This week, Kansas City mayoral candidate and veteran Jason Kander announced he was quitting the race to face the demons he’s been silently carrying with him since coming home from war.
A former Army Intelligence officer, a voting rights activist and rising star in the Democratic party, Kander wrote a heartfelt letter to the public, revealing that he suffered from PTSD and depression and needed to take care of himself. The announcement was met with sympathy and sadness; people are hungry for decent, honest people to represent them, and Kander seems to be all that.
It’s important to understand that PTSD and depression are not deal-breakers for public service or any other kind of work. But left untreated, these conditions often wreak inner havoc upon human beings, making their lives much harder to live. In other words, Kander didn’t have to take a break from politics. He chose to, and in doing so, set an inspiring example for veterans and others who are struggling with mental health.
Kander’s announcement was radical. Our culture continues to put veterans in an impossible position when it comes to their emotional wellbeing. We make action figures, campaign slogans and big-budget movies depicting troops as larger than life and then we forget the price that we all pay for our mythological projections. We call veterans heroes, regardless of what veterans may think of themselves, and then we expect them to live up to an impossible standard — to act like they are invincible. On the battlefield, sucking up one’s pain can save lives. Back home, it can do the opposite.
“On the battlefield, sucking up one’s pain can save lives. Back home, it can do the opposite.”
Like Kander, many veterans are inclined toward public service once we take off the uniform, in spite of ― or maybe because of ― what we saw, did or overcame. I certainly was. After serving in the Marines, I had barely come to terms with years of being harassed and vilified by my male peers. But I continued forward at lightning speed, despite the fact that I was in shell-shock. I had nightmares. I was angry, self-hating and so, so sad. I had suicidal and homicidal thoughts. I didn’t fully understand why.
It’s amazing what the human spirit can set aside in order to get something done. I was a woman on a mission, trauma be damned. I set up an organization and became a national advocate for servicewomen, shining a spotlight on military sexual trauma and helping to overturn the ban on women in combat. Few weeks went by that I wasn’t doing television appearances or meeting with members of Congress. Folks thought I was high functioning and unstoppable. But on the inside, I felt like I was bleeding out.
It’s an overwhelming feeling having the public place expectations on you, especially when you don’t feel whole on the inside. I was allegedly helping my community, but I didn’t feel strong or heroic. I felt like an imposter. I felt broken. I’d never come to terms with my own depression and PTSD. And helping others with theirs wasn’t helping me.
Many veterans would make tremendous elected officials, and it’s something we ought to encourage and embrace. But we must end the vicious cycle of helping others before we help ourselves. Caretakers of all stripes know this pathology well. It depends on the notion of sacrificing oneself so that others may thrive. It’s a sham of a system. It’s not sustainable, and it causes harm to ourselves and others.
It’s easy to get wrapped up — even intoxicated by — the public face of veterans like John McCain or Tammy Duckworth. They are icons that remind us to press forward, regardless of the pain and suffering we’ve experienced. Their very existence seems to suggest that we have no excuses left not to get on with our lives. However, idolizing others is rarely constructive. Kander didn’t feel he’d been through the worst of what other service members had. He felt he couldn’t have PTSD, he reasoned, because he “didn’t earn it.”
Most veterans can relate to this. There will always be someone who appears to have sacrificed more than us. But trauma doesn’t care about who has experienced more or less horror in their lives. Many of us will need more time and understanding to heal our wounds. This does not make us weak. It makes us human. We are not beyond our pain. It is a part of us. And it can make us stronger ― if we work with it.
“Many veterans would make tremendous elected officials, and it’s something we ought to encourage and embrace. But we must end the vicious cycle of helping others before we help ourselves.”
It’s a gift to step away from the limelight to take care of oneself. I found that writing about my own trauma has been enormously helpful for my healing. Some intuitive part of me suspects that exploring my pain through writing will be more helpful to other people than all the formal advocacy in the world. Therapy is finally about creating a more self-sufficient me, rather than desperately patching myself up for another day of reckoning with the public. I have discovered the benefits of long meditation retreats and connecting with nature again. Perhaps most of all, I made the life-changing decision to get a service dog. I am not in hiding anymore.
A veteran I know and admire who is currently running for office told me not to wait too long to step back into public service. I’m glad I ignored her. Folks have finally stopped asking me when I’m going to get “back in the fight.” It seems they understand I don’t want to fight anymore.
Perhaps the best part of taking care of myself is that I no longer have to pretend how I am feeling in order to put on a good show for others. I know that healing has its own timeline. I hope veterans, and indeed all caretakers, take their time. I believe that Kander will return to public service, but when and in what way will be up to him. I am sure he will be stronger, and even more relatable to those he serves, whenever that happens.
Anuradha Bhagwati is a former Marine Corps captain, and the author of the forthcoming book from Simon & Schuster, Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.