You don’t have to be a politician to endorse Jason Kander’s message.
The former Army intelligence officer and Afghanistan vet halted his promising campaign for mayor of Kansas City, Mo., for an important reason. He is suffering from depression and has PTSD symptoms.
His post on Medium announcing his decision is unflinchingly honest:
About four months ago, I contacted the VA to get help. It had been about 11 years since I left Afghanistan as an Army Intelligence Officer, and my tour over there still impacted me every day. 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. I can’t have PTSD, I told myself, because I didn’t earn it.
But, on some level, I knew something was deeply wrong, and that it hadn’t felt that way before my deployment. After 11 years of this, I finally took a step toward dealing with it, but I didn’t step far enough.
I went online and filled out the VA forms, but I left boxes unchecked—too scared to acknowledge my true symptoms. I knew I needed help and yet I still stopped short. I was afraid of the stigma. I was thinking about what it could mean for my political future if someone found out.
And now we know.
I asked Lt. General Nadja West, the 44th U.S. Army Surgeon General and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Medical Command, what she thought of Kander’s post. “I’m convinced it will save lives,” she says. West is an extraordinary person in her own right. She’s the Army’s first black, female, 3-star general, and is currently tasked with transforming the way the military dispenses medical care, now and in the future.
Her own guiding philosophy is simple but profound: “If we can train empathy, we can make almost any change happen.”
Kander’s post was an exercise in empathy training.
“You know people in the military are tough—they hurt themselves they want to rub dirt on it, wrap it in duct tape and keep going,” said West, summing up military culture. But you can’t outrun the invisible wounds of war, she says. Nor, should you want to. “PTSD is real and you can’t handle it without expert help. The only thing that stops people getting the help they need is the stigma.”
Kander’s decision to step out of the race to seek treatment is the best way he can preserve his future, political or otherwise. “It isn’t weakness, it’s strength,” says West.
But his announcement is a necessary reminder that plenty of others may also be suffering, and afraid to seek help. Keep vets and their families top of mind says West. Empathy and support are “thanks from a grateful nation” in action.
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