When Jason Kander, a rising star in Democratic politics, withdrew from the Kansas City, Mo., mayor’s race earlier this month to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress and depression stemming from his service as an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan, it seemed a shock for two reasons.
First, the announcement brought to a crashing halt, at least for now, his bright political future.
And second, Kander’s four-month tour in the Afghan war, ended 11 years ago. He had since launched both a political career and a family. Why the sudden need for treatment, so long out of the war zone? Why the welling up now of suicidal thoughts?
People who are intimately familiar with the insidious nature of service-related traumatic stress and depression say it should have come as no shock. Kander’s struggle — and his candor about it — is a necessary reminder of something often lost as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fade in the rear-view mirror of public consciousness: Even as fewer American service members deploy overseas and engage in combat, more are experiencing or confronting the invisible wounds of war they returned with, even many years ago.
And with Kander, 37, coming forward, experts expect more veterans who are suffering quietly will surface and admit — as he did — that what was experienced during deployment had been smouldering inside all along, like a cigarette dropped between sofa cushions.
“What he did, seeking treatment and talking about it so publicly, is inspiring,” said Dr. Terence Keane, the Boston-based director of the Veterans Administration’s National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “We’ve seen that lessening stigma means more people come forward. He will save lives.”
Kander’s decision to put his political career on hold and seek treatment came just a week after the VA released a study showing that veterans are taking their lives at a rate 1.5 times more than the general public. The VA study found an alarming increase in the suicide rate among veterans ages 18 to 34, the generation that served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The suicide rate among that group of veterans jumped more than 10 percent from 2015 to 2016, the most recent available statistics.
The study found that veterans in Massachusetts, and in the Northeast in general, are taking their lives at a rate similar to the national average for veterans.
In an online posting announcing his decision to suspend his campaign and seek treatment at the VA’s facility in Kansas City, Kander acknowledged he was hoping his personal struggle would have broader consequences.
“I decided to be public for two reasons: First, I think being honest will help me through this,” he said. “And second, I hope it helps veterans and everyone else across the country working through mental health issues realize that you don’t have to try to solve it on your own.”
Kander’s decision came at a time when his career was at an especially high trajectory. His memoir, “Outside The Wire,” became a New York Times bestseller in August. He was well ahead in the polls and had recently learned that he had raised more money in a single quarter than any Kansas City mayoral campaign in the city’s history. But Kander said all those positive things in his life could not override the feelings of hopelessness and sadness that were overwhelming him.
“So after 11 years of trying to outrun depression and PTSD symptoms, I have finally concluded that it’s faster than me,” Kander said. “That I have to stop running, turn around, and confront it.”
Jack Hammond, a retired Army brigadier general and executive director of Home Base, a Boston-based national program that treats veterans and their families suffering from post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries, said Kander’s brutally honest self-assessment has the potential to change the wider culture.
“Rather than pursue ambition, he chose to address his health,” Hammond said. “He has the potential to become the poster child not for post-traumatic stress, but for post-traumatic growth. He is not just an example for veterans, but for everyone.”
Both Keane and Hammond said more veterans are seeking help, but not nearly as many who need it, and that Kander’s decision to do so will filter down through the veterans community, spurring others to do the same.
While the VA estimates that only about 30 percent of all veterans access VA health care, Keane said approximately 44 percent of those who served post 9/11 are doing so, including those seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress.
Home Base, a national model for the private-public partnerships that have supplemented VA programs and expanded their treatment to include the families of veterans, continues to grow. Hammond said Home Base treated 300 people five years ago; this year, it will treat about 1,500. The organization recently moved to a bigger, state-of-the-art office space in Charlestown.
While he did not engage in direct combat, Kander wrote evocatively in his memoir of the consuming fear of driving the roads of Afghanistan that were lined with improvised explosive devices and lurking snipers. Like many veterans who served in combat theaters, and even those who didn’t, Kander minimized what he experienced, reasoning he didn’t deserve to be categorized with those who engaged in firefights and witnessed death and traumatic injuries firsthand.
“So many men and women who served our country did so much more than me and were in so much more danger than I was on my four-month tour,” Kander wrote online. “I can’t have PTSD, I told myself, because I didn’t earn it.”
Kim Ruocco, a Newbury resident who directs suicide prevention for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which works with the families of service members who commit suicide, said Kander’s message is particularly helpful in persuading veterans who didn’t see what is traditionally considered combat to acknowledge their service can still produce conditions that are health- and life-threatening.
“The best outcome for Jason, and for all vets, would be for him to get healthy, come back, and run again,” said Ruocco, whose husband John, a Marine pilot, killed himself three months after returning from Iraq. “Jason is changing the conversation.”
Both Hammond and Keane said Kander has a good chance of regaining his health and resuming his career, as effective models for the treatment of post-traumatic stress have improved and increased dramatically in recent years. So, too, has the demand.
Representative Seth Moulton, a Marine veteran and friend of Kander, said he believes Kander will come back stronger than ever, inspiring a generation of veterans not only by seeking help, but by showing that treatment works.
Kander and Moulton traded texts after Kander announced he was seeking treatment.
“I just told him how much I admired what he was doing, and that he wasn’t alone,” Moulton said.
Kevin Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org