like, yeah, yeah, I think it should be me. But I also was like, of course none of these people know that I’m an irredeemable piece of crap, you know? So. So that’s where it was so disorienting and confusing and and so.

And also demanding. I mean, no one understands what it means to run for President of United States. It’s hard to run in a state, but it is it’s an inhuman task to run for President of the United States. So all of those problems that you had, they’re multiplied now. You’re more prominent. The fears for safety are greater. You’re not home at home as much. I was so moved late in your book, you note that you’re, if you asked True, your son, about those days, they’ll tell you that sometimes he forgot he had a daddy at all and that made me. That brought tears to my eye. You know, my own children made tremendous sacrifices for my career that I regret now. And they have kids now. And I’m hoping that they learn from my example what not to do. And I think they will. But so you do this and you finally burn out. And you’re on the beach in Hawaii with with your family and your campaign manager, who’s your closest friend. And he suggests, why not go home and run for mayor of Kansas City? That was the therapy.

That was the life raft at that point.

Right. I was like, I knew I felt like I was drowning, and I didn’t know what to do. And when he said that, it was like, to me it was like, oh, that’s what I should do. And so I had in my mind, I was like, I left that. I left Hawaii with this idea of I had made this promise to myself. I was going to do two things. I was going to become mayor because, you know, obviously, if you go from running for president to running for mayor, like I don’t think it’s braggadocious to say, you know, you’re going to win that race. And and so I was like, I’m going to become mayor and I’m going I’m going to.

Though a lot of people, myself included, would say, wow, that’s a weird juxtaposition.

A lot of people did. My dad, you know, everybody you know, people are like, what’s going on? And my staff, you know, and I had to say, well, I don’t think we can raise the money. And they’re like, we can raise the money. Like, you know, I’m not going to say I was going to be the nominee, but I was in it, like I.

No, you were going to. I mean, you were a lock. As much as there is a lock in politics.

Oh, I mean, like for president, like I was like I don’t mean.

I’m just saying, like. We were putting together a viable operation and we were going to be a legitimate candidate. But, yes.

Listen, you know, you you know, we saw what Pete Buttigieg did, who I know is a friend of yours, fellow veteran who, you know, went from 0 to 60 pretty fast there.

But then you you went home. There you were a lock. Everyone assumed you were the next mayor of Kansas City. And a month before the election on October 1st, 2018, about a year after we had our conversation here, you announced that you were dropping out, you explained that you had PTSD, and that you were going for treatment. That must have been so hard.

It was very hard. And it wasn’t very hard. Right. It was a very hard period. A very difficult period.

Well, let me let me let me interrupt you for a second. It must have been hard for someone for whom that sense of public engagement, recognition, celebrity, to say, I’m going away for a while. I’m going away to deal with me and to and to acknowledge vulnerability.

Well, yes, in that way, it was devastating. Right. I guess what I mean when I say it wasn’t hard, I should zero that down to the only part about it that wasn’t hard at that point for me was the was the decision. The decision to to run for mayor, which was like a half step toward this, instead of president, that was very, it was a very hard decision. The decision to step away from everything, the reason it wasn’t hard is because by that point, I was just done. I had I had run out of steam. I felt like,.

I mean, my my suicidal thoughts were getting more frequent. And I was scared. I was. I didn’t want to want to die. And I just felt like I had run out of options. And so at the same time, though, yes, going through that was terrible, because I felt like I was just letting down. I mean, you know how it is. Once a campaign gets going, it’s not just you. Like, there’s so many people who have staked their careers and their hopes. And I mean, obviously, there’s other people who work with you, but then there’s the people who just had backed you or put their faith in you. And and so for for me, as you said, a person who had put so much into the idea of, I could tell myself that I wasn’t irredeemable because these other people seemed to think I was good, who had to disappoint them, was terrible. But I didn’t feel I had a choice at that point.

The book describes in vivid and riveting detail the process of therapy that you went through to confront the monster, as as your therapist described it, of PTSD. And I really urge people to read it. But I want to ask you about the reaction you got when you made this announcement. And because, you know, I’ve I’ve said this before here, I spent 30 years not talking about the fact that my father took his own life, because I thought somehow it besmirched his character to talk about it until I finally realized, that’s exactly the problem, that we we view mental illness as some sort of character defect when it’s part of the human condition as any other illness is. And in fact, you in the book talk about the relationship between physical ailments and mental mental ailments. But what I found when I talked about it was, publicly I wrote about it and talked about it, just an incredible outpouring of people who either have lost someone, who are suffering themselves, who said, who, a light went off and said, well, gee, if this could happen to to him or to his family, we’re not alone.

In your book, it sounds like you got the same, that same outpouring came.

I wish everybody who decided to go to therapy received the same sort of affirmation from the world that I had the opportunity to receive. I mean, I, I can’t tell you how much it means to me every time somebody says and I, you know, they say, you saved my life just by my being public. And what and what I try to, what I try to talk about often is that you don’t have to be famous for that to happen. Like everybody has a social orbit. Even if you never go on social media, like if you got six coworkers and you let them know what’s going on with you, there’s a pretty decent chance that it will give one of them a permission slip to go help themselves.

Yes. Yeah, yeah. My father, ironically, was a psychologist, but and everybody was relying on him. When he died, at his funeral a bunch of his patients come. They didn’t know what had happened. And one after one, they came up to me and said, your your dad really saved my life.

And and to think that he could save their lives, but not his own, because he didn’t feel that he could go get help, that somehow that would be a problem, that that was you know, that was a devastating.

Recognition. Listen, I got to ask you about three things before we go. One is the Veterans Community Project, which is where you’re spending most of your time now. And just describe it. It was it was instrumental in your own recovery. But tell me tell me what the Veterans Community Project is doing around the country.

Well, thanks for asking about it. So Veterans Community Project has two main missions. One is to curb the suicide epidemic by operating outreach centers. Basically walk in clinics where any vet, regardless of the nature of their service or the length of the service or anything, can come in and get access to pretty much any service that they need. And that includes, you know, getting hooked up with the VA the way you should be or just, you know, if you’re not VA eligible, getting access to other services. What we’re much better known for is we we go after veterans homelessness. We’re working to end veterans homelessness. And we do that by building villages of tiny houses with wraparound case management services to transition homeless veterans back in to permanent housing, you know, elsewhere in the community. And we do it with an 85% success rate, which is unheard of. And we were founded by combat veterans. And now all of us who lead, you know, most of us who lead the organization are combat veterans, who also are veterans of the PTSD clinic. And I joined three years ago after they were helpful to me in getting access to the VA, you know, a few months after, you know, getting a lot of therapy. And I was kind of mentoring the founders about going national and they said, hey man, why don’t you just come here full time? So three years ago, I became the president of national expansion, and we’ve now expanded to the Denver area, Saint Louis area, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, going into Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, and then we have some others come. So it’s the best civilian job I’ve ever had.

And if people go online, they can contribute to this.

Yeah, people can go to VCP dot org, which is like Veterans Community Project dot org. Also 100% of my royalties from this book go to to Veterans Community Project.

Everybody out there, do yourself a favor and buy this book, and you’ll be doing other people a solid, as well. The second thing is, you got involved in trying to rescue Afghan citizens who were helpful to the U.S. military after the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan. And we don’t have time to talk about your reaction to that whole episode. But but tell me about that and what you were able to accomplish.

Yeah, that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done with my life as far as in making the greatest impact. You know, it started with myself and a battle buddy of mine that I was over there with wanting to help these four guys who, you know, we knew through our service there and had worked with with the Americans and, you know, a 20-year war, now they all got families. And we wanted to help get them out. We weren’t able to get them in through the airport. And the short version is, we wound up putting together this enormous effort where a whole bunch of other veterans, Afghan veterans, came our way with their own people that they needed to get out, who also had families. So three weeks after the the U.S. left Afghanistan, we were part of staging a four day fake wedding in Mazar e Sharif, Afghanistan, as a cover to keep the Taliban from realizing that all the people they were looking for were in one place so that we could then get them inside the airport to get on a chartered aircraft that we had fundraised to to to get a hold of, then flew them out. After that, we started this thing, Afghan Rescue Project, because we realized, oh, we kind of know how to do this. And now we’ve gotten about 2,000 people out working in many cases with the State Department. Unfortunately, you know, a lot of those people are in the proper pipeline or getting resettled. The original 350 plus who we got out, including our own people that we got into this to help, are still in Albania. Almost all of them are still in Albania awaiting processing to come to the U.S. And I’m eager to see, you know, the State Department and this administration bring those people in. In fact, Saint Louis, Missouri, is ready to receive all of them.

We have an obligation to do that.

I hope that we do that soon. And then finally, so moving to read about your sort of reconciliation with your, not just your PTSD, but with your family, and now you’re True’s Little League coach. You have a new child, Bella.

Tell me about your life now.

My life now is exactly where I want it to be. And it’s funny because I know, and I appreciate that you didn’t ask about this, because you’ve been there and you understand, I know how likely it is that a lot of people, maybe before they read the book, will view the fact that I wrote this book through a political lens, because I understand that a lot of people view me through a political lens.

Right, and because you were known as a very ambitious, on the on-the-go politician.

Absolutely. And I can’t be mad about that, because, look, that version of me, you know, bequeathed to this version of me a substantial platform from which I can do good things. But it’s always funny to me when people are like, well, okay, he’s going to run, he’s going to do, he’s positioning. And I just think, if these people, like, spent a day with me, you know, like my life right now is like I have this job I love that, you know, if somebody were to offer me, you know, a Cabinet position or a Senate seat, I would not take it. I like the job I have.

And you, in fact, had an opportunity to be considered for a cabinet position and you turned it down.

Yeah. And so I have those things. I have this, I’ve gone from this relationship with my son where I didn’t feel like a good dad, I didn’t feel like a real presence in his life to I drop him off at school pretty much every morning. I’m the one who picks him up. I’m the one who, you know, because, you know, how in a marriage you have division of labor. Diana does obviously more than 50%.

And she’s got her own career expansive portfolio.

Yeah, she’s thriving. And, you know, but I get to, often be the one who walks into my daughter’s room. She’s almost two. In the morning and she says, Daddy, and, you know, and I get to be the one who reads her the book at night, you know, and I’m around. And and but I also still have the luxury of I have this platform. So when there’s something I want to say, I can usually say it, and I can have most people that I want to hear hear it, but I get to do stuff for me now. I’ve come to this point where I realize, like, instead of feeling like I didn’t do enough, I feel like I have done enough, and I’ve earned the right to be my son’s Little League coach, to play, I play for the Kansas City Hustlers. I play on an adult baseball, not softball team. I love it. I do things. I never do anything anymore. This is my rule. I never do anything so that I can do something else. I do things because they’re important, and I care about them, and I don’t do them for any other reason. And it is it’s really gratifying.

Well, I know you haven’t ruled out a return to public life, but let me say that you’ve had a positive impact on a lot of lives already. But there are two lives, True and Bella’s lives, that will be richer and happier for the attention that you’re giving them. And so congratulations for that. That’s something to be really proud of and something to savor and relish and protect.

Oh, thanks, Axe. I appreciate it, man. Thank you.

And please read this book, “Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD,” by Jason Kander, but also with his extraordinary wife, Diana, as a coauthor without her name on the cover of the book, but a great contributor. And it’s a really, really poignant and moving and important read. Jason Kander, great to be with you.

Thank you for listening to The Axe Files, brought to you by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio. The executive producer of the show is Allison Siegel. The show is also produced by Miriam Finder Annenberg, Jeff Fox and Hannah Grace McDonald. And special thanks to our partners at CNN, including Rafeena Ahmad, Courtney Coupe and Megan Marcus. For more programing from the IOP, visit politics dot u Chicago dot edu.