PTSD Made Him Walk Away From Public Life. Now He’s Heading Back.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jason Kander was a rising political star, in the homestretch of a race for mayor of Kansas City that he was widely expected to win. And he was moments away from upending it all.

His campaign manager, Abe Rakov, stopped him and asked, “Are you sure this is the thing you want everyone in the world to remember about you forever?”

Mr. Kander said yes. So his manager pressed Send.

In a strikingly candid public letter, Mr. Kander announced that day last October that he was dropping out of the race because of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service, saying it had become too much for him to bear.

“After 11 years of trying to outrun depression and PTSD symptoms, I have finally concluded that it’s faster than me,” he explained in the letter. “I have to stop running, turn around and confront it.”

Mr. Kander is surely not the first politician to grapple with the psychological wounds of war, but he appears to have been the first to do it so publicly, in the middle of a campaign.

It was not what some close supporters hoped he would do.

“People were telling him to deal with it in secret and stay in the race, but to him that would be dishonest,” Mr. Rakov recalled in a recent interview. “Hiding it would be a disservice to other people. He wanted to be part of changing a stigma.”

Generations of politicians have assumed that openly acknowledging a psychiatric disorder would kill any chances of a public life. Mr. Kander now has a chance to test that assumption. After months of treatment, he has begun to take his first steps back into politics.

Mr. Kander, a Democrat, is not running for office, though he has not ruled out doing so in the future. He is leading a national expansion of a Kansas City nonprofit group called the Veterans Community Project that provides transitional housing and support services for homeless veterans. The group plans to build housing in eight other communities in the next three years.

That job has put him in a position to host national candidates passing through Kansas City. And so far, three Democratic presidential candidates — Pete Buttigieg, Seth Moulton and Beto O’Rourke — have made campaign stops at the group this summer.

ImageMr. Kander during his time as an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan.

“I haven’t experienced stigma,” Mr. Kander said. “If anything, it’s the opposite — party donors and boosters, candidates, they are asking me to get more involved.”

Until the moment Mr. Kander dropped out last fall, he had led such a charmed political life that even his losses were treated as victories. A progressive in a conservative state, he had served two terms in the State Legislature and one as Missouri secretary of state, all before his 37th birthday. In 2016 he nearly unseated an incumbent Republican senator, Roy Blunt, while Hillary Clinton was losing Missouri by 19 points.

Though he lost that race, he gained national attention for a viral ad in which he assembles a military-style rifle blindfolded while explaining why, as a war veteran, he supported background checks on gun purchases. Soon after, when President Barack Obama was asked who best represented the future of the Democratic Party, Mr. Kander’s name was first on the list.

But all that time, Mr. Kander said, he was racked by nightmares, depression and suicidal thoughts stemming from his time as an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan. Those symptoms had grown so persistent last year that whenever his wife returned home with the couple’s 5-year-old son, she made sure to enter the house first, in case she found her husband dead inside.

Mr. Kander joined the Army National Guard in 2005 after getting a law degree at Georgetown University. He deployed in 2006 to Afghanistan, where his mission was to assess the corruption levels of former Afghan warlords and government leaders.

That meant traveling dangerous roads in an unarmored S.U.V. to meet armed men with questionable allegiances. Usually he had no backup other than his Afghan interpreter.

Back in the United States, Mr. Kander would often shrug off his deployment as uneventful. He was never shot or blown up, no one close to him was wounded, and he had never killed anyone.

But deep down, he could not seem to shake the stress of walking into so many meetings where there was a reasonable possibility of his being kidnapped and held hostage, or worse.

He developed a twitch in his left eye, he said. Stopping for red lights made his heart race. Sitting in crowded restaurants became excruciating. He would find himself simmering with anger for no reason. Nightmares of being abducted and killed seemed to play on repeat.

For more than a decade, Mr. Kander said, he refused to acknowledge to himself or anyone else that these might be signs of post-traumatic stress. “I didn’t feel like I did enough to earn it,” he said, looking back. “I was just some jerk who went to meetings. To even consider I might have PTSD felt like stolen valor.”

CreditBarrett Emke for The New York Times

He dove headlong into politics, allowing himself few spare moments when his thoughts could wander. He would stay up late studying bills or answering constituents’ emails to put off the nightmares that would rush in when he went to sleep.

Mr. Rakov said Mr. Kander’s military service was a crucial icebreaker on the campaign trail. “A politician doesn’t start with the benefit of the doubt, but someone who served in the military does,” he said. “People know you have sacrificed something. They may not agree with you, but they are willing to listen to you.”

At the same time, Mr. Kander’s military experiences, and their psychological aftermath, were undercutting his ability to function. Close friends and supporters started to notice, but said nothing. “I saw him every day, and saw his symptoms, and didn’t do anything about it,” Mr. Rakov said with regret.

Military service has long been a steppingstone to a political career. But whether they fought at Kip’s Bay or Khe Sanh, political leaders have rarely been open about the aftereffects of combat.

Was George Washington jarred awake on winter nights by the memory of horses shot out from under him or musket balls passing so close that they ripped his coat? Was President Rutherford B. Hayes haunted by the memory of lying wounded in no man’s land while the men of his Union Army brigade fell around him? Was Senator George McGovern troubled by the 30 bombing missions he flew during World War II, including the time his B-24 caught on fire and nearly crashed? If they were, they did not say so on the stump.

Few politicians have had to navigate this minefield quite like Senator John McCain, who was held prisoner and tortured for years in North Vietnam. The senator, who died last year, suffered permanent physical injuries, but said he had emerged essentially unscathed psychologically, except for an aversion to the sound of jangling keys, which reminded him of his jailers.

“I pressed him on it,” his longtime aide and biographer Mark Salter said in an interview. “‘Nothing? You got nothing? Nothing keeps you up at night?’ He said no. He said he had left it all behind him.”

Even so, Senator McCain was hounded during two presidential runs by whisper campaigns claiming that his years as a prisoner had made him erratic and unfit for office, even after he released thousands of pages of medical records to the media to support his denials.

Over more than 30 years in the Senate, Senator McCain never spoke in depth publicly about the mental toll of his war experience. Neither did his peers.

“We never talked about it, because we couldn’t — you couldn’t say you were having problems and still be elected,” said Max Cleland, who lost both lower legs and part of an arm to a grenade in Vietnam, and went on to represent Georgia in the Senate from 1996 to 2002.

CreditRachel Mummey for The New York Times

Mr. Cleland said several fellow senators who had fought in Vietnam had nightmares and other post-traumatic stress symptoms while in office, but they would only discuss them privately.

“There wasn’t the acceptance there is today,” he said. “And we didn’t have a name for the issues from combat. We just called it alcoholism.”

Mr. Kander decided to break with that tradition last fall. Feeling increasingly depressed and suicidal last fall as the mayoral campaign wore on, he decided to drop out of the race and seek help.

“It was an incredibly difficult decision, because he didn’t know there was a solution,” said his wife, Diana Kander. “He didn’t know he was trading being mayor for getting healthy, he just knew he was trading away the one thing that was going well.”

In May, Mr. Moulton, the Massachusetts congressman and Marine Corps veteran running for president, revealed that he was haunted by regrets and intrusive memories from four deployments to Iraq, and was seeing a therapist regularly. When he suspended his presidential bid last week, political analysts generally blamed his failure to stand out from a crowded field of candidates, not his candor about his mental health. He remains in the House and said he would seek re-election.

When Mr. Kander dropped out of the mayoral race, he also tried to drop out of sight. He deleted his Twitter account, gave his phone to Mr. Rakov and changed his appearance, growing a beard and wearing a hat to be harder to recognize. He wanted to focus on healing, he said, and not the public reaction to his announcement.

Over the next several months, he went to regular therapy sessions at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Kansas City. Just learning how to recognize and address the symptoms made a huge difference, he said.

His therapist had him record himself telling the stories of his most harrowing experiences in Afghanistan, and then play them back repeatedly until the emotional reins of the episodes loosened. As he did, the nightmares steadily waned.

Mr. Kander said he started exercising and meditating, and feels more at peace now than he had for a decade.

“I’m not cured, but I’m so much better,” he said. “PTSD is like an old knee injury. It’s always going to be there. If you treat it and manage it, it doesn’t have to restrict what you do.”

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