WARNING: This episode discusses suicidal ideation.
How do you know when it’s time to ask for help? For former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, the moment came just as his political star was rising. In October of 2018, in the final stages of what looked like a successful mayoral bid and while part of conversations about potential 2020 contenders, Kander stepped back. “After 11 years of trying to outrun depression and PTSD symptoms, I have finally concluded that it’s faster than me,” he wrote. “That I have to stop running, turn around, and confront it.”
Now, nearly a year later, he joins “Why Is This Happening?” to talk about what brought him to that point. He walks through his deployment and the lasting impact of living in mortal danger, how he used running for office as a coping mechanism, and the life changing power of therapy.
JASON KANDER: I would have nightmares pretty much every night. I went about 12 years without a good night’s sleep. I was coping with it by not dealing with it. But then my unconscious mind was like, “We’re going to deal with this.” When I went to sleep, my guard was down, and it would just flood in, and I dreaded sleep.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. Back in 2016 which was, you might remember, was an election year in 2016. You also may not remember how that ended up, but it was not a great year for Democrats, that election year. Not just because of what happened in the presidential ticket, which was that Donald Trump got elected president. It’s still wild to say that sentence, isn’t it? But also really bad downstream. There was a lot of hope for a bunch of Senate wins that did not work out. In some ways, it’s a lesson about the fact that the top of the ticket matters so much in presidential election years. It’s very hard to divide the fates up. But one of the democratic candidates who overperformed the most and came the closest in some of the most hostile terrain, was a guy who made a big splash with this ad that he put out supporting universal background checks for guns.
I’m going to describe the ad to you because this is a good visual medium, where he’s blindfolded and, in 30 seconds, he assembles essentially a military style rifle. He’s got it, he’s blindfolded and he’s putting it together and he’s talking about how his opponent is criticizing him for not supporting guns and says, “I support the Second Amendment, but I support background checks.” Then he takes the blindfold off and he says, “I want to see my opponent do this.” It’s a pretty badass ad. He had served in the army, and his name was Jason Kander. He was the Secretary of State for Missouri and an extremely promising young democratic politician. He lost by only a few percentage points in a state that Trump carried by a shocking margin.
Then afterwards he was kind of a star, particularly because everyone’s running around being like, “Who knows this new political terrain in which Donald Trump won Missouri by 18 points or something like that?” Like, “Well, this guy. He knows it. He figured it out because he got some voters that voted for Donald Trump because he outperformed Hillary Clinton in Missouri by 15 points.” There’s some people out there that were like, “I like Jason Kander. I like the cut of this guy’s jib. I like his rifle assembly skills.” He became this really important national voice. There was some talk that he was going to run for President of the United States. He then said he was going to run for mayor of Kansas City. Then he just announced, “I’m not going to run for mayor. I’m dropping out of running for mayor. I’m dropping out of politics and public life for now because I have PTSD that I have not dealt with. It’s getting to a point where I can’t function at this level. I need to treat it, and I need to go and deal with that.” It was a really remarkable moment in public life.
I don’t think I’d ever heard anything like it. A very prominent politician first talking about struggles in their mental health, specifically a veteran talking about PTSD at that level, and then stepping back from public life to get treatment and then re-emerging to talk about what happened. That’s where Jason Kander is now and that’s the bulk of our discussion today. Jason Kander is now working for a veteran’s organization called the Veterans Community Project. He’s leading their national expansion. They already existed in Kansas City. He’s talking about what his experience was, and how he got help, how others can get help. This is an extremely moving and compelling story. He’s an extremely dynamic and compelling guy. I think, if you listen to this conversation, you can understand why he performed as well as he did in that election and why he was seen as such a promising politician. He is a just deeply compelling figure.
But also it touches on PTSD in the context of veterans who have served in combat zones in the longest period of ongoing combat in the history of the United States. Jason, as you’ll hear, served one deployment. There are people that have served six deployments, seven deployments in this era who have been in combat almost nonstop, oscillating in and out of country for years. There are hundreds of thousands of folks who have had to deal with mental health issues in the wake of that through the VA and other places. I should say that, in this conversation, we do talk about suicidal ideation. If that’s something that’s triggering for you or you want to steer clear of that, it’s something we talk about in this conversation. For people that are both veterans and not veterans, people who have struggled with mental health themselves or who have loved ones, there’s something to find here about how someone goes about admitting to themselves that they need help.
Where’d you grow up, Jason?
JASON KANDER: I grew up in the Kansas City area. My family is fifth generation. I’m fifth generation. My son’s actually sixth generation now, Kansas City.
CHRIS HAYES: Am I right that, somewhere my memory is stored the idea that the famous musical theater author, Kander, is related to you?
JASON KANDER: Yeah, I’m related to him. Really. He’s my great uncle John. We’re really close. He’s my grandfather’s brother.
CHRIS HAYES: Oh, wow. Oh, so it’s not distant at all. That’s your great uncle John.
JASON KANDER: No, I talked to him the day before yesterday or maybe yesterday for an hour. We’re really close, and he’s been a big part of my life.
CHRIS HAYES: He broke “Cabaret” among other things, right? He’s a legend.
JASON KANDER: Yeah. “Cabaret,” “Chicago,” “New York, New York.”
CHRIS HAYES: My God.
JASON KANDER: Yeah. You’d really think I could play an instrument. But no. I’m in showbiz for ugly people. I spent a lot of time in politics.
CHRIS HAYES: What was your upbringing like in your household? What were the politics in that household like?
JASON KANDER: Oh, well, you know, my parents were juvenile probation officers. That’s how they met. Then, my dad became a small business owner, and he was a cop for a while. The politics of the house, my whole family, we’ve been liberals for a long time. I remember my dad used to mess with some of the relatives by pretending he voted for Bush, Sr. That’s the kind of household it was. But I don’t remember us talking about politics that much when I was a kid. We just talked a lot about, and this sounds corny, but just doing what’s right. It was really more about leading by example for my parents. They took kids in whose families were struggling, and we refer to them as my foster brothers. They didn’t go through the foster system. My younger brother and I had all these brothers. The politics in my house was just, “You know, we’ve been really fortunate, so we have an obligation to help other people.”
CHRIS HAYES: What was that experience like? My wife and I talk about this, actually, a lot. We talk about doing that at some point when our kids get older. I’m curious what that experience was like.
JASON KANDER: It was really good for me because I didn’t realize … We never wanted for anything, but I didn’t realize that I was actually privileged until I got to college because, growing up, even though there was money in the family, I shared everything. T-shirts, shorts, rooms, it didn’t matter. We didn’t go on as many vacations because we had a whole lot of people to take with us.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JASON KANDER: I didn’t get the big G.I. Joe thing usually, whatever it was.
CHRIS HAYES: That’s amazing. What you’re saying is it diluted the privilege in a way that was good for your upbringing.
JASON KANDER: See, that’s my theory, but it may just be that my parents did a really good job of not letting me realize.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Right.
JASON KANDER: As a result, when I got to college and I realized, “Oh, I’ve got a relative paying for this,” that’s when I thought, “Oh, okay, I’m super fortunate.”
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JASON KANDER: But the good thing was I was still really grateful for everything growing up. I just never got to have even one moment where I had any excuse to ever think we were in somehow better than… nothing. It was just like, “We’re just another family.” It was good for me. Not that money makes you better, but you know what I mean.
CHRIS HAYES: No, of course not. Of course not.
JASON KANDER: How a kid would misunderstand.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, yeah. When did you first start to think that you’d like to join the service?
JASON KANDER: I grew up, like a lot of kids, I was really into G.I. Joe and all that. But also, my dad had been a cop when I was really young. I remember thinking that that was amazing. Right? Walking around wearing his uniform, his police uniform. For Halloween I was always a soldier. It was there; it was something I thought I wanted to do. But then by the time I was going to college, I really put it in this category that was the “maybe one day category.” I really admired service and I thought, “One day I’m going to do that.” But I think if 9/11 had not happened, there was about a 50/50 chance I would have finished law school and become a reserve JAG officer or something. But because 9/11 happened, I flipped that whole equation. Instead of it being, “Maybe one day,” it became, “I’m going to do this.” Then I became an army intelligence officer. That definitely changed my track. But basically 9/11 is when I said, “This is happening.”
CHRIS HAYES: How old were you when 9/11 happened?
JASON KANDER: I was 20 or 21.
CHRIS HAYES: Were you in college still?
JASON KANDER: I was, yes. I was 20 and I was in my third year, which was my last year at American University.
CHRIS HAYES: Did you enlist right after that?
JASON KANDER: Well, I wanted to, but then I was in a pickup football game where I demanded to play tackle, which was pretty stupid.
CHRIS HAYES: I look back at my youth. 21’s old to be making that demand, but until I was about 19 and 20 we would get together and play tackle football. I do not know what the h–l I was thinking.
JASON KANDER: Yeah, yeah. I’ll tell you what I wasn’t thinking about. The fact that one of my buddies was all state free safety in Texas and was on the other team. He and I are still close and we still argue about whether I was in the end zone on this play. The end zone, of course, being a shirt that we threw down. Like, “That’s the end zone.” And anyway, I tore my ACL. At the time, the Army had a policy that that was an injury that you were disqualified. I remember some of my professors who were all Vietnam-era folks saying, “That’s great. You can’t be drafted.” I was like, “No, I actually want to go in.” I had to do surgery, physical therapy, and then by 2003 I was enlisted. In 2002 I had enrolled in ROTC.
CHRIS HAYES: What was that experience of just basic training and acculturating to that world like for you?
JASON KANDER: I really took to it. I did Army ROTC while I was at Georgetown Law School. I was really supposed to be very focused on law school. Law school was comparably very boring to me as compared to being out in the woods with a compass and figuring out how to do buddy rushes 30 seconds at a time with blank rounds. That stuff was exciting. Also, keep in mind, the country was going to war.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Right.
JASON KANDER: I had joined for that reason. So, in my mind I was exactly like my grandfather and my great grandfather who had gone in but didn’t have military careers. It’s just the country went to war, so that’s what you do. I took to that very well from a personality standpoint. I remember at first feeling like I was a law student who spent weekends and some evenings in uniform. By the end of law school, I very much felt like a soldier who usually, during the day, had to be a law student.
CHRIS HAYES: Were you surprised or not that you took to it in the way you did?
JASON KANDER: I guess what I was surprised with was it was really hard. Here I was, by the time I was getting ready to get my commission, I was only I think 24. The two years before that, 22 to 24, there was a group of us who are grad students in that ROTC program who we referred to ourselves as the Old Man’s Club because everybody was so young and comparably spry. Here I was with this knee injury and just trying to get through it physically but also mentally and emotionally, it was not the easiest thing.
It sometimes surprised me how tough it was, which I appreciated, because by the time you start law school, not a knock on law school, but you’re going to finish, right? You’re paying your money.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JASON KANDER: It’s like Taekwondo, right? You keep paying, they give you the belts. I was pretty sure that I was going to finish that, whereas there were plenty of times in Army Officer Training where I didn’t know if I’d make the finish line. That was a surprise. I don’t think it was a surprise to anybody in my family that I joined. In fact, on 9/11 I heard from family members who were just saying, “We know you’re going to join. Just don’t do it today.” It was always in my makeup.
CHRIS HAYES: Now you’re a soldier, you’re an officer, you have your commission and you’re also a J.D. Is it 2004 by that point?
JASON KANDER: I got my commission on May 20th, 2005.
CHRIS HAYES: At that point you’ve watched the trajectory of American foreign policy and war fighting go from a response to 9/11, war on terror, the invasion of Afghanistan, into Iraq, the run up to that, the initial invasion. Then things kind of falling apart after that first four or five, six months. What are you thinking as you’re thinking about the fact that you’re likely to deploy into a war zone?
JASON KANDER: I remember election night 2004, being on the phone with a buddy of mine who actually just ran for Congress this past cycle. We were both in the same ROTC program. His name’s Dan Feehan. I remember Kerry was ahead for a bit that night. I remember us having a conversation literally about how it affected our life expectancy. I remember having that conversation about who won that presidential election and how it would affect us. But that aside, for the most part, I was really in the mentality at that point, and I think appropriately so, of somebody who was just going into the job. I wasn’t thinking about the politics of it that much.
Don’t get me wrong, I followed it. I had strong opinions about… I didn’t think Iraq made any sense. But because I knew what I was going into, and because I knew that I planned to volunteer to deploy, and I didn’t know whether I’d get Afghanistan or Iraq, I preferred Afghanistan just because of the mission made more sense to me, I was really much more focused on really learning my job and learning the craft because people would say to me all the time, especially when they knew I was going to volunteer to deploy, they would say, “But why would you do that? You don’t have to go. Obviously you’re not somebody who has to be in the service.” I would always say the same thing, which was, “If I do my job well, then maybe some other American soldiers get to come home safely.” That sounds cornball, right? But that’s just how I saw it.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
JASON KANDER: It made sense to me. Because I had been raised to understand that we had been given a lot in our family and so therefore we had this big obligation. To me, I would get angry when people would say things to me about, “Why would you have to go?” Sometimes people would even say things like, “But you have this education. Why would you go be a ground pounding intelligence officer when you have this law degree from Georgetown?” That stuff would make me angry because I just felt like, “Who are you to tell me that I’m better and should put-“
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JASON KANDER: I just thought that was so wrong.
CHRIS HAYES: When did you first deploy?
JASON KANDER: I kept asking to go and then I got there on the ground October, 2006. I was only there for four months in Afghanistan.
CHRIS HAYES: What were you prepared for and what were you not prepared for?
JASON KANDER: It’s interesting. Even though you get the training, you can’t really prepare for a couple of things. The first thing is no matter how much they train you, you can’t help, at least in my case, picture a more conventional idea, largely from the movies and TV, of what you’ll first see when you get there.
What I expected was what I think most people expect, which is armored Humvees and a big, tough looking dude up on a giant machine gun up on top. I just thought, “That’s how we’ll travel.” That is not how I traveled. As an intelligence officer, and particularly with the limited resources that they were sending to Afghanistan at the time, I rode around in a unarmored Mitsubishi Pajero, which is really just the Mitsubishi version of a Ford Escape. It’s pretty much the same vehicle. That was a bit of a shock, my first convoy. From an equipment perspective, from a general “what it really feels like to be there” perspective.
But then the other thing is you get used to in the Army — and by that point I’d done ROTC, I’d done some active duty training, I had done army intelligence school, so I’d been in a world that in the army they referred to as “TRADOC,” which is training and doctrine command. That’s pretty much where everybody is up until they get to their first job. This was, save a few months in Tampa in a reserve duty, this was really my first job, being an Afghanistan, my first job over there. I had been in the utopian military environment where everything works the way it’s supposed to.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Right.
JASON KANDER: Right. You do the job you’re trained to do. Then I get over there, and I was a second lieutenant, so O1, very first level of officer. They said, “Well, you’re replacing an O5,” which was a lieutenant colonel, which is somebody who’s been in the army 20 years and here I am, I’m wet behind the ears. This is, I just think, how war is. It wasn’t like, “Well, this obviously works the way you would expect.”
You just show up and they say, “Okay, we’ve got two possible gigs we need you to do. We have this analytical position looking at intelligence or I guess working in a night shift, I think it was. Then you write some stuff up. And then the other thing is this job where you go out and you collect intelligence about the corruption and the other threats and espionage and that sort of stuff, narco trafficking, that we need to collect on because we’re working with these Afghan government officials. You would just go out and you would talk to people, pretty much by yourself a lot of the time, figure that stuff out, come back and write about it.” Clearly the first job was a lot safer, but I was 25 or whatever and thought I was bulletproof and also felt like, “Well, I came here to do something important.” So I picked that one. But, really, the part I wasn’t prepared for was the part where you show up and they’re like, “Okay, you’re going to replace this guy who would usually be your boss’s boss’s boss.”
CHRIS HAYES: Where were you stationed?
JASON KANDER: I was out of Kabul, Camp Eggers. I went east a bit, but I spent a lot of time in and around Kabul.
CHRIS HAYES: Did you like that work?
JASON KANDER: I loved it. I loved every second of it. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you’re homesick, sometimes you’re just sick because you’re out, in my case, out on the road eating Afghan food in meetings, and they don’t have necessarily the same rules that we were accustomed to about preparing food, that kind of stuff.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JASON KANDER: Don’t get me wrong, it was still a war. There were parts that sucked. But I felt like every part of me was at full utilization so often. That’s, in some ways, I think once you’ve done that there’s just part of you that’s always trying to get back to that for the rest of your life.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I’ve heard that before from other folks, from other vets. Were you aware of that in the moment? There’s times in my life, I’ve never deployed to a war zone, there’s times in my life where I’ve done things where I feel like, A, a state of flow and, B, a state of a perfect match between the challenge and my abilities that are just right, kind of tied. Like, “This is hard, but I’m operating at full capacity and just being able to do it in a way that feels satisfying.” Is that-
JASON KANDER: Yeah, it’s that, but add in just unnatural, maximum adrenaline levels on a semi-regular basis. For me, as an intelligence officer, and I guess this would be a third thing that maybe was not what I expected, and I’ve spent a lot of years sort of having to come to terms with the idea of thinking about my version of combat as combat, because I never had a bullet whiz by my ear. My vehicle never blew up. I never had to kill anybody. And so, I spent a lot of years saying, well that wasn’t combat.
Well, I spent a lot of time, many hours at a time, out, oftentimes just with my translator as my sort of backup. And, nobody knew where I was. And, I would go into these meetings with armed people who I couldn’t know their allegiances for sure, and couldn’t know for sure that I wasn’t about to be kidnapped and killed. And, while that is horribly frightening, when you’re doing it, and other people around you are doing it, it seems really normal.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JASON KANDER: And, it’s incredible what can seem normal. And so you, while at first you’re just really, really frightened, you go on to stay really frightened, but you don’t realize it.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
JASON KANDER: Because it kind of just becomes a state of being. And then, there are moments where you go, and the way I would always think of it was, I would think, “this is like a movie.” Where, I had one of my best contacts was the Afghan attorney general. And, I thought he was a great contact because well one, he spoke English, and two, he didn’t have a real discernible motivation to kidnap me. So, that made for a pretty great contact.
CHRIS HAYES: A good combo.
JASON KANDER: And, I was fond of working with him. And, we were in a meeting with him once, and it was myself, and somebody from another intelligence shop that had come along, and we’re sitting with him, and he’s got this person with him who was a prosecutor in one of the outlaying provinces. And, he said to us early in the meeting, the attorney general did, he said, “Don’t worry, he doesn’t speak a word of English.”
And then, he proceeded in English to tell us that this man has been involved in several failed plots to assassinate him. And, the guy’s just sitting there, nodding like a person does, like, oh, a joke’s been told. But they don’t know that, what it was.
And then, the person I was with went out to smoke a cigarette a little bit before we left, and then she came back in, and she just looked just white, like something terrible had happened. And, the guy on the couch who didn’t speak any English had already left before that. Well, I found out when we got in the vehicle to leave, that he had bummed a cigarette, and they were smoking together, and of course he wasn’t saying anything.
And, after a few minutes, in perfect English, he says, he’s like, “Where are you from?” And she tells him, and it turns out, he says, “Oh yeah, I own some nice farm land in Nebraska.” I mean, so stuff like that would happen.
CHRIS HAYES: Oh.
JASON KANDER: And, you’re just like, you don’t realize that you’ve just had this insane adrenaline moment, but you also at the time just think, okay, that’s like a movie. So that’s, that was an incredible job.
CHRIS HAYES: How do you think about what that constant presence of adrenaline, and the constant possibility of violence, as this just sort of, a lurking possibility, what do you think that was doing to you psychologically and spiritually, while it was happening?
JASON KANDER: Well, if you had asked me that a year ago, I’d have said, oh nothing. Because I was in denial about it, and because I thought it was sort of necessary to my career ambitions to continue to be in denial about it.
But now, I’ve been through about eight months of therapy, and I can tell you that what it did, it did several things. I mean, one thing was that it, well it gave me post-traumatic stress, but in the specifics, it gave me symptoms like hypervigilance.
And really, it took a while for my therapist to sort of help me understand that my reactions over there, by becoming hypervigilant, by always thinking about how many exits there were, by always having four different plans as to how you were going to get out of a situation, that’s a really normal survival instinct in that environment. And, the hard part is you come home, and then you’re supposed to turn it off.
And, another aspect to that, by the way, is that in order for me to be able to do that work, the Army had to not just train me. The Army had to, and I don’t say this really in a negative way, they had to kind of brainwash me.
CHRIS HAYES: Mm-hmm.
JASON KANDER: And, what I mean by that is, they had to say to me, over, and over, and over again, and this is true of every soldier. They had to get it across to me that somebody was doing something harder than me. That most people had it harder than me. And, that’s true no matter what your job in the Army. And that’s necessary.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JASON KANDER: Because, if they hadn’t put that in me, I couldn’t have gone into all those meetings.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JASON KANDER: Because, I would have consciously said, no, this is super dangerous. But, because that was in there going, well, look, all my friends are doing harder stuff-
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JASON KANDER: The problem is, nobody turns that off when you come home. It’s vitally important that that be part of you when you’re there, in order to do your job. But, you really don’t need it when you get home. In fact, it’s a real hindrance when you get home, because then as you start to deal with these things, you are saying to yourself, okay, other people have it worse. Other people deserve this, I don’t.
Because nobody ever sat you down and said, okay, that was some crazy s–t. You need to know that. And it’s not normal, what you had to go through. And now, it’s going to be hard to come out of it. And so, as a result, what it did to my body and my brain is, it just sort of taught me that I was in danger all the time. And then, I never, well, not until recently did I unlearn that.
CHRIS HAYES: I want to know about what your coping mechanisms were over the last several years, before you addressed it through treatment. So, let’s talk about that after this break.
Part of what you’re identifying is that you didn’t think there was a thing to cope with, because it was what was normal and what was the product of your training, and in fact adaptive in that environment. So it’s not like, if we have a traumatic experience in civilian life, a loved one dies in a car crash, everyone recognizes that you have suffered a trauma. And, whether you’re a super repressed person, or you’re not a super repressed person, or a spiritual person or not, or you would go to therapy or not, there, you at least recognize, oh, there’s a trauma here.
JASON KANDER: Mm-hmm.
CHRIS HAYES: I’m grieving, I’m sad, I lost this person I love. What I’m hearing from you is just, there’s not even the recognition. It’s like that joke about the fish in water, right, where the old fish swims by the two fish, and says, “Enjoy the water.” And the young one says, “What’s water?” Right?
JASON KANDER: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: What were you doing psychologically as a coping mechanism? How did you deal with the fact that the fight or flight system in your brain at some level is always engaged?
JASON KANDER: Well, I kind of, it is exactly like the story about the fish in the water, because I thought I was the only rational person. So, for instance, well I’ll just go through some of what the last several years have been like, prior to dealing with this.
I mean, I would have nightmares pretty much every night. I went about 12 years without a good night’s sleep. At the beginning, they were nightmares that were really all about what I had feared over there. Getting kidnapped. They were very specific to Afghanistan, into what happening, that kind of thing.
And then, over time they evolved, and they started to take on my everyday environs, and sometimes they didn’t have anything to do with the military, but it was the same threat. I would try to cope with that by, and I even wrote about this in my book. I thought I had fixed it by not reading about things that had to do with kidnapping, or sometimes just avoiding Afghanistan stuff altogether. I wouldn’t watch war movies, that kind of thing.
I learned over the last eight months that that’s avoidance, and it’s actually the opposite of what I needed to do. So now, I get a lot fewer nightmares, because of the therapy. But, I get them sometimes.
But, now I know what to do. I will do the opposite of what I used to do. If I’m having real bad nightmares, I will pull up my phone, and I will watch a clip of Band of Brothers, or something like that. And, that allows my brain to process this stuff.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow, huh.
JASON KANDER: What I didn’t realize was, I was coping with it by not dealing with it. But then, my unconscious mind was like, we’re going to deal with this. So, when I went to sleep, my guard was down, and it would just flood in and my, I dreaded sleep, and so I would stay up.
Other stuff, the hypervigilance, I mean, it was, it’s kind of crazy the profession I chose, but crowds were sometimes difficult. So, if I was giving a big speech, or any speech, I would shake every single hand in the room. One, because I knew that was just a good thing to do as a politician, but two, because it allowed me to kind of look at everybody, and assess the threat, and just feel a little more comfortable when I got up on the podium.
I almost never sat with my back to the door, anywhere. When I was Secretary of State, I can remember several times, people must’ve thought it was really strange, that we had this meeting room that was like this very large room, and I would, I had a rule that nobody could sit behind me. And I’m, I don’t consider myself to have been like a high maintenance boss. So, this was very out of character. And, everybody just came to know, don’t sit behind Jason, in this huge room, where they …
And, stuff like that, now looking back, it should have been more clear to me. But, because I had friends who had been in a more traditional type of combat, who had had to take lives, it felt to me like saying that I had post-traumatic stress was stolen valor.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
JASON KANDER: And, so I just couldn’t do it.
CHRIS HAYES: So, you come back after this deployment, when do you first run for office?
JASON KANDER: My first time on the ballot was ’08. So, I started running in August of ’07, I started knocking on doors. I mean, I-
CHRIS HAYES: That’s not that long after you come back.
JASON KANDER: Yeah. And I had been raising money and stuff like that before that. But, I started like really, really running in August of ’07. No, not long at all. Looking back now, I recognize I was in a bit of a hurry to not deal with myself.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. And there’s, I mean, it’s of obviously, an extremely different thing, but there’s a lot of adrenaline involved in the campaign.
JASON KANDER: Mm-hmm.
CHRIS HAYES: If you’re kind of jonesing.
JASON KANDER: Absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: If your body’s jonesing for adrenaline, that’s one place in civilian life to get it.
JASON KANDER: Yes. And, the other thing that I now realize is that, and part of this is being, I think is common to folks who have experienced trauma, and part of it is just general survivors guilt, that a lot of soldiers get, whether they experienced post-traumatic stress or not.
I felt really strongly that I had not done enough.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, yeah.
JASON KANDER: And, I went over there saying, if I do my job well, I’m going to help some folks come home. And I just never, ever even came close to feeling like I had done enough. And, in a lot of ways, running for office, trying to do these big things, part of it was the adrenaline of the competition, and that sort of thing.
But, a really big part of it, and a big part of everything I was doing, was just this really, really deep and unquenchable thirst for redemption. A feeling that I was worthy of this, worthy of coming home safe.
CHRIS HAYES: Because you felt like your experience, in your deployment, and in a war zone, had not earned that redemption. That you had not done enough, and you had not … Is that because you were not in firefights? What was that?
JASON KANDER: I think probably there was virtually nothing I could have done that would’ve-
CHRIS HAYES: Right, right-
JASON KANDER: … made me feel that way. I know that now.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, because people who are in firefights, and in fact people that do the bravest things imaginable feel that way, too, so.
JASON KANDER: Absolutely. A buddy of mine said to me once, he said, “Man, somewhere there’s a World War II veteran sitting around at a VFW hall, explaining that look, the guys in the front of the landing craft at D-Day are the ones who had it real bad.”
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
JASON KANDER: “He was in the back of the landing craft.”
CHRIS HAYES: Right, right.
JASON KANDER: And that’s, because that’s how they program us. And again, I don’t fault them for that. It’s the lack of deprogramming that causes the problem.
CHRIS HAYES: So clearly, you’re a young man on the make here, in that you’re ambitious. You come back, and you’re running for office. Did you run for the state legislature first? Is that right?
JASON KANDER: Mm-hmm. Yep.
CHRIS HAYES: You win.
JASON KANDER: Yep.
CHRIS HAYES: And then, from that you go to secretary of state?
JASON KANDER: Yeah. And just to, the whole, how hard charging I was, and the need to just constantly be working. That state legislative campaign, I knocked on 20,000 doors. I mean, we ended up winning, it was a three-way race, we got 68 percent of the vote.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
JASON KANDER: I probably could have dialed it back a little. I probably didn’t need to lose 15 pounds knocking on doors in the neighborhoods in Kansas City.
As an aside, by the way-
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah-
JASON KANDER: … when I walked in here, Brian, the engineer, I said, “Nice to meet you.” And he said, “Actually, we met at my door, like 10 years ago.”
CHRIS HAYES: Oh, really?
JASON KANDER: I mean, this happens to me everywhere I go in Kansas City. It is one of the real upsides of having done that, as I kind of don’t meet a stranger.
CHRIS HAYES: That’s amazing.
JASON KANDER: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: So, when does your wife come into the picture?
JASON KANDER: So, Diana and I actually met when we were 17. We’ve been together this whole time.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
JASON KANDER: So, she’s had the brunt of the whole thing.
CHRIS HAYES: And then, so you go from state legislature, and then secretary of state, right?
JASON KANDER: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: At that point, are you, I guess it’s you and McCaskill, are the two statewide elected Democrats. Right?
JASON KANDER: Actually, this was kind of amazing, because it’s not that long ago. But, in 2012 when I got elected secretary of state, the next day, or when I got sworn in, six out of the eight statewide elected officials were Democrats in Missouri.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow. Wow.
JASON KANDER: Yeah. It was governor, treasurer, attorney general, secretary of state, one of the senators.
CHRIS HAYES: That’s wild. I can’t believe that.
JASON KANDER: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: That feels like another universe, because that state has gone-
JASON KANDER: It’s amazing-
CHRIS HAYES: … so far in the other direction-
JASON KANDER: Yeah-
CHRIS HAYES: … in such a short period of time.
JASON KANDER: Yeah. Yeah. They just had, they had one senator, the auditor, and the lieutenant governor.
CHRIS HAYES: And so, then you ran that race for the U.S. Senate in-
JASON KANDER: ’16.
CHRIS HAYES: In ’16, right.
JASON KANDER: Mm-hmm.
CHRIS HAYES: What was that race like?
JASON KANDER: That race was a whirlwind man. I mean, I had done a statewide campaign, but I had done a secretary of state’s race where, here’s how I described it to somebody once. A buddy of mine, who had also been a statewide politician in Missouri, he asked me the difference between the secretary of state’s race and the Senate race.
And I said, “You know, when you were in college, and you were thinking maybe one day you’d run for office, and all you really knew about it was ‘The West Wing.’ And that was it. Your whole frame of reference was watching ‘The West Wing.’ And then, you ran for state house, and you’re like, well this is nothing like ‘The West Wing’ is.”
CHRIS HAYES: This is not “The West Wing.”
JASON KANDER: It’s “Parks and Rec.”
CHRIS HAYES: Right, yes.
JASON KANDER: But it’s not-
CHRIS HAYES: Yes-
JASON KANDER: It’s not “The West Wing.” And that was fine. You found you liked “Parks and Rec.” And then, you ran for secretary of state, and there were occasional moments where you’re like, ooh, this is “West Wing-ish.” But, you didn’t have all these staff, and you didn’t have these people following you around.”
And, I told him, I said, “Running for the U.S. Senate in a national, in essentially a national race, where it may determine the control of the Senate, and it’s the closest race in the country. Especially considering that, when you started, nobody had any idea that Missouri was ever going to even be close, and nobody was thinking that way.”
And I told him, “It turns out, that’s when it starts to feel a little like ‘The West Wing.'”
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Right.
JASON KANDER: And, I don’t mean like glamorous, I just mean like, oh wow, there’s a lot of people here.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
JASON KANDER: And, they seem to really be interested in this.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes. Yeah, because I mean, I’ve covered politics for most of my career, and one thing that always struck me is early on, when you’re covering local races, is how unglamorous it is.
JASON KANDER: Oh, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And, I’ll never forget watching this congresswoman in her primary, who ended up losing to Rahm Emanuel, when he ran for that seat, just shaking hands with elderly folks in a bingo hall, on the northwest side of Chicago. And, they could not be bothered to, they didn’t want to shake her hand, they wanted to listen to the bingo numbers.
JASON KANDER: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And, I’m watching her sort of try to get their attention. I’m just like, damn dude, this is humiliating. And, this was one of my first bits of campaign reporting. And I was like, oh this is just what it’s like to run for office.
You have to kind of impose yourself on people’s time, and you have to kind of beg for their attention a little bit. And, you’re kind of supplicant a lot.
JASON KANDER: Oh, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: The way that it works in “The West Wing,” or other kind of depictions, where there’s like, the candidate is the principal, and sort of at the top of this big totem pole, or pyramid, or hierarchy.
And in reality, it’s just like you’re begging a lot, for people to pay a little attention, or sign your petition, or take the lit that you have in your hand.
JASON KANDER: It’s, every time I talk to somebody who says, “Hey, I think I may want to run for office.” And they say, “Will you have a phone conversation with me about it?”
Sure. Okay. So we talk. And, I’m listening very closely at the beginning of each of those conversations, because when I ask them about their campaign, if it started, or what their plan is, if at any point in it they say to me, in the first few sentences, well, I’m going to go to all the events, and I’m…
And, if they use the term speech writer, if they think they’re going to have a speech writer, or anything like that, I’m just like, I just stop them. I’m like, “You shouldn’t run for office, because this is door to door sales and telemarketing. That’s what this is.”
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, yep.
JASON KANDER: And frankly, you don’t get to do the door to door, which I really enjoyed, when you run for the U.S. Senate, but it’s still unfortunately, a whole lot of telemarketing.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, yeah. You’re dialing for dollars. I mean, that race was, you kind of broke out. You had this very famous ad, where you assembled an assault weapon blindfolded. Right?
JASON KANDER: Mm-hmm.
CHRIS HAYES: Am I getting that right?
JASON KANDER: Yeah, yeah, that was my argument for background checks.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. For background checks. It is a great ad. We’ll link to that. And then, you over-performed the top of the ticket, the presidential nominee in your state by quite a bit. You ran a very good race, were not able to actually win.
But, you’ve come back, you’ve now been this person who you went to college, you enlisted after 9/11, then you went to law school, and you’re ROTC, and then you deployed, and then you came back, and then you ran for one office and won that, and then you ran for another office and won that.
And now, you’ve run for this and you’ve not won. What that was doing to you psychologically, about who you are, and what your sort of role was, your destiny, and things like that.
JASON KANDER: Yeah. At the time, I of course didn’t think about any of that. At the time, I just thought-
CHRIS HAYES: Just push it down.
JASON KANDER: Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. It was, in fact, there’s a part in my book where I said something about, if you’re really upset by everything going on in the world, just stay busy.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, yeah.
JASON KANDER: And I think man, after eight months of therapy, I think I might change that advice. But, I really believed at that time, and I was making the argument all over the country, that look, Missouri is still a bellwether state, and that’s what I was telling everybody.
And, part of what I was doing was, is you had to believe that. And, even absent of that, we got well over 200,000 voters who voted for Trump, and for me. I mean, we had people showing up at our rallies who were Trump people. And, I was a progressive. So I mean, I really believed in the case we were making. Our last poll, and I think also the other guy’s last poll, had us winning.
We ran 16 points ahead of the ticket, but it turned out that that day that was 2.8 percent not enough, because, and people forget this, Missouri actually was a larger margin for Trump than Mississippi. He won Missouri by 19, he won Mississippi by 18. So, that was too much to overcome.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
JASON KANDER: And to be honest, I just couldn’t get my mind around that at first. I mean, at first it was devastating. Oh, we lost. And then, later in the night it was, Oh my God, Trump won.
And I guess, there’s no saving grace at all to Trump winning. But, I suppose in the personal grief process, that was so overwhelming-
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, totally. I’ll never forget, I, Jonathan Alter, who is also a Cubs fan, that was 2016. Every time I would see him around 30 Rock, we’d talk about the Cubs, and we were psyched. And of course, the Cubs win the World Series, for the first time in over a hundred years, four or five days before Trump’s elected.
JASON KANDER: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And then, Trump is elected. And then, I think a day after Trump’s elected, I see Johnathan Alter in the green room. And, he looks at me, I haven’t seen him. And he’s like, “Hey, how about the Cubs?” I’m like, “How about the Cubs? How about the Cubs?”
JASON KANDER: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: “Are you out of your f—–g mind?”
JASON KANDER: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: “You want to talk to me about the Cubs?”
JASON KANDER: Ah, yeah. Man, I remember having conversations, friends who are also in politics would call me in the couple of weeks after, and they’d say, “How are you feeling?”
And I would say it was weird for me, because I had just lost this race, and I kind of expected to just disappear into oblivion, from a political relevancy standpoint, but for whatever reason, people wanted to hear more from me, and so people would call me and say, “How do you feel about this? People keep wanting to talk to you.” And I said, “You know, it’s sort of like there was this nuclear event, and we’ve all come up from the bunkers, and I’m supposed to take solace in the idea that I’ve been elected leader of our group of seven.” It was just coming to terms with that, figuring out…and then personally because of the stuff I was going through, I now can look back and realize that there was a part of me that was like, “I have to figure out a way to keep going because I can’t just sit around here and deal with myself. That is not going to happen.”
CHRIS HAYES: So, then what happens that makes you realize you do have to do that? I mean, I ran into while you were… you had a national organization that you were working on and fundraising for that was sort of voter involvement and voter protection. There was talk about other elected office. There was talk about mayor, even higher offices at certain points. And then there was-
JASON KANDER: Yeah, I mean I’ll just flat out, I can say now, I was going to run for president. So how did I deal with it? I was like, “Well, I’ll just save the world.” I didn’t know that that was a coping mechanism, and also — I want to give myself some credit — it was also a sense of patriotic duty.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, right. And you’d just run 60 points ahead of… I mean, like you said, in the nuclear wreckage for the Democratic Party, people were sort of sifting through and finding little jewels from the lost civilization, and you were one of them.
JASON KANDER: Yeah, so I’m like, okay, I guess I should do this. And you were asking what that was like, what that feeling was like of “I can’t just sit around here.” The best way to describe it is it’s just this tension, and I would say to my wife sometimes, I would say… there are a few things I would say that now I look back and I’m like, “Well, that was an indicator.” One was I would say, “I feel like I’m dying.” And now I recognize, with the help of my therapist at the VA, that one of the things that happens with trauma is that once you’ve sort of experienced something where you actually think you might die because you’re out there alone and you’re in this room with a guy you think is bad, that kind of stuff, you have trouble not taking other things that are bad or stressful and not dialing them all the way up the meter.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Like, “I am dying,” or “my life is in danger,” or “people I love are in danger.”
JASON KANDER: Exactly. And all three of those. You nailed it. So that was part of it, and then also this constant… even once “Let America Vote,” my organization, got going and sort of a dry run presidential campaign, and all of a sudden we had this big team, the other thing I would say to my wife all the time was, “I feel like I’m disappointing everyone all the time.” And she would say, “There’s literally no evidence of that,” but it just felt that way to me all the time, and that was me projecting out the fact that I was constantly disappointed in myself. And a lot of that had to do with I was carrying all this inner turmoil around, and I didn’t feel I could share it with anybody, including even those closest to me like my wife, and I had just sort of settled in. I mean, by that time, it had been a decade and I had forgotten that I didn’t use to be like this, and so-
CHRIS HAYES: That’s intense, dude.
JASON KANDER: Yeah, so I just like, “Well, this is who I am I guess, and some people don’t get to be happy.”
CHRIS HAYES: Right. I’m just tortured. I’m tortured, and I can’t sleep, and I have nightmares, and I’m never going to be good enough, and I’m disappointing everyone and I’ve got to go, go, go to keep it going, and if I let go of the kite for a second, it’s all going to float away.
JASON KANDER: Yeah. And if I let go of the kite for a second, it’s all going to float away, and because of that, I really dislike myself. It’s sort of a self-loathing and a shame that goes over all of it.
CHRIS HAYES: Had you never been in therapy before?
JASON KANDER: I went to a guy once because I thought, “I have bad dreams. I’ll go to a dream guy,” and that didn’t work because I should’ve gone to a trauma guy.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Yes, the dreams. Yes, the dreams are-
JASON KANDER: I went to like three appointments, so not really.
CHRIS HAYES: So what was it that you felt… what got you to the point where you’re like, “I can’t. This is not working.”
JASON KANDER: So there’s the cumulative buildup, and then there’s the moment where I was like this is real. I had off and on had suicidal thoughts for a few years by that point, but they were usually several months apart, like real bad bouts.
CHRIS HAYES: But they were intense, like you would go through ideation about killing yourself?
JASON KANDER: Yeah. There are degrees of it. I mean, so I didn’t really… I never had a plan which I guess is an important aspect of it. It didn’t get to that point, but that’s where it was going, and so… and that was more just about I can’t escape this. And I also felt like a burden because here I was, gone all the time, and I didn’t think I was any fun to live with, which that I was probably right about. And so, all this was laying on me and it was getting worse, and on top of that, everything objectively was… just objectively, professionally, things were great. My podcast was number one in the country when it launched. My book became a New York Times Bestseller. I had decided a few months before, “Okay, something’s wrong with me, so I’m going to go home and run for mayor instead of president and I’m going to go to the VA.” Of course, I never did the VA part at that point.
So now I’m running for mayor. It was going great. We sold $25,000 worth of T-shirts in the mayoral campaign on the first day. We raised three times as much as the other eight people in the race combined in the first three months. I mean, I was going to win, and objectively I was like, “Things should be great.” And I realized the campaign had been 99 days long and I had had 98 bad days, and it was just getting worse and worse.
And so I called the Veterans Suicide Hotline, the Crisis Line, and I talked to a woman on the other end of the phone, and I expected… because I was, like probably a lot of people, I just felt like, “Well, I don’t really have this problem, and I don’t have post-traumatic stress, and I’m going to call this number but there’s just something wrong with me. I’m different than other people.” And the whole time I’m talking to the lady, I was just so struck by the fact that she… it sounded from her voice like this was no different than any other call she had had that day, and I sounded like every other veteran who was going through this. I could tell. And that was it for me, I just realized… honestly, then my wife and I googled post-traumatic stress, and read it and it was like it was written for me, and I just kind of broke down crying. And it was like, “Okay, I got to deal with this.”
CHRIS HAYES: Did you talk to other people that you had served with or that were also had been deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq during this period or before that moment when you called that hotline?
JASON KANDER: One of my best friends is somebody who has post-traumatic stress and has dealt with it at the VA and on the one hand was very much a mentor to me in this process, and on the other hand, and this was through no fault of his own, he had been through two deployments in Iraq of really intense in the street, door-to-door fighting, and so he was also sort of represented to me like real post-traumatic stress. And that was through no fault of his own, and he would tell me like, “Dude, I would not have been able to do what you did.”
And meanwhile, you were saying did I talk to others, throughout the years, I’d be out on the campaign trail, I’d meet veterans, I’d talk to friends of mine, I’d talk to soldiers of mine, and I had no problem counseling people and saying, “Look, what you experienced is real. You need to get treatment. You’ve earned it. It’s strong to do it.” I could tell other people that but not do it myself, which is… it is what it is, and I think a lot of people… one of the biggest things I’ve heard back from folks is that my saying, “Look, I didn’t think I did enough and yet I have this,” was maybe the most important thing I said as far as other veterans go.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Because there’s a lot of people carrying that around.
JASON KANDER: And not just veterans. So many people have trauma.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, dude, this is like a hobby horse of mine, and the space that you’re talking about is something I have no subjective access to whatsoever. I’ve never served a day. I have been fairly removed in my personal life from the experience of war and its aftermath, but in other parts of my life I’ve dealt with people, I’ve been adjacent to people that go through intense trauma, and whether that’s sexual assault or that’s abuse or that is people in our lives who have extremely deep addiction problems, there’s a lot of trauma walking around out there, and a lot of people who think that the trauma that they’ve experienced isn’t real or isn’t important enough or isn’t messing them up or even know the vocabulary to talk about that. And so, I think you’re right that the context of this is bigger than the specifics of PTSD in the context of war. There’s a lot of people with a lot of trauma that is messing them up that really could stand to use to talk to someone.
JASON KANDER: Yeah, and when I was living this life that was sort of made for… you know that package you put together of a politician and you roll it out as a product and, “This guy’s got it all together, and he’s going to lead,” and nobody would ever come and talk to me about their issues. And then I put it out in the world what I had been through, and thousands of people including people who are very close to me who I had no idea what they had been through. And once I had put that out there, people would come up and they would talk to me about it, and then I could help them and I could say, “You should go see somebody.”
And the thing about that is you don’t have to be somebody with hundreds of thousands of social media followers to make that difference. If you in your workplace say, “This is what I’ve been dealing with, and I go to a therapist for this.” One, it’s important that people have the courage to do that because it’s going to be to your benefit because people around you will support you through that, but also because you are then doing that in your orbit because there will be somebody else in your social orbit or your workplace who will go out and maybe save their own life because you did that.
CHRIS HAYES: Did you do therapy through the VA?
JASON KANDER: I did, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And what was that experience like?
JASON KANDER: Fantastic.
CHRIS HAYES: That’s great to hear. I ask this… one of my best friends in the world, actually, he is a psychologist at the VA, and I’m always sort of in awe and admiration of the work he does, and it seems like they do really amazing work.
JASON KANDER: They really do, and you got to separate two things. There’s the VA as far as the system and the way it’s been set up and some of the difficulties of it, which the organization I work with now, Veterans Community Project, helped me navigate that, and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But then the other part of it is the actual clinical side. The treatment, it’s just outstanding.
And when I made my announcement, I said, “I’m going to go to the VA in Kansas City and get help for this,” so many people, and well-meaning people, reached out to me and said, “You need to go to a private provider. You have means. You have insurance. Why would you go to the VA?” And I told people, I said, “Look, I want to talk to people who talk to people like me all day,” and that’s what I did. There was never a moment where I said to my therapist at the VA anything and he went, “What?” or, “Whoa, that’s weird.” It was never a moment. It was more just like a nod and like, “Yep. And let me explain why you feel that way right now,” because what he dealt with was combat post-traumatic stress.
CHRIS HAYES: And that specialty, like you said, you tried someone without that specialty and it didn’t work.
JASON KANDER: It’s also by the way why the VA, it’s so important that we protect it as it is because now that I’m enrolled there, I go to the VA for other stuff. My primary care is there. I’m thinking about getting shoulder surgery. If I do, I’ll do it there. But it’s not like that it’s just, “Oh, they have a doctor who would do the surgery on my shoulder.” It’s the people who do that work there understand, “Oh, well this injury may be from the fact that this guy probably carried a rucksack long distances,” or… you know? It’s just when you work with people who all had the same occupation at some point, you’re just able to get right to what might be going on with him a lot faster.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s overly reductive or tried to be like, “What’s the big lesson here of the Jason Kander journey?” But you and your wife have been talking about this new organization you’re starting, and clearly you feel like it’s important to talk to both vets and non-vets about getting treatment and talking to someone and mental health. What’s the thing that you came out of this now knowing about yourself or about the world or about life on the planet Earth that you didn’t know before?
JASON KANDER: Well, first, I want to be real clear the organization I’m working with, Veterans Community Project, I’m leading the national expansion, but it was started by some awesome combat vets three years ago.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, yes. I’m sorry. Sorry for that.
JASON KANDER: It’s okay. I just want to make sure that I’m not trying to steal their thunder because what they’ve done is amazing. I feel like I have two roles that I want to play right now in the world. Both of these are second to I’m really focused on being a dad and a husband right now in a way that I haven’t, and I can’t even say haven’t had the opportunity to do over the last several years, I didn’t have the sense to do over the last several years. And not even sense like… I just wasn’t capable of it, and now I am, and I am flipping loving every… I mean, I’m coaching my son’s baseball team.
CHRIS HAYES: That’s great.
JASON KANDER: So, that’s the number one stuff for me right now, and then second to that are two things. One is demonstrating for folks that post-traumatic growth is a real thing and it’s achievable and it’s worth going after as hard as it can be to go after it, and that’s just sort of… and talking to you right now and that kind of thing in a way that a lot of people will hear.
But then the other part is this organization, Veterans Community Project, it’s based in Kansas City, and we call it VCP. I toured VCP six weeks before I made my announcement about stepping out of public life, and I was just blown away by it. I mean, they do two things. They help any veteran who walks in the door. They’ve served thousands of veterans in Kansas City, and it’s a walk-in clinic, and they just fill in any gap that exists in Veterans Services for any veteran. And the second is they’ve effectively ended veterans homelessness in Kansas City by creating a village of tiny homes with on-site wraparound services. And those two things are really inspiring, and I saw it, and I was amazed by it. And then I just went back to call time and campaigning and as you do on the campaign trail.
And then I made my announcement six weeks later, and I found that there were a bunch of hoops that I wasn’t exactly sure how to jump through in order to get the mental health services I needed at the VA. And I was really struck by that because I was thinking, “Man, I got this phone full of influential contacts. I’ve got a law degree from Georgetown. I’ve got pretty high level government experience. I’m not homeless like a lot of the people VCP serves, and I’m kind of overwhelmed at the moment about what to do here.” And so I called up these guys. I knew Bryan, who’s our CEO, he had interned for my secretary of Ssate’s race back in the day, and he had given me the tour. And he was like, “Yeah, man. Come in.” And so they just treated me like any of the thousands of vets.
CHRIS HAYES: That’s awesome.
JASON KANDER: Yeah. And it made a huge difference. They handled my paperwork, got me into the mental health stuff at the VA quickly-
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
JASON KANDER: … and I was so turned on by that that as I started to get better and treatment started to really take hold for me, I started hanging around, and they had had inquiries from all over the country, people wanting them to expand into other cities. And they kind of said, “Look, you’ve created a national organization before. Why don’t you help us do that?” And so it was a natural for me, so now that’s what I’m doing. I want to solve veterans homelessness and serve every veteran who’s fallen through the cracks, and I think VCP can do that.
CHRIS HAYES: Jason Kander is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He’s also a former state legislator and secretary of state and U.S. Senate candidate and an all-around extremely fascinating and open-hearted person. It was really great to talk to you, Jason. Thank you very much.
JASON KANDER: Thank you, Chris. Good to talk to you, man.
CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Jason Kander. That organization’s called the Veterans Community Project. We have a link on our website. He’s the founder of Let America Vote. He’s a former Secretary of State of Missouri. Also, I want to give a shout out here to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline which is… you should put in your phone, actually, because you should have it in your phone if you encounter a loved one who you think needs it. It’s 1-800-273-8255.
Also mentalhealth.va.gov, and there’s a phone number to call, a number to text, you can chat online if you are a veteran, and you’re feeling in any way the way that Jason describes himself feeling, you can go there. As I said in the conversation, one of my best friends in the world is a psychologist at the VA, and I’m just always amazed at the work they do and the diligence and dedication that those folks have over at the VA for all the critiques there have been at the sort of bureaucratic level, the people working there are truly amazing people.
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If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.