Fighting with a purpose: Jason Kander discusses depression, PTSD, and help for veterans

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ST. LOUIS – He was a rising star in the Democratic party. Some even thought he was presidential material. But Jason Kander says calling it quits was the best decision he has ever made.

Kander, 38, withdrew from the Kansas City mayor’s race in October 2018 to make a shocking, public announcement: that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

“It got to the point where I needed to deal with it,” Kander said.

Kander was a big name in 2016. The former Missouri state lawmaker and then-Secretary of State nearly won his race for US Senate. He narrowly lost to Senator Roy Blunt in a state that was decidedly Republican in the polls.

But what Kander did win were the hearts of those in his party. President Obama was among the leaders who said Kander had a shot at the White House.

But those political aspirations suddenly came to a halt.

Kander bowed out of the race for mayor in his hometown of Kansas City. On social media, he disclosed that he was battling depression and PTSD.

“As they say, you deal with your trauma, or your trauma deals with you. My trauma was dealing with me. And so, I had to stop and focus on getting better,” he said.

Kander’s mental health struggles were borne out of his work as an army intelligence officer in Afghanistan.

“Meeting with folks who were armed and may or may not have my best interests at heart. It was a constant concern of being kidnapped or killed. And I was more or less alone a lot of the time,” he said.

When he returned home, he was experiencing symptoms of hyper-vigilance and feelings that he was unsafe. He said he was having violent nightmares on a regular basis.

“To the outside observer, I looked fine. But it was very difficult. And I would say, it was exhausting,” he said. “I didn’t get a good night’s sleep for like a decade.”

The breaking point, Kander said, was when he began having suicidal thoughts.

Kander had sought assistance months prior. But he was now committed to getting intensive treatment. Dropping out of politics allowed him to focus on himself, he said.

“I spent about eight months in weekly therapy at the [Veterans Administration]. And really just focusing on getting healthy.

Kander said the therapy has made a huge difference.

“One of the biggest things that began to change when I really started to get better, and when therapy started to make a difference for me, I could walk through all the symptoms. The ability to be present. And to feel emotions,” he said. “It’s made me a better husband and father and son and brother and friend. I’m just really pleased. I don’t take it for granted. It feels like a gift.”

The decision to go public has made a tremendous impact. Kander said he learned calls to the VA Suicide Hotline nearly doubled, possibly tripled, shortly after he disclosed that he was seeking help.

“That was the first time I had ever felt like I had played a role in getting people home safe.”

Kander is now helping get veterans home safely – in another way.

He leads the national expansion for the Veterans Community Project, a Kansas City-based organization that provides case management and residential services for veterans.

VCP organization has received national praise for its community of tiny homes – small homes that help keep veterans off the streets.

VCP has branched out to Colorado. The organization is also excited about the prospect of adding a location to St. Louis.

“I really want to bring this to St. Louis. We want it to be one of our expansion sites. And there have been some really positive conversations so far,” Kander said.

Kander has been in conversations with parties in St. Louis about the possibility of acquiring land.

VCP currently features about two dozen homes. And it is expected to nearly double in size in the coming weeks.

VCP’s founder said he is grateful Kander joined the team.

“His background in government, and not only that, but building another national organization, Let America Vote, and his military service, make him a perfect fit. All of that combines into somebody who can grow into scale at a national level,” said Bryan Meyer, VCP Co-Founder, and CEO.

Kander is often asked about whether he’ll return to politics. The answer?

“I don’t have any plans to do that. It doesn’t mean that I never will. I really like what I’m doing. So, I just want to keep doing that.”

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