Sometimes Seth Moulton would wake with a start, in the middle of the night, his sheets drenched from sweat.
Then he would see the boy.
He’d always see the boy. Every day. And every night.
The boy was lying in the middle of a road in Iraq, in distress, injured. And the vehicles Moulton and the platoon of Marines he led were riding in passed by. It was SOP in a combat zone. They would have been sitting ducks for an ambush if they stopped, so they just kept going, until the image of that stricken little boy disappeared into the dust.
This was 10 years ago, after Moulton served four combat tours in Iraq, before he became a congressman, before he became a presidential candidate. He was in grad school, sitting there in class, thinking to himself, “What am I doing here? My God, this is so self-serving.”
It was about that time that Seth Moulton had an honest conversation with himself, a conversation that concluded with him admitting that he had post-traumatic stress, that what he carried in war he carried home. And he had to confront it head on, lest he leave it there in the recess of his brain, smoldering like a lit cigarette dropped into a sofa’s cushions.
Last year, Seth Moulton and I had a long talk about his friend, Jason Kander, an Army veteran who withdrew from the Kansas City mayoral race he was virtually guaranteed of winning, to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress from his service in Afghanistan.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Moulton was wrestling with his own decision to come out, to admit to his constituents, to the wider public, that he had struggled with his own mental health, that he continues to see a therapist for periodic checkups. He had told his fellow Marines years ago, in part because some of those Marines had also sought help, and he was inspired by them.
But it was also seeing some Marines and other veterans with more debilitating conditions that caused Moulton to hesitate in seeking help, and going public about it.
“It was not an easy decision for me to seek treatment,” Moulton told me. “Partly because my symptoms were more minor than many of the vets I knew. I’ve never felt suicidal. I’ve never driven down a highway worried that a bomb would go off. So I was reluctant to get help. I didn’t want to take resources away from anyone else.
“There had been some pretty bad combat, but I had come out OK. I wasn’t physically wounded. There were guys who had come home missing arms and legs. Also, I didn’t have the worst post-traumatic stress symptoms. There were times when I questioned if I had post-traumatic stress at all. But eventually I decided it was the right thing to do, to get help, and I’m a lot better now as a result.”
It’s not a simple calculation for a politician. The desire to confront the stigma bumps up against the cold, hard reality that by self-identifying as someone with mental health struggles, you will allow some people to stigmatize you: the head case.
Your enemies will portray you as soft, flighty, too fragile to be the person making the big decisions.
But Moulton eventually came to the realization that the very act of publicly admitting human vulnerability qualifies someone to be a leader, to be a fair and decent arbiter of public priorities and resources.
“To be honest,” he said, “I was scared of the political consequences. I’ve talked a lot about the importance of courage in politics, and I’ve always tried to exhibit it. But this is a place where I didn’t have that courage, to share the full story.
“And it bothered me, because it’s an issue that’s important to me. One of the principles of leadership is leadership by example. Here I am, in Congress, advocating for veterans, talking about mental health issues, talking about mental health care for everybody in America. It felt almost disingenuous to not admit that it was something I had dealt with myself.
“And here I am now, applying for the most important leadership position in the world, so I better lead by example.”
Moulton is not convinced what he’s done is politically wise. His gut, like his knowledge of history, tells him he may have hurt his chances to rise in the presidential polls.
But he was not acting with political expediency in mind so much as personal accountability. He couldn’t stand there and insist he was qualified to be the most powerful person in the world if he wasn’t willing to admit that even the president of the United States can be vulnerable to the human condition.
“Sadly, history suggests this probably hurts me,” he said. “There’s a long history of presidents who dealt with issues like this. Lincoln was depressed . . . but it was a huge burden on him. Ulysses S. Grant was depressed both before he led the Union army and before he was president. He obviously had ongoing issues. You think about all the presidents who have seen combat and seen fellow Americans die: Teddy Roosevelt, John Kennedy, George H.W. Bush. None of these presidents talked about this. I hope I can change that precedent, that this will be an example for all Americans, that we need to end the stigma around mental health.”
The early polling doesn’t look good. Moulton is having trouble gaining traction in the crowded Democratic field.
But even if he doesn’t make it to the debates, even if he crashes out early, by putting mental health care front and center, if only for a fleeting moment in a campaign cycle that has the attention span of a gnat, his campaign will have been worthwhile.
He still thinks about that little Iraqi boy. The difference is, it does not overwhelm him. He thinks about the boy at a time of his own choosing. And it makes him want to be a better human being.
When it comes to the things that haunt us, and the things we carry, we should all be so lucky.