Insights and Impact

Calm After the Storm


portrait of jason kander with a light green filter

On October 2, 2018, Jason Kander was closing a record-setting fundraising quarter in the race for Kansas City mayor. It was very likely that he would be elected to lead his hometown the following June. And he was seconds away from publishing a letter that would stop short his ascendant political career.

Abe Rakov, Kander’s longtime campaign manager, paused before hitting send. “Are you sure this what you want people to remember about you?”

He was sure, maybe prescient. “I need there to be some good that comes out of this.”

They hugged. A misty-eyed Kander said, “It sucks to feel so weak.”

The campaign manager reassured his candidate. “There’s nothing weak about what you’re doing.”

If you’re not from Missouri, then your first impression of Kander, SPA/BA ’02, was likely as a picture of strength. He assembled an AR-15—blindfolded—in an ad calling for stronger background checks while running for United States Senate in fall 2016. The following year, the Let America Vote founder made the rounds on cable news as he crisscrossed the country building awareness of voter suppression and his profile as a Democratic presidential hopeful.

But the letter, “I Suffer from Depression and Have PTSD Symptoms,” which exuded a transparency and vulnerability rare for politics, required more fortitude than anything else that came before.

“I thought if I focused exclusively on service to my neighbors in my hometown, that I could fill the hole inside of me. But it’s just getting worse,” he wrote. “So after 11 years of trying to outrun depression and PTSD symptoms, I have finally concluded that it’s faster than me. That I have to stop running, turn around, and confront it.” 

In the prologue of Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD, published in early July, Kander outlines a lifesaving pivot made just a day prior, when the former army intelligence officer walked into the Kansas City Veterans Affairs Medical Center, drawing doubletakes from employees who recognized him as he scrawled answers on an intake form.

“Have you had suicidal thoughts?” Yes.

“Have you experienced intrusive dark thoughts?” Yes. “For how long?” Ten Years. Staff made Kander trade his belt and street clothes for loose, dark-green scrubs. He waited on a hospital bed in a windowless room with a nurse nearby.

“So this was suicide watch,” he writes in Invisible Storm’s opening pages. After a decade of burying his PTSD under a mountain of nonstop work, Kander acknowledged his symptoms—shame, anger, night terrors, constant fear for his family—to a psychiatric resident who, for a change, had no idea who he was. And to himself.

A great uncle remarked as Kander later began therapy that it was about “getting a master’s in yourself.” Nearly four years later, Invisible Storm is “the book that I wish had existed 10 years ago, because I think if I had had it available to read, I would have gone and gotten treatment then,” he says. It serves as a thesis of his ongoing work on himself and, Kander hopes, a resource for readers ready to begin their own.

A day before his graduation from Georgetown Law School, a significant responsibility—a second lieutenant’s gold bar—rested on Kander’s shoulder.

Four years earlier, during his final year at AU, he was turned away from a busy blood donation line on 9/11 by a worker who encouraged him to “find some other way to help.” Kander resolved to serve in the military, enrolling in ROTC at Georgetown in 2002 and earning his commission in 2005.

Kander felt tremendous pride in the uniform, but it wasn’t until he volunteered for a four-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2006 with the Army National Guard that he felt he’d earned the right to wear it. As an intelligence officer—a “gossip columnist in Kevlar”—he and his interpreter, Salam, drove around greater Kabul in an unarmored Mitsubishi Pajero, meeting with Afghan army intelligence officials to collect information on everything from planned attacks on US forces to corrupt government leaders  in cahoots with Al Qaeda or in business with heroin traffickers. “I heard stories of espionage, incompetence, and outright insanity,” Kander writes. He wasn’t in any firefights, but his resting state was a persistently heightened one. He spent hours each day with dangerous people and without backup, and his anxiety ratcheted up when convoys were forced to stop in traffic. “That’s combat trauma, no matter how you slice it,” a clinical social worker later told him. “And when you came home, what did you do for a living? You went to more high-stakes meetings.”

Kander left Afghanistan, but Afghanistan never left his mind. It was why he needed to eat facing the door of a restaurant and why he couldn’t sleep near strangers on planes. It was why he battled insomnia and recurring nightmares of being kidnapped. And why he roamed the house with a Louisville Slugger or a .357 revolver to check for intruders.

But the ghosts of Afghanistan didn’t haunt Kander alone. Spliced throughout Invisible Storm are passages from his wife of nearly 20 years, Diana, a New York Times bestselling author and innovation consultant, who recounts her secondary PTSD. “When you live with someone who constantly tells you how dangerous the world is, how vulnerable you and your family are, you start to believe it,” she writes. She also offers the perspective of somebody living with and trying to love someone with PTSD. It’s a critical insight because “the vast majority of people who will read this book probably don’t have PTSD, but they might have somebody in their life who has trauma,” Kander says.

For him, that trauma lurked inside—the invisible wounds of war—and was accelerated by a meteoric political rise. At 31, Kander became Missouri’s secretary of state and the nation’s youngest statewide elected official. At 35, he narrowly lost a US Senate race to incumbent Roy Blunt, outperforming Hilary Clinton in Missouri by 16 points. And at 36, in a one-on-one meeting with Barack Obama, the former president told Kander, “You have what I had. You’re the natural.” But even during the highest highs—like crushing the keynote at the 2018 McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner, the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s biggest fundraiser—he felt numb.

“It just got to a point where it was so much to carry, and I was exhausted,” he says. The decision to step away came after a “gradual wearing down” made him realize the weight of his life had become too heavy.

After his 2016 Senate race yielded a faint no, Kander said only yes. Let America Vote expanded rapidly—and strategically into early primary states. Invitations to speak at colleges and galas multiplied. Between spring 2017 and 2018, he boarded 300 flights and visited 46 states. A weekly scheduling call at 2:30 p.m. on Mondays—a source of guilt, as it cut into family time—featured more than a dozen staffers carving up his availability.

So when life ground to a halt, “it was brutal at first because there were no distractions,” Kander says. “I spent 10 years keeping my mind occupied so that I wouldn’t have to contend with [PTSD]. And now I didn’t have that luxury at all.”

He also realized, once Veterans Community Project cofounder Bryan Meyer helped him navigate the VA’s complex bureaucracy, that if he wanted to “sleep through the night” and “feel good [about himself] without external validation,” he couldn’t be a passenger to his progress. Nick Heinecke, Kander’s VA therapist, instructed him to record himself recounting difficult stories from his deployment, then play them back without distraction and “feel the feelings.” He challenged Kander to embrace in vivo therapy and spend 45 minutes at a time engaging in activities he had dodged for a decade, like walking around a park wearing headphones.

Heinecke also helped Kander to stop shrugging off the details of his deployment. In Afghanistan, he convinced himself that other soldiers—those who were ambushed or maimed or blown up—had it worse. That allowed him to process his deployment, keeping him focused and alive. But back home, without deprogramming, shame washed over Kander when he thought of his deployment, and he convinced himself that he hadn’t earned the right to be affected by it.

Kander has worked hard to stop minimizing his battle wounds by comparing them to others. But it’s a hard habit to shake. As he was writing Invisible Storm, he began “aw shucks-ing my experience,” he says. “I would catch myself writing sentences explaining that it was no big deal compared to what my friends were doing. Then I realized, ‘Wait, this book is not about trying to protect myself from somebody thinking my combat experience wasn’t worthy. It’s about how I felt.’”

Not in a straight line, not all the time, but in time, Kander felt better. Stories of PTSD are all too common (an estimated 354 million adults around the world live with war-related mental trauma, according to the European Journal of Psychotraumatology). While post-traumatic growth is also highly attainable with treatment, limited exposure to success stories “was a huge impediment in convincing me to try and get help,” says Kander. “When you think that PTSD is a terminal diagnosis from a life and career perspective, it’s a diagnosis you’re going to work very hard to avoid.”

Heinecke gave Kander’s PTSD a name—“The Monster”—and the tools to recognize and tame it. In fall 2021, as Kabul fell to the Taliban, Kander jumped into action, establishing the Afghan Rescue Project. The endeavor has been rewarding—raising enough funds to help more than 1,000 people escape—and also the greatest challenge to his mental health since he first sought treatment. Kander returned this spring for another round of trauma-focused therapy.

“I just started this week, actually,” he said in late April, “and it’s already helping.”

Two humid nights each week during the summer—three if he’s not coaching one of his son True’s Little League games—Kander roams the outfield grass at the Mid-American Sports Complex in Shawnee, Kansas. Out there, he’s not a former or future presidential hopeful, but the center fielder for the Kansas City Hustlers, a group of guys in their 30s and 40s—many of them former college or pro players—who still pop the leather and swing the lumber as part of the National Adult Men’s Baseball League.

America’s pastime helps Kander stay in shape and work out his stress, but most importantly, these summer diamond days remind him that a life the size of the Kansas City metro area feels full.

Kander used to think that a good life meant a big one, and “I’ve realized that I’m making a big impact, but I’m happiest in moments where I keep my life very small,” Kander says. He plays most games on the same two fields where he played during his last high school summer. True dutifully serves as bat boy. His parents watch from the metal bleachers. “There’s something really comforting about that.”

Still, Kander has “the opportunity to speak up whenever I want.” He was not a candidate for president in 2020, but he headlined virtual fundraising events, served on the DNC platform committee, and advised Democratic hopefuls on national security policy and veterans’ issues. Majority 54, his podcast, counts tens of thousands of Americans among its weekly listeners. And as Veterans Community Project’s president of national expansion, charged with broadening the nonprofit’s footprint of transitional housing and support services for vets, Kander has “no doubt whatsoever about whether it’s meaningful.” (He is also donating all book royalties to VCP.) In addition, he no longer doubts whether he can deliver that meaning while staying healthy and being present for his loved ones.  

The family has made a holiday of October 2—the day marking Kander’s PTSD announcement and exit from the Kansas City mayoral race. “All of us find something in our lives that hasn’t been serving us, and we say no to it,” Diana writes.

Right now, Kander is saying no to politics “until I know I can make a difference every single day as a politician and enjoy my life.” He is flattered when people tell him they miss him and wish he were still running—and irked when it’s implied he must: for himself, Missouri, the country, or the Democratic party.

“I’m in public service and still trying to serve other Americans, but I’m not doing it because I owe it to myself or to anybody. I’m doing it because it’s what I want to do,” Kander says. “If at some point I decide I want to do it at a deeper level, OK, but it won’t be because I owe it to anybody.”

People might not like hearing that, he admits, but it’s a conclusion that took him years of hard work—a master’s worth—to reach.

“For me, it’s an important realization. It’s a place I really needed to get to,” Kander says. “I’m glad I did.”

Excerpt from Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD by Jason Kander

People often ask me what finally caused me to get help. Well, I’m about to tell you how it went down, but you have to understand that if it hadn’t happened this way, it would have happened some other way, a few days or a few weeks later. 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.

For a few weeks, an obscure notion had been circling in my mind: I was at some sort of crossroads. It often manifested as a line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

One night at the end of September, after yet another stressful day of simultaneously running for mayor and leading Let America Vote, I felt I had hit a new low—a sense that whereas things had been getting steadily worse for years, now for a few months they’d been getting worse even faster, which was frightening. Sitting next to Diana on the couch in our living room, I was struck by the idea that it was time to try anything.

I was still holding on to the idea that perhaps I could stop the problem where it was—or at least escape the increasingly common feeling that if I stopped existing, things would be better for everyone. This thought process—like a tiny seedling of hope sprouting through a crack in the pavement of depression—had been percolating for a couple of weeks. That’s why I’d already looked up the number for the Veterans Crisis Line.

I didn’t want to die, or at least I didn’t want to want to die, and I vaguely understood that I should take these feelings seriously. I decided I’d try again at the VA. This time, instead of filling out an online form, I’d just call, even though I assumed they’d tell me to go away. I was really timid about it. I went to our bedroom to make the phone call in private. I want to talk to someone, but I’m not really in crisis, I told myself. I’m just confused and looking for someone who might understand, someone who might have an idea of what the heck I need to do. I felt guilty for taking up time on the hotline that could’ve been used for someone more worthy. As the phone rang, I felt like an imposter.

The woman on the other end of the phone line took me by surprise with one of her first questions: “Have you had suicidal thoughts?” she asked.

I had never acknowledged this to anyone except Diana. I said yes. I expected the woman to be shocked. She wasn’t fazed at all. She just asked me to walk her through it, to tell her where I served, how I was feeling. I just started crying—just saying the words out loud was like shattering the glass and pulling the fire alarm and setting off the sprinkler system. She replied calmly, “Okay, you’re going to need to head into your local VA and get enrolled in the system. We’ll call and check up on your progress in the coming days.”

I was floored by the tone of her voice. Apparently I was just like anybody else she talked to that night, just like all those vets I’d spoken to over the years.

I hung up the phone, walked back out to the living room, and immediately googled “post-traumatic stress disorder.” This time I read the information with an open mind, not just to prove to myself I didn’t have it—and it was like the description had been written about me.

Standing in the kitchen, leaning on Diana, I cried. Hard. Like my entire body was a wet rag and someone was just twisting and wringing every drop of grief out of me.

For a long time that evening, Diana just held me. I lay there on the couch, my head in her lap, staring at the ceiling, wondering what the hell I was going to do. What we were going to do.

I had been hurt over there. I had been wounded. And all this time, I didn’t know.

And that’s when I finally said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Copyright 2022. Reprinted with permission from Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.