CPT Jason Kander: PTSD After Afghanistan
CPT Jason Kander served as an Army Intelligence Officer in Afghanistan where he conducted extremely dangerous meetings with traffickers, informants, and local officials.
As a result of his deployment, Kander developed PTSD that severely affected his work and personal life. He decided to leave his very promising political career in order to receive treatment via the Veterans Community Project, where he is now the President of National Expansion.
To learn more about Kander, check out his memoir, Invisible Storm: A Soldier's Memoir of Politics and PTSD. All of Jason’s royalties from the book go to supporting the Veterans Community Project, which you can learn more about here.
To hear more from Kander, check out his interview on our other podcast Burn the Boats when it releases on September 7th.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today on Warriors in Their Own Words, we hear from Jason Kander, who served as an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan. Jason spent years following his combat tour dealing with untreated, and undiagnosed, PTSD. He finally confronted that demon, and credits his treatment at the VA, and the support of friends and family, with saving his life. He wrote a book about the experience to help other veterans, and families, affected by PTSD. You may recognize Jason Kander’s name from his career in politics. This interview does touch on that briefly. But the reason I want to share Jason’s story is because I know it will save lives.”
My name is Jason Kander. I'm a former captain in the United States Army. I was an Army intelligence officer for most of my time but I finished my last few years as a platoon trainer in officer candidate school.
Before 9/11, I was somebody who I looked at the idea of serving in the military as something that I wanted to do but I was not sure I would ever do it. It existed in the maybe someday category in my mind. I've been thinking about this more lately, because with the book coming out, a lot more people have been asking me questions about, "Yeah, but really why? Why would you do it?" A lot of people are trying to get at what made you come up wanting to serve? Because I come from a background that wasn't as predisposed to it, right? My grandpa and great-uncle and great-grandpa were in the Army but whose weren't? Everybody's were. It was World War Two and World War One. I went to a good college, I went to a good law school. I was kind of on this path. I think part of it was honestly, I grew up in the '80s and really '90s and, man, some of the best movies were like Top Gun and Iron Eagle and all this kind of stuff. I remember when I was a kid, I washed out at webelos in Cub Scouts. I didn't make it very far.
I remember for the brief period that I wore that blue uniform, I remember I would stand in the mirror and salute. There was something in me from the beginning, that lent me toward it. I think that if 9/11 had not happened, there was about a 50/50 chance that I would have gone ahead and gone into the Army and probably, honestly, I think what would have happened, had 9/11 not happened, if I had served, I would have become an Air Force JAG reservist or something, because I would have wanted to get that uniform. I don't know what I would have done but that was about a 50% chance I would have served.
Instead 9/11 happened and I was in DC when it happened and I remember standing in line to give blood down by the Capitol. Remember, we didn't have Twitter, we didn't have that stuff, so we didn't know what was going on. My roommates and I stood out there for quite a while in line and then a woman who I think was a nurse, who was taking blood came out and said, "Hey, we can't take any more blood today. Hope you find another way to help." Right then it just kind of clicked. I was like, "I'm joining the military." For me, it was a simple choice. It was like, 'Okay, my grandfather and my great-uncle and my great-grandfather, they weren't military guys. They didn't have military careers but their country went to war and they were in their early twenties, and so they went." They did their job and then they came home and they went on with their lives.
To me, it was like I'm obviously going to do that. I'm not going to have other people go do this and I'm not going to be part of it because, for one thing, I was like I want to go get the bad guys. I was like, "I'm upset. My country was attacked" and it just didn't make sense to me, the idea that, "Well, I'm going to support the war but not participate." It just didn't calculate with me. I remember, the next day, I looked up the physical fitness standards and what the test was like and all that and I started doing pushups and running and everything, and it wasn't that long after that that I was an Army intelligence officer.
It was also weird for me, because the other thing that happened was after I started getting into really good shape, I busted my knee in a pickup football game. Like real bad. Like tore it up. My ACL, my meniscus, all this stuff and I needed surgery, so I had to get surgery and physical therapy, so I'm on crutches and I'm at this east coast college where all the professors came from the Vietnam era and they're looking at me going, "Dude, you are doing it wrong. You're enlisting? You got your ticket out of ... If there's ever a draft, you don't have to go. Nobody expects you to go. Your knee is all messed up." I was having to get a waiver from the Army to get in at all, and then a lot of my fellow students who were mostly from the east coast were going like, "Why would you do that?"
Where they were from, you joined the Army if you didn't have any other options. Where I was from, there were guys from my high school baseball team who joined the Army before 9/11 because it was just as good of an option as college, to where I'm from. There was a real disconnect between the way we saw things. After a while, it started to piss me off, because people kept saying to me, "Why would you do that? You have an education." Then some people who were a little more crafty about it would say, "Well, there's got to be better ways for you to serve." That always just seemed so arrogant and privileged to me because I'm like who the hell am I who has had this great life because America has been really good to my family to be like, "No, no. That's for other people but I'm for the war, I'm for the war in Afghanistan but other people should do it, not me." It just didn't calculate to me.
I went over there to fill a spot in a unit, which means instead of going over with a whole unit, I went over, first, just me. I literally got on a plane at Kansas City International Airport, flew to Baltimore, and then got on another plane with a bunch of folks who were going over and flew over but, first, I get on this plane in Kansas City to fly to Baltimore. Everybody else is just going to Baltimore and I'm going to war. I remember thinking how strange that was, but then I get on what they call the rotator, to fly ... I think we flew into Kuwait and then over to Al Udeid in Qatar and then got on a C130 and flew into Bagram Airbase.
I remember being so excited to get to Afghanistan, because that's what I trained for. This was the Super Bowl. This is what I had wanted to do. It's why I joined the military. I had this set of preconceived notions that were wrong, right? The first was that it was going to be like it was in training where as soon as you're going to go outside the wire, you're going to have all the stuff that you're supposed to have, you're going to have armored vehicles and there's always going to be a security escort and you're always going to be in convoy stuff where there's going to be guys to the right and left and there's going to be big old scary dudes on machine guns up over top of your Humvee.
That was my first misconception because I was an intelligence officer and I went outside the wire plenty during my four month tour, but I was almost always, with the exception of a handful of times, I was in a Mitsubishi Pajero, which is basically just Mitsubishi's answer to the Ford Escape, with no armor. A lot of the time it was just me and a translator. Some of the time we were in a convoy but very rarely was there armor.
I remember the very first convoy to go from Bagram to Kabul, like right after I had gotten in the country. I was worried I was going to puke because I was so physically ill at the idea of, okay, we're just going outside in this? It wasn't what I expected.
Then the other preconceived notion I had was that there was one kind of combat and it was what you had seen in the movies, it was Black Hawk Down, it was Band of Brothers, it was John Wayne movies. If you could not hear bullets whizzing by your ear and you weren't being knocked back by explosions and hurling grenades over a berm in front of you, then you weren't in combat. That stuck with me for a long time. When I, as an intelligence officer, was going into meetings with people who I couldn't know whether or not it was a trap, who might want to kill me, I was going outside the wire just me and a translator a lot, and I was in this role where I had to go and I had to meet with people of really unsavory character and questionable allegiances, not knowing if I was going to get out of those meetings alive or not, but I never fired my weapon the entire deployment.
I came home fundamentally believing I was not a combat veteran and I had never been to combat and that I had suffered nothing traumatic. I had not accounted for the fact that I had spent hours and hours at a time on a regular basis in the most dangerous place on the planet, really vulnerable, with nobody knowing where I was, so nobody knowing to come to save me, if things went bad, and the effect that it had on my brain to sit there and to try and monitor all the doors and to watch the hands of everybody I was meeting with and to keep track of the mental math of how many potential bad guys there were between me and my vehicle, if I needed to start shooting and all that kind of stuff, the effect that that had on me.
It wasn't until years later, when I went to the VA finally, that a clinical social worker explained it back to me in that way and was like, "That's combat. You're a combat veteran and that's traumatic what you went through", that I started to begin to be able to accept that.
I told a little bit of this story in the book. It's not one of the most momentous, but I think it's not bad at relating what my job was kind of like. To back up for a second, my job was to do anti-corruption, anti-espionage, investigations within the Afghan government mostly, which is to say that I did what my colonel referred to as thug int, meaning a made-up term thug intelligence. He jokingly said that what I did is I went out and I developed relationships with thugs in order to gain information about other thugs. That was what I did. It ran the gamut.
I remember this one time going to a government building, in Kabul, to meet with these guys who where in the role of fighting narco trafficking, they were, of course, also narco traffickers. You want somebody with some expertise in that role. That's just how it was in Afghanistan. They were fighting narco trafficking but they were also cleaning out the competition for their work. But they were competent, and so they were valuable, and so the US needed to work with them.
We generally tried, my translator and I, Salam, we generally tried not to go too many places after dark. It just got a little hairy. You know? We didn't have night vision goggles and, in general, if you're going to meetings with people who might want to kill you, you'd rather do it during the day, right? Particularly, when you have to keep an eye on your surroundings, it's a little easier to do that when you can see.
This was a government building that, by my recollection, had several floors. I don't remember exactly how many but it was like more than three, right? Each floor had what seemed like it probably had at least 10 officers in it. Now it was also mostly just completely gutted and, clearly, during the war, it had been all torn up, during the fight with the Taliban initially or when the Taliban came in, so when we came in, there was a guy who was supposed to be a gate guard in the little parking lot and he wasn't there because it was late enough. It was like, "All right. That's not the best."
We came in and I remember as we went in to go see these two fellas we were going to meet with, I remember walking in the front door, which wasn't a door. It was just a big hole because there was no door there anymore, and I remember looking in the elevator shaft and seeing a huge pile of dirt that made no sense and a shovel sticking out of it. I remember thinking like “Who is just in here piling dirt into this elevator shaft that no longer works.” I just remember registering it and thinking, "Who did they bury in there?" Or what did they bury in there?” Not like in a whimsical way, like, "Noted."
We go in and we go up the stairs, a couple of floors I think, and randomly, out of all of these completely gutted offices, there's one office right in the middle of this one floor that is just like... It's palatial and it is just beautiful. It's got all these nice rugs. It's got pictures hung on the walls. It looks like it doesn't belong in this gutted building. It's the office where these two fellas do their government job out of. It's also the office where they presumably run a narco trafficking operation out of.
We sit down and there's these big double doors behind us, and this seemed to always happen in these meetings. Nobody ever seems to set you up when you're in the job I was in, where they want you to sit where you can face the door. It always seemed like my back was to some door or there'd be multiple doors, multiple entrances into an office, so I'm having to figure out where to sit. The best way to describe it is like it's like there's this crackle right behind your head, like you're aware of those doors and you've got to concentrate on your job and your job is to get the best information out of these people that you're talking to that you can, and doing that means you've got to exude a very trusting vibe, you've got to be very personable, it's not unlike a political meeting in that way. You've really got to win people over. You've got to be charming.
The best way to do that, I quickly learned, and I actually later applied this in politics, is just to ask about them. Is just to be deeply interested in them. Everybody, whether they're through the texture glass of language translation or they're your neighbor, they just like talking about themselves. That's what makes people like you.
I just start with a lot of questions about them and the whole time I'm aware of these doors behind me and I'm aware that we're in this giant building that there's no way for me to account for how many other people are in the building. I didn't get to clear every floor, right? I got these doors behind me and these guys, they're just so shady and the other thing I remember that was kind of funny is they were in western suits, they looked really nice, which is when you're in Afghanistan, one of the ways you can tell that somebody is really moved a lot of poppy is if they're in really nice clothes and they have really nice teeth, and these guys did. They're in these really nice western suits and they're also shoveling wood into a wood-burning furnace. That's why the room is still warm. This was like December. That's just a funny juxtaposition I always thought, when people were dressed really nice but, clearly, living in what we would consider very primitive conditions.
I don't even remember in that one, because I did so many of these, I don't really remember the subject of the conversation or where it went but I remember feeling like, "Wow. If this is a setup, I got no chance." In order to demonstrate this pantomime of trust, I have to turn my back to these doors. If somebody comes in behind me, I'm not going to hear it. There's no way. This building is so big. No one is going to hear us. I remember sitting there and thinking ... I talked about this a little in the book, when I briefly talked about this as an example, I remember just kind of wandering through this thought process of like so if they never find you, how do they handle telling your family? Just kind of really matter of factly playing out in my mind, "I guess they would tell Diana, probably somebody would go to the house." I was like, "All right. How will Diana handle it?" I was like, "Okay, will she call my parents or will she drive over?" I was like, "I guess my dad will probably stay really strong for everybody." That's kind of what he does. You know, it was kind of wild to just sit there and just really matter of factly figure out, "How is this going to go down?" That's kind of what the job was like. It's not like I was doing that every day, but I was doing that.
Then other times, I was commanding convoys and stuff like that. I had other duties. I was a second lieutenant in a combat zone where I was one of the only second lieutenants in my unit, really I think maybe the only second lieutenant in my unit, and I was in a lieutenant colonel's job, which is a whole other story. I had situations where I had a whole lot of responsibility, way more than your average butter bar was going to have but then in other ways, I was the only butter bar, so it was like, "Hey, you want to command this convoy?" Stuff like that.
You know, every day was a little different but, again, you can see why I came home, not thinking, "Oh, I'm a combat veteran" but thinking, "I'm just an asshole who went to meetings" and not accounting for the fact that those meetings were extremely stressful and that I had done something that most Americans never do, which is I had, for a period of a few months, on a regular basis, had to come face to face with my very real physical fear of the real prospect of being killed, kidnapped or killed or both, and also prepare myself mentally to take a life, to look at a person right in front of me and think, "If this person does this or if this door opens or if this thing comes into play, I will kill this human being that is right now just having a conversation with me and offering me tea." I really underestimated the way that affected my brain chemistry.
I came home and my out processing, going back into the reserves, was like, I went, I signed a piece of paper at Leavenworth, and then like, I cooled down so to speak. I just sat around for a week and a half. And then I went back to my job at a law firm. So I'd gone from being an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan doing really important stuff to now I'm like writing legal memos. It's not like I was a senior lawyer. I was right out of law school. So I'm just writing legal memos and stuff. And it wasn't long. It was a few months before a partner who I really like came in, and was explaining to me how important this thing I was writing was. "This is really important." And I remember I said, "Yeah, anybody going to die?" And we both kind of knew, in that moment, yeah, I'm probably not going to work here very long. And I didn't. And so it was just hard to find people who could relate.
And then I got into politics and I found little flashes of that we're all in this together and going for a cause. You probably experienced this. That feeling in the campaign of like, "Hey, I got, I kind of with my team again. I got a team together." So that it sometimes felt good. It never felt the same as the military, but I got little pieces of that. And then my best times were when I was on drill weekends or active duty periods, that those were great. And then I got out of the military altogether.
And then campaigning, wasn't really doing it anymore. And it just, yeah, it became more and more isolating. And then after a while I was in this position where I supposedly had all these friends. I mean, I had, I was, I'd become famous. And I went places and people knew me. But I felt very alone. And it had been so long that I had forgotten that I didn't used to be like that. I didn't used to have night terrors every night. I didn't used to have this feeling that I was in danger all the time. I didn't used to have this like ever present stress that I could feel in my body. And since I had refused to accept the idea that it was connected to my service, I just started to resign myself to the idea that this is just how I am now. Because I had forgotten what it was like to not be that way.
There's a lot of factors that prompted me to take so long to go get help. Some of it is the stigma of being a public figure and, frankly, wanting to be President of the United States and thinking that people might be really unlikely to give me that opportunity if they knew that I was not sleeping because the night terrors or stalking my house with a pistol at night because I was convinced there were intruders. There were a lot of things that kept me from it but I think the biggest factor was I really believed that if I said that what I was experiencing, even said to myself that what I was experiencing was PTSD, that that was stolen valor. I knew guys who had been shot, I knew guys who had had to take lives, and I had not. I knew people who had been there for a lot longer than four months, which, to me, wasn't anything, I didn't think, I didn't think that counted. To me, the worst thing I could possibly be was a person who stole valor, and I had close friends who I felt had done so much more than me and the idea of putting myself in the same category as them in any way was just a non-starter and I just wouldn't do it.
The thing about that is that it's not just about the prospect of stolen valor. It's about this necessary form of brainwashing that the military does with us, and that is ... I say necessary because I'm not really knocking it and is that from the moment you show up at basic to the moment that you render or return your final salute, the message that's gotten across to you, in every possible avenue, that what you're doing is no big deal. There's a reason for that. It's because I needed to go into meetings with people who might kidnap me. Not once. I needed to do it for my job. My buddy Steven needed to be able to go out on patrol after getting shot at the day before, after seeing his friend get shot at the day before. The only way that we're going to do that thing, which is actually quite unnatural, is if we believe that it's no big deal, and as if we believe that other people are doing things that are much worse and much harder and there's no reason for us to get all concerned about what we're doing. I don't really have a problem with that, because Steven, as a Marine in Fallujah, he needed to be able to go on those patrols and as an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan, I needed to be able to go into meetings with people who might be luring me into a trap. If that didn't happen, he couldn't look out for his fellow Marines in Fallujah and I couldn't bring back the information that was valuable to the mission in Afghanistan. The problem is that when we get out, nobody flips that switch off, nobody sat me down, nobody sat Steven down and said, "Okay, now that you're leaving or now that you're going home and finishing your deployment, you should know that was some crazy shit. Yeah, there are people who have it worse but not that many people. Like over the course of all humans, that's not that many people.”
By the way, it actually doesn't matter whether people had it worse because this is what I learned later in therapy at the VA is that my brain has no idea what Steven's brain experienced, my brain has no idea what anybody else's brain experienced and, more importantly, my brain doesn't care and it doesn't affect what happens to my brain. It's irrelevant. I have people say to me all the time, sometimes it's vets who have been having trouble with something and they say, "But I didn't do what you did." Sometimes it's people who never served who are telling me about their car accident or their divorce or losing a loved one or something that happened in their childhood and they'll say, "But I didn't go to war or anything." I always stop those people short and I say, "Let's be clear, my experience does not affect your experience. It doesn't matter." I spent almost 11 years trying to rank my trauma out of existence, trying to convince myself that it wasn't that big of a deal, and, therefore, it couldn't be PTSD. Now I had a lot of authority for that, which is everybody I met in the Army had made clear to me that what I had done was no big deal, so I had no reason not to believe that. The truth was it was a very big deal. What all of us have done is a very big deal. If you had a bad divorce, it's a very big deal. Anything that is still bothering you and is disrupting your life, it's happening because it was a big deal and it took me a long time to realize that and it took me therapy to realize that.
Now that I understand it, I have gone from being a person who was absolutely convinced that I had not done enough for my country, for my fellow soldiers, to warrant the adulation and attention that I was getting as a politician, that I had not earned that at all, to being someone who actually now feels like America and I are square and I've actually done quite a lot for America and I'm proud of what I've done, I'm proud of what I've done with my life and I actually now have the peace of believing that I have earned the right to enjoy myself and enjoy my life. I still do things that I care about, I still do things for my country, I still do things for my community but the difference is I no longer do them because I think I have to to prove to myself that I am not an irredeemable piece of shit, I do them because they're important to me or because I want to or because I want to help somebody I like and I never do anything, so that I can do something else. I do stuff because I want to do it and there's a lot of reasons why I do but the big difference now is I have the peace of mind of knowing I've done enough and that's huge for me.
So a t the beginning of 2018, I, as I was chasing this redemption mirage, was preparing to run for President of the United States and that was going decently well. I was stringing these endorphin hits together and as long as I could keep these close endorphin hits together, I could feel like I was still going and I didn't have to spend time with myself in my own mind and that allowed me to, at least, be able to get through the day. At some point, those endorphin hits, I just built up too much of a tolerance and it culminated with me giving a major speech in New Hampshire on national television that was pretty much a I'm going to run for president speech and it was very well received and it should have been like the endorphin hit of all endorphin hits. Instead of lasting a few days like they usually did, it lasted about 12 hours. Then I felt nothing. I was like, "Okay, this is pretty serious." A few days later, I decided that what I needed to do to chase redemption was I needed to go home to Kansas City, which is where I was living but I was just never there because I was on airplanes all the time and I needed to become mayor of my hometown, I thought if I can make a difference that I can see in my hometown, that's going to make me feel better.
The other promise I made to myself was I was going to go to the VA and get help. I wasn't ready to admit to myself that it was PTSD but I was like maybe I can go figure this out at the VA. I start running for mayor. Look, when you go from running for president to running for mayor, you should be the front runner and I was. It was probably not going to be close. It was going well but I didn't keep my promise to go to the VA. That campaign should have been so much fun. I mean, it was like, I'm a fifth-generation Kansas Citian and here I was, the prohibitive front runner, everybody knew me. It should have been a blast. It wasn't, because I was just getting worse and worse and worse and now I was getting worse faster than I had and that scared me. I was starting to have suicidal thoughts. Here I was, basically, cruising to the mayorship of my hometown that I love and I was thinking more and more about ending my life.
But there was one day on that campaign that personally was really great for me and really inspiring and it was the day that I toured a place called Veterans Community Project. Veterans Community Project had been started by a group of combat veterans in Kansas City, who had decided that they could do more for their fellow veterans and that they could help all veterans regardless of their discharge status, regardless of the nature of their service, how long they served, whether they were active duty. None of that chutes and ladders business, that they would just help every veteran, everybody who served in the military. That was their vision.
They first opened an outreach walk-in center, that was doing that and it was serving thousands of vets a year and making a huge difference for a lot of people, saving lives, really making a difference in the suicide epidemic in Kansas City.
The next thing they did is what the organization is much better known for now, which is they went after veterans' homelessness by creating a village of tiny houses that mirrored active duty housing, with wraparound case management services on site to restart the military to civilian transition back at day one and transition homeless veterans, successfully, back into being fully contributing members of society, moving out of the village and into permanent housing. They were doing this with an enormous 85% success rate, which nobody had ever done.
I go to tour Veterans Community Project, because when you're a politician, you tour nonprofits. It's something you do. I had done it a lot. I had never been knocked over like I was by Veterans Community Project. It felt like home to me. It was like a forward operating base in Afghanistan and a startup in Silicon Valley had had a baby.
I went home that night and I said to my wife, Diana, I said, "I wish I could just quit everything I'm doing and just go work there." It wasn't a realistic notion. I was running for mayor, I was a politician, I still wanted to be president, I had just taken a pass on that for a while, so it wasn't really a realistic notion to me. I went back to campaigning and really not enjoying myself and things kept getting worse.
Six weeks after that tour is when I find myself on the phone with the Veteran's Crisis Line and then the next day I'm in the suicide hold at the emergency department at the Kansas City VA and I'm ready to make the announcement the next day, which I was planning to do, that I'm dropping out of public life, I'm going to go to the VA and I'm going to get help for PTSD, because things had gotten worse pretty quickly in that six weeks.
I find out at the VA that I wasn't enrolled, and so getting in was going to take some time and it might be a few months before I could start weekly therapy. I didn't know what else to do, so I call my buddy Bryan Meyer, who was the co-founder and now CEO of Veterans Community Project, and I'm like, "Here's what I'm about to announce tomorrow. It's probably going to be big news. I am planning to go to the VA but I don't know how to get this process sorted. I don't know how to navigate it." He's like, "Come on down."
I end up going six weeks after the you're going to be mayor VIP tour, through the front doors of the outreach center, the walk-in center, just like thousands of other vets in Kansas City. I didn't get any special treatment. I was just another vet who came in, and they did for me what they've done for a lot of other people, which is they handled my paperwork for me.
Instead of months later, I had my first weekly therapy appointment at the VA one week after that. You could argue that was a part of saving my life. Some time went by, I started going to therapy, I was responding really well to it, and I wasn't working. What I was doing was hanging around Veterans Community Project, VCP, we call it, a lot. I was growing a beard, so people wouldn't recognize me and come up and try and console me all the time in public, and I was hanging out at VCP. I was really into the place, I was really inspired by it. At that moment, there was nowhere out there that was inspiring me. They had been so successful in Kansas City that a lot of other communities around the country were reaching out to the co-founders and saying, "Hey, can you come here and can you do in our town what you've done in Kansas City? Can you replicate your model?" They had never envisioned doing that. They just wanted to do this thing for their hometown and then move on with their lives. They couldn't say no to the idea of trying to help veterans elsewhere and they knew what they had done was really revolutionary and unprecedented, so they were having some false starts, some starts and stops with it.
I was hanging around and I had created a national organization reform. So I started mentoring the co-founders through how they might be able to create a national presence and start doing this elsewhere and a few months into that, Bryan said to me, he's like, "Hey, man. You seem to be doing really well with therapy. You're not working. You're here a lot. You're giving us this advice. How about instead you just come here and work full-time?"
I knew right then that's what I wanted to do. Three years ago, I became the president of national expansion at Veterans Community Project. In that time, we have expanded our operations into the Denver area where we've been serving veterans through outreach programs for about a little over a year and we're now building a full campus there with a village of tiny houses, community center, the whole deal, and we are building a full campus with outreach and a village and everything in the St. Louis area where we'll start being able to serve and house veterans there this fall. We have broken ground on a full campus in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and we have very recently purchased property in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and begun fundraising for that project where we still start construction there in 2023. Then we have some other cities that we're in very serious talks with, that I imagine we'll have some announcements about in the relatively new future.
It is the best civilian job I have ever had. When I first deployed, many years ago, a lot of people asked me why are you doing this? Why are you volunteering to do this? I ran out of ways to explain it to people who weren't in the service. I remember finally settling on a very corny thing that I felt very deeply, which was if I can do my job well over there, I believe maybe I can help some people come home safely, who might not otherwise would have. Like most vets, I never had the feeling that I had really realized that, because you often don't really know if you were able to make that difference. That was one of the things that caused a lot of survivor's guilt and shame and that sort of thing for me for a long time. Then the first time I ever had any inkling of feeling that I had done that was a few days after I announced to the world that I was going to drop out of public life and go get help at the VA, I had been in a news detox. I didn't want to know what the impact of my story was, because I didn't want to continue to live in my public-facing persona. I wanted to actually focus on trying to get better and I knew that meant trying to be as present as possible. I had the people around me not telling me what was going on in the news. I didn't know that it was the biggest story in the country and that it was an international story. Three or four days after I made that announcement, I remember I woke up in the morning and my wife was looking at her phone and I remember she said to me, "I am going to read you something that I just read in an article about you and don't argue with me. I want to read you this." I remember kind of bracing myself and she said, "It turns out that in the days since your announcement, calls to the Veterans Crisis Line have tripled." I remember I got very emotional, I'm getting a little emotional telling the story now and it took me a minute but I finally got out the words, "It's been all these years and this is the first time I've ever felt like I did something that helped somebody get home safe." It was a really important moment for me.
Now I have this job where that's what we do. We help veterans get home safely. I get to work on that every day. It is a tremendous privilege. I work with a great group of people, almost all of us who lead the organization are not just combat veterans, we're veterans of the PTSD clinic at the VA. We all understand that one step left or one step right, we're not working at the national headquarters. We're across the street in the Kansas City village in a tiny house trying to get our life back together. I feel real kinship with the people we serve. I love the work.
People can support it at VCP.org, Veterans Community Project dot org. I really appreciate you giving me the opportunity to give you a very long answer to your short question about it.
That was Captain Jason Kander. To learn more about Kander, check out his memoir, Invisible Storm: A Soldier's Memoir of Politics and PTSD. All of Jason’s royalties from the book go to supporting the Veterans Community Project.
Make sure to check out our other interview with Kander on Burn the Boats when it releases on September 7th.
Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.
For updates and more, follow us on twitter at Team_Harbaugh.
And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.
Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
Hear More From Us!
Subscribe Today and get the newest Evergreen content delivered straight to your inbox!