When Failure is Not an Option

Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify

Jason Kander: Destigmatizing PTSD While Continuing to Serve

| S:1 E:43
Jason Kander: Destigmatizing PTSD While Continuing to Serve

Jason Kander, an Army Veteran and former candidate for Senate in Missouri, talks about his struggle with PTSD and his continuing public service.

Jason served as an intel officer in Afghanistan and as Secretary of State of Missouri, before his Senate campaign in 2016 catapulted him onto the national stage. Despite an extremely promising mayoral race in Kansas City, he decided to step away from the public eye and focus on dealing with his PTSD. Now, he serves as the president of the Veteran’s Community Project.

Check out Jason’s Podcast, Majority 54

Follow Jason on Twitter, @jasonkander

Ken Harbaugh:

Ken Harbaugh: Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.

Jason Kander:

If you fell down the stairs and you broke your arm and you knew you'd broken your arm, you wouldn't then see somebody who broke their arm and the bone was sticking out and go, "Well, I should not go get treatment for this arm." You wouldn't do that. So why would we do that with an injury to our brain?

Ken Harbaugh:

My guest today is Jason Kander. He served as an intel officer in Afghanistan, as secretary of state from Missouri. And then in an extraordinary Senate race in Missouri in 2016, he was catapulted onto the national stage. He's been a pioneer in Democratic political organizing and was talked about by President Obama himself as the kind of Democrat who gives him hope. But Jason left all that, stepped away from politics for deeply personal reasons, which we'll touch on today. And he now serves as president of the Veterans Community Project. Jason, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Jason Kander:

Thanks, Ken. Happy to be here, thanks for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

You bet. Honored to have you on. I'll start with I guess the most personal question I can ask, man, how are you doing?

Jason Kander:

I'm doing great actually. And not like in that social protocol etiquette way where you ask that question and dudes just go, "Oh, I'm great," no matter what. They can literally be on fire and they're like, "I'm fine, everything's great." But no, I am great. I live in Kansas City, and I'm raising sixth generation Kansas Citians. I have a seven-year-old boy whose little league team I coach. And I have an eight-month-old little girl who is, and I'm bragging, but it's a fact, the perfect baby. I'm married to my high school sweetheart, and we have a really fantastic and very obedient and beautiful dog. And we just got back from vacation last night. My mental health is great. I work out six days a week, and I'm playing baseball, like an adult baseball team. Hard ball, not softball.

I have a game tonight, and it doesn't look like it's going to rain. And I have the best job I've ever had as a civilian as the president of Veterans Community Project. Plus, I still have a podcast, so I still get to mouth off about politics all the time. Life is very, very good, and I am very blessed.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, it's such a fulfilling answer given where you've been and where you've come from. And I think most of the listeners to this show will know a lot of your story, but I think it would help others to provide a little of the context for that. Not long ago, you were experiencing this meteoric rise. You were the frontrunner in the mayoral race in Kansas City. That's selling you short, you'd be the mayor of Kansas City right now if you had stayed on that escalator. And you stepped away from it. Can you give us the backstory?

Jason Kander:

Sure. So I served in Afghanistan in ‘06, ‘07, I was a military intelligence officer. My job was, my boss over there, my commander liked to refer to it as THUGINTS. For those listening who are familiar with the intelligence world, you have different INTS. You have SIGINTS, which is Signals Intelligence. You have HUMINTS, which is human intelligence. He dubbed what we did, it's not a doctrinal term, he dubbed it THUGINTS, which just meant that we built relationships with thugs so they would give us information on other thugs. And so that's what I did. I ran around sometimes in street clothes building these relationships, going to these meetings oftentimes just myself and my translator. And my objective was to not get kidnapped, which obviously I was successful in that objective given that I'm a guest on your podcast right now.

But it was at times traumatic, and it took me about 11 years to actually acknowledge that. Combat was not conventional John Wayne movie combat for me. It was a lot of being in a room and doing the calculations on how many potential bad guys there were between me and various exits, which doors I needed to have an eye on, that kind of thing. And meeting with people of questionable allegiances. My job was to investigate corruption and espionage within the Afghan government, which is to say to figure out which bad guys were pretending to be good guys. And the only way to do that was to spend a fair amount of time basically alone with those people in places where people didn't know where I was. And it took me a long time to acknowledge that that could be traumatic.

So I came home, and I had pretty standard symptoms that I guess in retrospect I should have seen. I saw them, but I didn't acknowledge them, violent nightmares every night. I went about 11 years without a decent night's sleep. Hypervigilance, which is to say not being able to have my back to a door and be comfortable, always feeling like myself and my family were in danger. And then that graduated to shame and self-loathing. And then eventually after several years, that graduated to depression. Because if you don't get any sleep for a decade and you are constantly feeling like you're in danger, that can be depressing. And then that eventually graduated to suicidal thoughts.

In the meantime, as you said, yeah, I was basically running for president. I was in Iowa and New Hampshire a lot, I campaigned in 46 or 47 states in a year and a half. Was on that rocket ship. Had a New York Times bestselling memoir, the number one podcast in the country. Things are going well. And I was just exhausted from all of it. And not from the work, but from the symptoms. And at one point, actually, it was right at the point where we were pretty much ready to be announcing for president, it was pretty obvious we were running, I decided that I was going to go home. And instead of running for president, I was going to become mayor of my hometown, Kansas City. I said go home, but I never left, I just was on airplanes all the time. And so I was going to do that, and I was going to go to the VA.

And the campaign was going great, it was unfair. I mean, everybody talks about name recognition, I had 100% face recognition. And I never had a race like that, it should have been really fun. But it wasn't because of what was going on with me personally. And I also didn't keep my promise to myself and I didn't go to the VA because I still wouldn't acknowledge that it was PTSD. And then it spiraled bad enough that I didn't really have a choice. And so I pulled out of public life, I pulled out of the race for mayor. I pulled back from my organization that I created, Let America Vote. And I just dedicated myself to weekly therapy at the VA. And it made a huge difference in my life, enormous. It saved my life, and was the best decision I ever made.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, you didn't just dedicate yourself to weekly therapy, you talked about it. And you made a point of not hiding what you were doing. That decision, to be open, saved lives. Not just yours, but others. And I don't say that hypothetically, I say that because people have come to me and said, "Jason Kander, I never met the guy, but he saved my life."

Jason Kander:

I guess I feel sometimes a little odd about it just because I felt like I was just doing what I needed to do for me. I do recognize though, and I give myself credit for the fact that I chose to be public about it. And I chose to be public about it because I wished that 10 years ago, somebody like me had done that. And I think if they had, I probably would have got treatment a lot earlier and would have addressed this a long time ago, and it probably would not have gotten so bad. It's why I'm currently writing a book about post-traumatic growth because that book doesn't exist. And I think if I had read that a decade ago plus, I would have got treatment a lot earlier.

If somebody had written a book that said actually you can get better, so I'm writing that book. And I wish that everybody who made the choice to address their mental health got that sort of positive feedback that I am fortunate enough to get that people who they don't know will literally stop them on the street and say you saved my life. Because the truth is that we all live somewhat public lives at this point. I mean, you don't have to have hundreds of thousands of followers in social media to be somewhat public. I mean, that's the interconnected world. And so if you are open about your choice to get help for anything including mental health, it will help a lot of people. And the other thing is it'll help you because it makes it where you don't feel like you have to do it alone.

For me as a very well-known person, because I had considered the idea of stepping back and just saying, "Oh, no, I really need to focus on Let America Vote because of the fight for voter rights is getting so important." There were a lot of ways to do that. But I also recognized that I would still be hiding this, and I'd still be carrying that thing that I was hiding. And that was unacceptable. And so I just tell anybody if it's worth it to let your coworkers, your social circle know, because you don't know which one of them you're going to give license to save their own life. And because it'll free you of the feeling that you've got to put on a face.

Ken Harbaugh:

You're such an inspiring example of that, and I want to talk about post-traumatic growth in particular in a second. But is it just me or is there like no popular depiction of the PTSD survivor? It's always someone who's damaged goods for the rest of their lives, especially if you're talking about a veteran. It's The Punisher or someone like that. Given how prevalent the actual success stories are, and you're just one example among millions, why don't we hear that story?

Jason Kander:

It's not just you, you're 100% right, and it's a huge problem. It's such a problem that I was months into my therapy regimen, and I was getting better. My symptoms were much, much better, and I started to feel really guilty about it. And I brought it up to my therapist and I was like, "Why am I getting better when nobody else seems to get better? Did I even have PTSD or am I just some kind of asshole?" And he laughed and he's like, "Well, the problem is that there are no depictions, nonfiction or fiction, in the media or in popular culture of people who have addressed their PTSD and gotten better." You don't get cured, but it's like I got a real bad knee injury before I went into the army, I had to have surgery. I have to ice my knee after I go for a long run, but I can go on a long run. That's what it is now, I know what the symptoms are and I know how to manage that part, and it doesn't disrupt my life.

Well, I didn't know that was a thing. And he had to pull out studies, VA studies, and show me that the vast majority of people who commit to the work and do the homework and commit to the program, they get better. And that's why I'm now writing this book that'll come out in about a year about post-traumatic growth because I recognized that the role I was able to play was an important one by stepping forward and saying I need to get help and trying to break down that stigma somewhat.

But I also recognize that I now have an opportunity to be the person who they can look to as, "Oh, he got better, maybe I can get better." Because the truth is that we hear all the time this message for combat veterans in particular, that is, "Hey, it's not an act of weakness to address your mental health, it's an act of strength." And that's great, and it's right. And it needed to be said, and we've said it so much that I think people have bought into that. I think most people believe that. Now what we have to do is we have to get across that PTSD is not a terminal diagnosis. That to be diagnosed with PTSD doesn't need to mean that you're going to lose your job, and eventually you lose your wife. It means that you get to start getting better, and we’ve got to get that across to people.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can we also make the point that the vast majority, 90 plus percent of Americans who suffer from PTSD never served in uniform?

Jason Kander:

That's exactly right. It's just trauma.

Ken Harbaugh:

It's surviving a car crash or an assault. It's a condition that anyone can experience.

Jason Kander:

I hear from a lot of people who served in the military, but I also hear from a lot of people who didn't. And they have a tendency to preface what they say with I wasn't in a war or anything. And I always stop them right there, I'm like, "That doesn't matter, my brain has no idea what your brain experienced." And I spent over 10 years ranking my trauma and comparing it to other people's. And that was a huge waste of time because it has no bearing on what's going on in my brain. If you fell down the stairs and you broke your arm and you knew you'd broken your arm, you wouldn't then see somebody who broke their arm and the bone was sticking out and go, "Well, I should not go get treatment for this arm." You wouldn't do that. So why would we do that with an injury to our brain?

Ken Harbaugh:

We now know that that kind of brain injury isn't just treatable, it's fixable. Can you talk about what you can do in terms of channeling that trauma into something positive?

Jason Kander:

The really important thing is I can do anything I want to do. There's nothing that I'm unable to do because of post-traumatic stress at this point because I've addressed the underlying symptoms. It doesn't mean that I no longer have post-traumatic stress. I'll give you an example, we just got back from vacation last night. We were in Miami for a few days. Now that everything is lifting in this post COVID-ish world, post-ish world, we went out and we were walking on this boardwalk near a beach. And there were a lot of people there. And that's actually not something that I traditionally had a huge problem with. I would be pretty alert in those situations, but it wouldn't be to the point where I couldn't function. I mean, I was a politician. I was very comfortable going to parades and that kind of thing and shaking a lot of hands. I would be eyeballing people, but I did it and I did it pretty well. My problem was if my family was there with me, it was a nearly paralyzing feeling of just going into a protective mode.

So I had my wife and my son and my daughter all with me, and we were walking down this thing. And I was feeling that hypervigilance because there's just a lot of people there, but I was aware of what it was. So the difference is in the past, it was like, this is a hairy situation, that's what was going on in my head. This is dangerous, and I got to get us through this. And then when I would, I would really believe in my head that was a very close call.

Well, now I'm like, "I know what's going on”My therapist and I always call PTSD ‘the monster’. “I know that this is the monster telling me that this is a dangerous situation, it's not really.” So I hung back behind them just a little bit, and I was watching people. But I didn't let my adrenaline spike because I was aware of what was going on.

It was a funny moment where I'm walking along and there's these bars where there's all these people sitting on patios, and there's loud music playing. And I see this dude, a big old guy in a unit PT shirt. So he's either active duty or recently came off active duty. And he's sitting there and his girlfriend is dancing and having a good time. I see him, and he's got his back right up against the wall and he's spread himself out. He can see in every direction, and I had on a shirt from where I work, a Veterans Community Project shirt. Out of all of these people, we were like two dogs at a stoplight. I saw him, and he saw me and we just nodded at each other like, "This is a lot." And then I kept walking. But the difference is when we were done, when we got back to our car, I wasn't sweating. And I could go right back into being on vacation. And that's the difference in my life, there's nothing I can't do because I'm aware of my symptoms, and they're not in charge. And that's just an example, that doesn't happen very often anymore.

So it takes a lot. I don't have bad dreams anywhere near as much as I used to, I used to have night terrors. I get them every once in a while, every once in a great while. When I do, they're not as severe. On a weekly basis, I have like a good dream, which is really cool. That didn't used to happen at all. And I have compassion for myself, I didn't used to have that. I don't know, I guess what I'm describing is that I'm mentally healthy. It takes maintenance, it's not permanent. I got to continue to work on it just like you would any other injury. But as long as I do, yeah, I can do whatever I want to do.

Ken Harbaugh:

I want to pivot to politics. I have to ask about the influence of the trauma you experienced in Afghanistan and the circumstances around it driving around in unarmored vehicles because we didn't plan right. The things that you've talked about, how that influenced your political thinking. And I'm going to read back to you something you said in a recent interview to get you going. I think this is about your first political campaign. You said, "By the time I was knocking on doors in Kansas City in 2007, 2008, to me, there was a very direct through line from Jalalabad Road in Afghanistan to Gregory Boulevard in Kansas City. To me, they were one in the same to the point where there was a pretty righteous anger flowing through me." That righteous anger sounds like it's fueled by some trauma.

Jason Kander:

Yeah, it was. And yet at the same time, it was well earned, you know what I mean? The context for that is I grew up privileged, there was no politician that could make a decision that was going to take food off my family's table or anything like that. So the first time I ever had the experience of seeing political decisions cause negative consequences that affected my life at all was being in armored vehicles overseas or not having the equipment that we needed. And knowing that that was because political decisions were made vis-a-vis Iraq that affected the mission in Afghanistan.

I was already like a bit of a political nerd, I was already on track to run for office likely, but that changed the way I saw politics. It changed it from seeing it as a competitive game, one I cared about, and I had views on. But I was a political science kid, so I tended to see it that way. And this colored in everything for me where I said, "Oh, there's real consequences here, and it hurts people." And so that really changed the way I saw it. I've been writing about how then I got down to the state legislature and somebody who would go on to become one of my best friends is an Iraq vet, a guy named Steven Weber who had gotten elected at the exact same time as me. Him from Columbia, Missouri and me from Kansas City, Missouri. And we're about the same age. We both went down there, we look back now and realize we were on a mission, and it was not entirely clear what the mission was, but we were very angry. So we were just knocking people over, man. It wasn't always the most deft approach. And I write about that a bit, I'm writing about that a bit now. It carried through for a long time. And it was a mix of, it was trauma, but it was a mix of this righteous indignation and this anger, but it was also a personal need. It grew into a personal need for redemption out of a feeling that I just hadn't done enough. I was there for a few months, I did one tour. I had so many friends who had done so much more, and I just felt like I hadn't done enough. I also care about my country and I believe in public service, but a lot of fire that was in me was driven by this need for personal redemption.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think that explains a lot. My follow-up was going to be, and it's probably moot now, but if you were angry about politics in 2007 and 2008, how could you not be just livid right now? But you don't seem like an angry person at heart anymore.

Jason Kander:

I signed up to be a surrogate for the Biden campaign last year. I was like, "I don't want to look back and feel like I could have done more." So I did some TV appearances and stuff speaking for the campaign, and I was happy to do it. And that for me made me feel useful. It's very hard to feel down and useful at the same time. And the thing is throughout all of this, maybe it's my upbringing, I am an inherently optimistic person. So throughout all this stuff that I was going through, I didn't really lose my optimism or entirely lose my idealism. I'm not quite sure how that is, but I didn't. So that helped. The other thing is that I'm fortunate enough to have a bit of a leadership role in the movement, I've advocated some of it happily over the last couple of years. But I remained somebody that people look to.

It kind of reminds me of- I have a paralyzing fear of Heights. But I remember being in training at Fort Lewis once, and I was the platoon leader for this mission we were on. We were taking helicopters in, it was a training mission. And I needed to sit in such a way that my feet were hanging out of the helicopter at a few thousand feet. And I have this terrible fear of heights, but I remember not feeling it at all in that moment. And I remember later looking back and being like, "Wow, I didn't even think about that." And it's because when you are in a position where people are looking to you at all, you're able to put a lot of that stuff aside. So I guess part of it for me, and part of why I have the luxury of not getting as angry about all this stuff anymore is because I do feel like I have a role to play, a leadership role to play. And even then, I would get really angry, but I could channel. I had something to channel it into, I had worked to channel it into, and I guess I still do.

Ken Harbaugh:

You have an incredibly rare vantage point now having been in the thick of it, having had a leadership role and still having a connection to that leadership role. But also having withdrawn with your honor intact not because of some scandal and able to observe from the sidelines with the degree of honesty that most people with political aspirations are careful not to betray. I don't know if there's a question there, but that's gotta be refreshing to be able to say what the heck you're thinking.

Jason Kander:

It's awesome.

Ken Harbaugh:

Like you're doing now.

Jason Kander:

No, it's great. When I reached out to the Biden campaign, I texted Jen the campaign manager like, I don't know, a few months before election day and was like, "Hey, just want to let you know, I want to be helpful, I'll do whatever you need. If it's surrogate work, great. If it's head down to the headquarters here locally and clean toilets, I don't care, I just want to help." And I was like, "And by the way, let me be the only person to say to you I don't want to move from Kansas City, so I don't want a job." And I don't think they heard that a lot. I was like, "Just deploying wherever you need me.: And then it was funny because they would come to me and they'd be like, "Okay, we need you on this Fox News program," or, "we need you on this very conservative radio program in Arizona," or whatever. They'd be like, "Are you cool with that?" Because most of the people they're dealing with had their own personal political aspirations to consider. And I had gotten it down, it was just a cute thing I did, but I meant it. I would always respond the same way, which is, "I'm just here to help the ball club." Yeah, it's great, man. Maybe I'll run for office again one day, but I'm the only guy who means it when I say I don't have any plans to do that right now. And I love what I'm doing, I'm still in public service. And yeah, it's great to not want anything out of this and to just say yes to the stuff I want to do. I don't say yes to anything that I don't want to do. Sometimes I say yes to stuff because I feel like it will be really helpful to somebody or because it's for a friend or whatever, but that means I want to do it for those reasons. Yeah, it's awesome, it's the best way to be involved in politics.

Ken Harbaugh:

For those who are skeptical, just check out Jason's Twitter feed, it should be relabeled Kander unleashed. I don't have it in front of me, but I think your profile picture is a back flip into a lake or something like that.

Jason Kander:

Yeah, it's me back flipping into a pool.

Ken Harbaugh:

You're having fun. And I wanted people to know that I could do that, that's really what that is. But you haven't entirely withdrawn, part of your having fun is engaging in aspects of politics where you can be helpful and honest. And I think the best example of that is Majority 54.

Jason Kander:

Thanks for bringing it up.

Ken Harbaugh:

It's an important example of how we're going to bend the arc as it were. Is politics going to be a scorched earth affair or can we still persuade? And if it's the latter, I'm of the opinion now with just how bad the media ecosystem is that the only way to persuade is friends talking to friends and family members talking to family members, which is really the premise of Majority 54. Can you talk about that philosophy of politics?

Jason Kander:

Sure. Well, you pretty well nailed it that you can have all the clever digital or TV ads or whatever you want. But at the end of the day, if you are going to bring people into the fold who are not currently a part of our progressive majority ... We're very clear on the show that the majority in this country is a progressive majority, but also that that's apparently not enough. And that's the reality of our political system. That if we are going to make real change, we are going to need to bring over some people who have been voting Republican. And the only really effective way to do that is with credible messengers who are already in their lives. And that means that there's always something you can do. It doesn't have to be a phone bank that you sign up for, it's staying engaged with those folks that you- Maybe now you live in New York, but you went to high school in Houston. Well, you know what, stay engaged with the people you went to high school with. If you grew up there, you got family members who voted for Trump, you don't get to cut them out of your life. And this is a controversial view within the left because I hear from people all the time who are like, "Look, no. If you voted for that guy twice, then you are a racist. And I don't have to talk to you. And in fact, it is morally wrong for me to engage you." And I'm like, "Look, that's fine. Where you live, you can probably get away with that, and you can feel good about yourself saying that, but not where we live. That ain't how it works, man, those are our neighbors."

Yes, it is terrible. But you know what, I tend to believe that everyone can be saved. Maybe not everyone, but I do tend to think that we have an obligation to try. And I know that if you already have a preexisting relationship with somebody, then you have a greater ability to do it. If they're part of your congregation where you worship, if your kid and their kid are in the same class and you're constantly seeing each other at sports and all that stuff, whatever. If you're neighbors, it doesn't matter, you are somebody who they already have put credibility into you and into that relationship. So if you are saying something to them, it will mean a lot more to them than if they see me say it inside the box on their TV because they don't know me. And that's the key.

And so on top of that what it's really about is we have tens of thousands of listeners who are just progressive who live in red states who would desperately like to still have a relationship with their aunt or their brother-in-law or their mom or their dad. And sometimes, it's not even about persuading them. Sometimes it's just about still having a relationship and being able to communicate their own views in a way that are respectful but don't drive a wedge between the two of them. And so that's what the show's about. And it is really fun that we hear from so many people who are like, "I have a relationship with this family member again," or, "because of this show, because of using the things that I've learned in this show, I got my mom who voted for Trump in 16 to vote for Biden in 20." One person said, "And now she comes with me to my Moms Demand Action meetings." That's a really cool part of doing that.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think it's the answer if it can be scaled. And if we can get Progressives talking to people who care about them and who they care about, that's the only way to bend the arc.

Jason Kander:

Yea. I think a lot of people assume when they hear about the premise of the show, I'm a Missouri guy that they think like, "Oh, well it's Blue Dog Democrat stuff." With the show, it's myself and my co-host Ravi Gupta, and we have both run campaigns, progressive campaigns, in red states, him as an operative, me as a candidate. And what the show really is, it's not how to be less liberal so people will like you, it is how to be liberal and make other people liberal too. And that's really what we're about. We're about the idea of like, "Hey, liberal ideas are good ideas, and they sell, we just got to actually sell them."

Ken Harbaugh:

I am so glad you went there. You talked about being the guy inside the box talking to folks on television. The conventional political wisdom for someone like you would be to stay away from those issues. There are certain third rails that you don't want to touch. But the point you make on Majority 54 and in your Twitter feed and just in your persona is, no, if we're right on these issues, let's find a way to talk about them. And I want you to go there. I think a great example that I heard you described was talking about transgender rights. In a community like yours, it's about kids.

Jason Kander:

The key is you got to just talk about things the way people where you're from talk about things. And that doesn't mean you’ve got to have the opinion that people where you're from have. You don't have to go with the majority opinion. For context, you mentioned the Senate race I was in earlier in 2016. Hillary Clinton lost my state by 19 points on the same day that I lost it by 2.8. I got 220,000 votes from people who voted for Trump on the same day, and I did it as a progressive. We didn't win, it's a silver medal not a gold medal. But I still think it's a pretty big accomplishment in a race that nobody thought should have been competitive at all.

And with about three weeks ago before election day, President Obama put out guidance through the department of education on transgender bathrooms for public schools. And everybody in Missouri, heck everybody in national politics at that point because they thought our race might be what makes the difference in the majority for the Senate was going, "Okay. Well, clearly now Kander is going to have to break with Obama on this." And I didn't. What I did is I just simply stated my opinion, which was the same as the president's. I just said it the way somebody from Missouri would say it, which I.E. the way I would say it. I wasn't an actor, I just said what I thought, sounded like myself, which is I said, "Look, if my opponent wants to discriminate against other people's kids, that's his business, but I don't think that's right." And period, end of story, it died. There was no response to that, and it was not a factor in the election. And I didn't in any way compromise my views, and I'm sure there were a lot of people who heard that who disagreed with my opinion. But I didn't go on some sort of tirade and self-righteous tirade about it and lecture people. I just said, "Here's what I think." And people went, "Well, yeah, I can see his point." Didn't mean they agreed with me, but they were like, "Yeah, I see that." And they just move on.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm hearing you describe that, and I'm hearing you talk about your approach to political persuasion. I mean, it begs the question, when can we see you back in the fight as a candidate? You knew I would go there, so I got to ask.

Jason Kander:

It's flattering to be asked, man. On social media or whatever, I get this question constantly. I appreciate the way you asked it, by the way because you didn't say back in the fight period, you said back in the fight as a candidate, which I appreciate that. And there's a difference because I get that question so often as, are you ever coming back? And I'm always like, I'm pretty active politically, I'm still on the board of Let America Vote, which is merged within Citizens United, which makes it the largest pro-democracy organization on the left. It's leading the fight for H.R. 1 one. I got this podcast, I speak out a lot. And I'm in public service, I'm building housing and outreach centers for veterans all over the country.

Jason Kander:

So that question bothers me. But the way you asked it, I appreciate, which is as a candidate. And now I will actually answer it, which is to say, I have no idea, and that's cool with me. I have no burning desire whatsoever right now to be back in the call room. Perhaps that will metastasize again inside me, I kind of doubt it. The good news is I probably am fortunate enough that if I choose to run for office again at this point, I probably have a reach and a following that I could raise a fair amount of money online and not have to spend a ton of time on the phone asking for money. That would be a big factor for me.

But at the end of the day, the biggest factor is this: I'm just enjoying the hell out of my family, and I'm enjoying the hell out of my life right now. And the big difference in my so many differences, one big difference in my life right now as opposed to about three years ago is that, yes, I used to think all the time about what I could run for. And then after I run for that, what could I run for next? And now I'm at a point in my life where I don't do anything so that I can do other things, I just don't. I am fortunate enough to be a newly turned 40 party elder, which is a weird thing to be at 40. But that means that I now do things because that's the thing I want to do. I don't run for anything or take any position because it might set me up to do something else, I just don't do that. I am taking what I have built, the currency that I have, and the profile I have, and I am cashing it in on things I care about like ending veterans homelessness.

That was a long way of saying because I'm enjoying the present, I don't have to avoid what's going on in my head by constantly planning the future. I'm actually living my life, and that is super refreshing and fun. To be honest, it's funny to me that people are like ... Because I'd already said I wasn't going to run for the Senate. And then when Roy Blunt announced he was retiring, I was with my team at the Veterans Community Project. We were in an F350 driving to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to meet with folks there about building a village of tiny homes for homeless veterans there. And all of a sudden, I was trending nationally on Twitter, which is how I knew Roy must've announced he was retiring. And I instantly just put out a tweet that was like, "I love what I'm doing. It has nothing to do with who I would run against, I'm not going to run."

And the reason it's funny to me is I don't know if people noticed, but I didn't take a job in the administration. And the idea that like people think that I would be jumping at the chance to get back into a campaign for the possibility of having a job that I don't even want anymore when I could have just taken a position doing something right away and chose not to. Look, man, this is a long answer, but I just joined a baseball team, I take that stuff seriously. I mean, that's a commitment, I can't be announcing for office.

I don't know. One day I may do it again, but it's going to be if I do at a time when my kids no longer want to hang out with me. And my wife and I can go do it together and just have it be a fun adventure.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, it's a good answer. I'm not going to let it go though. I mean, here's the thing, you're happy, you're healthy. You're doing all the right things as a dad and as an advocate and an activist. The country needs you. I think about those guys and those women who went down range again and again leaving their families behind, and they didn't do it as a stepping stone or something, they did it because their country called. When I think about the Senate in 22 and what's at stake, when I think about Missouri and the handful of Dems who could actually pull off a win there, you're in rare, maybe solitary company. And this is I guess more of a philosophical question, how do you balance that patriotic call against your own personal happiness and the needs of your family and your own mental health? It can't be as easy as you're making it sound.

Jason Kander:

Well, there's a couple of ways that I balance it. Obviously when some of these people start off, yeah, there's no question that there's a part of me that's like, "Oh, maybe I should be doing this." A lot of that was assuaged frankly by Biden winning because, look, anybody who was planning to run for president, I was planning to run for president because I thought that I would be the best person to be commander in chief and, and this was important, be the best person to unseat the worst person to ever be commander in chief. And so had Biden not won I perhaps would have been left feeling like maybe I should have given it a shot. My wife said to me not long ago about some of these crazy right-wing politicians at the Senate level and others, she was like, "Look, they make these dudes in a white person factory now. So if you want to vanquish one of them, they are always going to be there." And that's totally right.

The last part is that, well, there are two more parts. One is don't forget that it's not just about my happiness, it's also about I have this job at Veterans Community Project where I'm building these campuses all over the country. And I get to get up every day and focus on helping American service members who are still in many ways deployed though they're home, they're on the streets or they're struggling in poverty or with suicidal ideation or whatever. I get to help bring them home safely every single day, the best civilian job I've ever had. And it's not just about loving the job, it's about knowing I'm making a difference. And the thing about when you run, maybe you run, maybe you win, maybe you win. And you try every day to make a difference. And sometimes you're successful, sometimes you're not. But every single day, I get to fulfill the mission that I went to Afghanistan in the first place to fulfill, which is to help people get home safely. And that's awesome, so I know I'm making a difference.

And then finally, Ken, for the first time in my life, well, first time in my adult life since 9/11, anyway, I feel like America and I are square. And it doesn't mean I don't owe anything to my country or that I don't love my country. I do. But I actually now know that I've done quite a lot. A lot of people have done more than me, that's okay. I've done a lot. And in the future when I choose to do more even though I think I'm serving my country in multiple ways right now, when I choose to do it as a candidate if I do, it won't be because I think I have to, it will be because that's what I want to do. And I guess the difference is I've allowed myself to understand that that's okay, that I have done enough. And if I choose to do more, it'll be because that's my choice and I've earned that right. And I never used to believe that.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, that's a pretty damn good answer.

Jason Kander:

Thanks, man.

Ken Harbaugh:

Couple of rapid fires because I know we're coming up on time. Withdrawal from Afghanistan, you spend time there. That's got to be tough to process. I know you agree with the decision. But man, we're leaving some wreckage behind, including real people.

Jason Kander:

Yeah. I appreciate you asking that question because I'm sure that there are probably Afghanistan veterans listening to this. It was very confusing to receive the news that we were fundamentally leaving and to an intellectual level be really glad that that was happening. And then at an emotional level not understand why I was suddenly so irritable. Interestingly, I didn't have much of a recurrence of symptoms really. I had some bad dreams, but not much, maybe a little bit of hyper-vigilance. But mostly, I was just really irritable for a couple of weeks. And so my wife was like, "Why don't you make an appointment with your therapist at the VA?" And I was like, "Yeah, good idea." So I did, and we did a tele-health appointment. And he came on and he was like, "As soon as I saw that news that they were pulling out," he said, "I figured I'm going to get an email from Jason and a few other guys any minute." And he's like, "And sure enough, I did."

Talking with him, it helped me understand what I was so angry about. And I think that initially I was not angry, I was bothered because of what you just mentioned because I recognized that while I am very pleased that we're finally ending what should not have ever been the longest war in American history, I'm also really aware that there are a lot of people in the Afghan government who I worked with and people in the Afghan military as well who if they are still alive may not survive this next year. That's obviously a difficult thing for me, especially because it doesn't change my view that this is the right decision. That's hard to grapple with.

The other part is the reaction to this in the news has been for people to do one of two things: One, to either treat Afghanistan as Vietnam and to say that it was this misadventure period. And then the other way to treat it is to just lump it in with Iraq and treat them like they're the same more. And both of those really bothered me because we were sent to Afghanistan to deny a safe Haven to Al-Qaeda and to hopefully depose the leadership of Al Qaeda. And we did that, we accomplished that mission. There was mission creep over time, but we did that, and we did it well. And it's not Iraq, and it's not Vietnam. There were huge errors made, and we were there way too long.

But I'm really proud of my service there, and I guess I just want it to have its own place in our historical conversation and in our memory. And coming to grips with that really helped me. Again, understanding what I was feeling made a big difference. And what was funny about it was my therapist said in that appointment, he said ... One of the things he and I talk about all the time is control. A big part of PTSD is you try to exercise control over everything in your environment. Particularly for a combat veteran, you learn that if you can control the situation you can survive. And you learn that for real. It works. You survive. And you feel it's because you control the situation around you.

So what we talk about a lot is not trying to control everything. And what was funny was he was like, "I would never sell this to any other patient." He's like, "But with regard to what you're feeling about the way the war is portrayed," he was like, "you have some control over that." He was like, "Unlike anybody else I see, you can speak out and people will listen. So why don't you exercise some control and go talk about it?" And so I've done that a little, and it has made me feel better.

Ken Harbaugh:

January 6th, I got to ask you about that because-

Jason Kander:

I wasn't there.

Ken Harbaugh:

I know. But I think you're going to have a special perspective on it. When I rewatched those tapes, it struck me as its own kind of trauma to the national psyche. I'm wondering if you read the same gravity into it and as someone who knows as much about PTSD as just about anyone without a degree in it, can the national psyche be traumatized in similar ways?

Jason Kander:

Absolutely, I certainly think we were by 9/11. I think we probably were less so by January 6th because it was less shocking. If you think about where we were culturally 9/11, I mean, the idea of violence like that on our shores, we were so, at least our generation, was so inoculated to the idea of that ever happening, we could not have imagined it. And sadly while it was shocking and upsetting, I don't think that we were at the same level of I could not have imagined this. Because we had just gone through four traumatic years. And no matter what side of things you were on, by the way, in those four years, it was to some extent traumatic. Obviously much more so if you were not one of the people inducing the trauma.

But all that said, I actually think that the place where it caused the most traumatic impact obviously was anybody in Washington, particularly anybody in the Capitol in any capacity. I had said some stuff on Twitter about it, and so The Washington Post invited me to write a piece about trauma and the January 6th insurrection. And at this time AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) had started talking about it as a traumatic event. And of course, her detractors were shaming her for that. So I wrote what I intended to be basically a permission slip for anybody who was there or who felt traumatized by it to get help. Because absolutely, anytime you think you may be about to be killed, it changes your brain chemistry.

It's supposed to. If it didn't, then you should see someone because there's something wrong with you. We talked a minute ago about the things that make me mad, that made me pretty mad, that made me very mad. And I'm still mad about it. But I also recognize the political reality of the world that we live in, and I don't accept that it's permanent. But I recognize that it is what it is and that there are things within the system that we need to do to change it. And I'm still committed to doing those things and to making those changes. That sounded like a political answer, I guess it's just that I didn't have a good answer on this.

Ken Harbaugh:

But you back it up. Thanks for all your doing Jason for keeping your voice out there. Last question, which we ask everyone who comes on Burn the Boats, what's the bravest decision you've ever made.

Jason Kander:

Oh. I guess it's probably to set a bomb off under my very promising political career, that's probably it. It's probably to self-destruct something I'd built for a decade in order to ... I should give myself more credit. I joke about it, but my wife points out that when I decided to do that, I was not trading being mayor and possibly being president one day or whatever for getting better. I was trading the one thing that was going objectively really well in my life for the chance to maybe get better not knowing whether I could. And so I'd say that probably was it. Combined with, I play in a pretty competitive baseball league at 40, that's hard. But no, I'm kidding. Yeah, it's that, and I'm proud that I've done that.

Ken Harbaugh:

Cool. Thank you, Jason. Honored to have you.

Jason Kander:

Hey, thank you, man. Honored to be with you, thanks for your service as well. This is a very cool podcast, so thanks for having me on.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Jason Kander for joining me. You can find Jason on Twitter at @JasonKander Also, make sure to check out his podcast, Majority 54.

Next time on Burn the Boats, I speak with retired Master Sergeant Michael Washington, a Marine Corps Veteran who lost his own son, a fellow Marine, in Afghanistan, and now serves as a mental health therapist focusing on veterans and first responders.

If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.




View Less

Recent Episodes

View All

Anne Nelson: The Secret Influence of a Right-Wing Political Coalition

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:45
Award winning journalist Anne Nelson describes the influence of the Council for National Policy, a powerful right-wing political coalition.
Listen to Anne Nelson: The Secret Influence of a Right-Wing Political Coalition

Master Sergeant Michael ‘Top’ Washington: Coping with Loss

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:44
Master Sergeant ‘Top’ Washington describes the difficulty of coping with the loss of his son, and how he’s working to make that process easier for others
Listen to Master Sergeant Michael ‘Top’ Washington: Coping with Loss

Judge Lina Hidalgo: Local Leadership, Voting Rights, and Values

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:42
Judge Lina Hidalgo, county executive for Harris County, Texas, talks about changing the system from within and about budgeting through a values lens.
Listen to Judge Lina Hidalgo: Local Leadership, Voting Rights, and Values

Elliot Ackerman: Writing About War and America’s Future

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:41
Elliot Ackerman, Marine combat veteran and bestselling author, talks about writing and about his fears for the future.
Listen to Elliot Ackerman: Writing About War and America’s Future