Putting PTSD Recovery Before the Presidency (with Jason Kander)
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Democratic up-and-comer Jason Kander was about to announce his presidential campaign when, in 2018, he revealed that he suffered from PTSD and depression and walked away from politics. Though he felt his career and ambitions were over, he gained the opportunity to heal from trauma he experienced during his time serving in the Afghanistan War. In a sensitive and honest interview, Kander opens up about the traumas he and all of us face in different ways, and how to grow past them.
Content warning: this episode includes discussion of suicidal thoughts.
Keep up with Andy on Twitter @ASlavitt.
Follow Jason Kander on Twitter @JasonKander.
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Check out these resources from today’s episode:
- Order Jason’s book, “Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD”: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/invisible-storm-jason-kander?variant=39935556911138
- Learn more about the Veterans Community Project: https://www.veteranscommunityproject.org/
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- Order Andy’s book, “Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response”: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250770165
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For additional resources, information, and a transcript of the episode, visit lemonadamedia.com/show/inthebubble.
Jason Kander, Andy Slavitt
Andy Slavitt 00:17
Welcome IN THE BUBBLE. It’s Andy Slavitt. And it’s Wednesday, July 6th, hope everyone has had a good holiday or is in the midst of a good holiday week. Hopefully you’re getting some time off of work. Kids are off of school, kids, grandkids, whatever you got going, I hope you’re getting a chance to spend time with the people you love. I got someone on the podcast that I really have affection for. myself. I don’t know if I would have said love. But I thought maybe it was gonna sound a little creepy. But he there’s a lot to love about Jason Kander, me just review a little bit about Jason for you in a moment. But also remind you there’s a lot still happening with COVID. I think we spent some time, if you want to go back and play talking about some of the really good things that are happening, maybe reductions in lung COVID availability of vaccines for kids. And the hope is that we have taken a big bite out of kind of the death rate and severity of COVID, we are going to you know we are facing a new variant, BA4, BA5, it’s taking a foothold in the country. And look, every time there’s a new variant, we can ask the same questions. Is it more or less severe? Is it more or less contagious? What happens with our existing immunity? We don’t know the answer to those questions yet. And so I would still encourage everybody to be cautious, hang out outdoors, you can still get COVID And you know it’s before impede five calm, which is going to learn more about it. Okay, let me tell you a little bit about Jason, Jason, someone I’ve known for a little while. I like him, I consider him a friend. That’s irrelevant to this conversation, what’s relevant to the conversation is here’s a person and kind of put yourself in the situation who served in Afghanistan, came back. And everything was going well for him, everything. He started to run for office, he drew big crowds, he became nationally known and the guy in his 30s. Everybody seemed to like the guy couldn’t hear a bad word about him. President Obama, no less of a person said this is a guy, that’s the next kind of person to be President of United States. Pretty heavy thing. Enjoyed lots of success, as you’ll hear, and then something happened. Now, what usually happens is, what, a scandal, right? Someone does something stupid, wrong, etc, ends their career. And if they have a personal problem, you know, we tend to find that they cheat their way through it, or they drink their way through it, or they bury it. And you know, we get these very imperfect creatures who ended up showing up in office. And sometimes they voiced that dysfunction and the rest of us. the story of Jason Kander is different. And we’re gonna get into in a very deep and intimate way. Jason started experiencing what he recognized to be symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. And he denied them, to himself, for a long time. And he was riding so high. And he couldn’t imagine why he was feeling low, as he made this decision. And what it teaches us about being true to ourselves, and understanding your own foibles, and to the external world versus the internal world. And what he ultimately did is one of the best and most inspiring stories you’re going to hear. He has written about it in the book. So if you like the podcast episode, which you will, his books called the invisible storm, it’s a soldier’s memoir of politics and PTSD, very brave, great guy, honest, vulnerable conversation. And we’re also gonna live a little bit into Afghanistan, and what the remnants of that withdrawal are that spin that happened a year ago, Jason had an interpreter and a relationship with that interpreter that is really, I’m gonna ask him to explain it to you, because it’s a different kind of relationship when you’re in a place like Afghanistan, than almost any other camera, as you can imagine. And a lot of these folks, interpreters like his were left behind, and Afghanistan is expending a lot of energy and attention on that. And I just think we can’t forget; we can’t turn away from our eyes from that problem. So that’s part of what we’re gonna get into. I’m really excited to share this with you.
Jason Kander 04:54
Hey, Andy, how you doing, man? Thanks for having me.
I’m good, man. How are you? How have you been?
I’ve been pretty good.
You’re off to a good summer?
Yes. You know, I mean, playing baseball and coaching my son and just, I don’t like cold weather, man. I mean, so I want it to just be hot. And you know, where are you right now?
So what’s funny last time we talked, you were on our show two years ago, we were living in Minnesota. Now we’re in Southern California. So we are back.
Oh, wow. Okay, great life choice. Let me just say nothing against Minnesota. But
It helped my marriage a great deal, because we were living in California, when I dragged her to Minnesota. And then of course, I dragged her there. And then of course, I got dragged to Washington. And so that we probably were back home. And so we’re happy aren’t you know, we’ve become empty nesters. Our kids are both a little bit older than your kids are, 24 and 20. So we’re back and really enjoying.
And you were doing a show with your son. For a bit.
Yeah, the show was Zach’s idea. And then Zach abandoned me to go to college.
Jason Kander 06:02
Where is he?
He’s at Penn.
And then I was out there was that Jason No seeing him. And I saw one of his friends. And his friend said, Zach has forbidden any of us from ever listening to the show, in the bubble. And I was like, what is that all about? Dad, I don’t like listening to my own voice. Just be crazy. So anyway he could have had a career as a co-host to this. A guest podcast. And instead, he chose college.
I mean, he could have had a career as a guest co-host in Southern California. Well, alright. Well, hey, thank you again.
Thanks for being on again. I’m very excited about the book. And the book is sort of, I’m glad you put down into words, the power of what you’ve been through, and some of the things you were saying. I mean, it’s telling us for the audience, like you were on the show about two years ago, and we were talking about PTSD. And I don’t know if you remember this, Jason, but about a week later, I got an email from somebody who said that when they listened to the episode, they had been about to take their own life. It was a veteran. In fact, I he said he was suffering from PTSD and about to take his own life, he saw the title of the episode and listened. And you changed his life. And still today, and in fact, I think you probably remember this point, you guys even exchanged notes that he sent me a note saying it was so powerful to him. You responded to him?
Yes, I do remember that I was fortunate enough to get a fair amount of input, like a lot of I don’t always do a good job of tying it back to the original source, you know, yeah, that is, you know, there are things about being a public person who is also very public about mental health challenge that are, you know, not the most fun, right? I mean, like I write in the book about how right after I initially made my announcement, there’d be times when I’m just going about my day, and not actually feeling too bad. And, and I would be like, at the grocery store, like picking out avocados or something in the produce aisle. And because I’m well known, people would see me and sometimes, and this is a very sweet thing, but it was sometimes very creepy and awkward, they would feel this compulsion to, like, convince me not to kill myself. And it turns out when you say publicly that you had had suicidal thoughts that happened, some people would like, come up and lean in and whisper to me, something very nice, but a little strange. Like, you know, the world is a better place, because you’re in it like no, like, hi, my name is. And that’s you know, that is a good thing about the world. But it was a little awkward and weird for me. But the other side of that is that makes it truly very worth it is partially just knowing that you can have an impact by talking about it. But really, man, I wish everybody who went through treatment for trauma or for any mental health challenge, got the affirmation that my wife and I have the opportunity to get on a regular basis because of our public profile of people reaching out and saying that kind of thing. I can’t even begin to tell you how motivating and validating it is to hear that stuff.
Andy Slavitt 09:23
Man you’ve had a profound multiplicative impact on so many people’s lives and their families. I’ll even tell you, Jason, in a very small way, you changed the way I looked at some things in my own life and improved my own life. Because you said something on the show, which was so simple and so impactful, which was that oftentimes people don’t give themselves permission to rate their trauma, is serious enough to cause PTSD. And you were talking about yourself and you said there are people who have been through far more significant battles that you had. And so you felt like, you didn’t know if you had the right to do that. And what you told me was, your brain doesn’t think in comparative basis, your brain only knows the trauma it responded to. And I’d never would have thought to use that that inspiration. But I had an accident at one point in my life, that it turned out was having consequences of various kinds on me and my own ability to cope. And I had not looked at that, because it just wouldn’t have occurred to me that in my very privileged life, there’s something that could have been considered traumatic that happened to me. And once I acknowledged that, Jason, it actually allowed me to get some therapy and change some things.
Oh, wow. Well, that’s great. I mean, you know, yeah, that’s, for me, one of the biggest things I had to learn is that is that you can’t rank your trauma out of existence. And in fact, what I’ve learned over the last few years is that denying your own trauma doesn’t actually push it away. It only delays your opportunity to heal is actually all it does to yourself. And, I run into this, myself still, like it’s a natural inclination, right? Like, I actually had a therapy appointment this morning, with my therapist at the VA, not for my initial trauma of my deployment. But actually, because in August of last year, I got very involved in getting initially my translators family out of Afghanistan, and then that became a few other people who, you know, that were close to people I served with. And then, over time, I’m very gratified that we started this little group that has ended up getting out more people than Schindler got out. But all along the way. I was telling myself, I’m not in Afghanistan. So the fact that yes, these pictures of these children are living in my phone. Yes, I was, you know, speaking with people who were at the gate, the Marines, were looking for my people when the bomb went off, that killed all those. I was telling myself; I wasn’t deployed, I wasn’t there. And my wife and my therapist, the VA, who I had not seen it a bit convinced me like, no, let’s just, you know, I had done an initial look at it as a trauma. But then I had kind of said, okay, I’m done with that. And, you know, I’m on like, a little short, 10 week, weekly regimen of just like, let’s unpack this, let’s deal with this. And the thing is, is, you know, that’s so different than 14 years ago, when I was like, oh, this isn’t real trauma compared to my friend who got shot, my friend who, and so I waited all that time, and it made it so much worse. And it’s analogous to these conversations I have on a daily basis with people who will come up to me, and they’ll tell me about an accident, about losing a loved one about something like that. And then they will sort of shrink from it, and say, you know, I wasn’t in the military, or I wasn’t in a war. And I always stop them. And I say it doesn’t matter like that does you no good to because your brain doesn’t know about that your brain didn’t experience what I experienced, it doesn’t even care.
Well, I want to do want to come back and ask you about the important work you’re doing in Afghanistan. It’s what are two or three topics that I want to get to. But maybe first, I just want to make sure that for the benefit of people who are relating in some way to this conversation about some trauma that occurred in their life. They may not know what the warning signs are, they may not even understand what’s happening. They may not attach this label to it. Can you take us back? To your understanding as of today, of how you experienced your initial trauma, and how that ended up affecting you later and what it felt like, what those warning signals were to you that maybe at first you were ignored. But now, you know, are the things that are really important to watch for.
Jason Kander 14:05
Yeah. You know, for me, it was very confusing, because I really liked my job over there. It was hard, and it was sometimes very frightening. But when you are in a combat zone, everything is brought to bear, you are fully utilized. And, you know, I was an intelligence officer tasked with doing anti-corruption, anti-espionage investigations, mostly of people within the Afghan government, Afghan military.
What year was this?
I was there, October 06′ to February 07′. And the way I actually like to explain it now is my commanding officer at the time later told me that his expression for what me and a couple of other guys in our camp were doing was THUG INT which is to say there’s all these different definitions there’s these divisions of intelligence that are always they have an INT in their abbreviation so like SIG INT, signals intelligence, they like listen to people, you know, and then human INT human intelligence, they go interview people. And there’s no such thing as THUG INT. But that’s like how he thought of it, which and he defined it as the he was like you build relationships with thugs in order to get information about other thugs in Afghanistan. So that was my job. I went out with a translator sometimes just me in the translator, sometimes me and a couple other guys and a translator, and sat with people who may or may not want to kill me, you know, may, their allegiances you couldn’t really know, they generally were more heavily armed than me. And I was always outnumbered pretty much. And nobody knew where we were, you know, we didn’t have any backup coming or anything like that. And, to me, that was exhilarating, scary, but exhilarating, felt important. And oftentimes, frankly, I mean, look, I was 25 years old, and I felt like a cowboy. I mean, I’m in a combat zone, I’m oftentimes not wearing a uniform, I got sometimes a pistol tucked into my waistband, like, I felt like a cowboy. And there were lots of parts that I didn’t like. But there were a lot of parts that just like I was enjoying, frankly. And so it was very hard, that made it hard for me to understand the idea that I was in any way undergoing any trauma, not to mention the fact that I didn’t fire my weapon. And I didn’t get blown up. And I had friends through that sort of thing did happen to, so when I came home..
Andy Slavitt 16:32
What’s your understanding of the trauma that you actually were experiencing that you didn’t recognize?
Well, it’s pretty, I’ll tell you, it should have been not should have been, it could have been evident to me had I known more. I try to be careful now about not saying what I shouldn’t, because you know, that’s worthless, it doesn’t help me. But had I known what I know now, I could have noticed things like, I was very uncomfortable getting on the road, being in a car and stopping. To this day, I am not as much as I used to be, because I’ve worked on it a lot. But I was always aware of where every exit was in any room I was in. And I did not like to have my back to it. And if I did, I was very uncomfortable. I didn’t like crowds. That kind of thing. Like I didn’t like crowds where I wasn’t in coming out of the crowd. Right? I wasn’t comfortable with that. And also I came home with like a really severe, like muscle spasm twitch in my eye, which was the beginning thing. And then that all developed into really bad night terrors, nightmares that were mostly about the thing that I was on edge about all the time in Afghanistan, which was being kidnapped. And then over time that evolved into no longer taking place in Afghanistan, but instead taking place here and the people that I couldn’t protect, were my family, my kids. And I told myself this fiction that well, I’m no longer in Afghanistan. And these dreams, I’m no longer even in the army in these dreams. They’re not about Afghanistan. And the way I dealt with this, is that I would, I threw myself into my work. And I had this sense that it turns out is pretty common for trauma survivors, which was this need for redemption. And for me, I communicated that to myself and to others as.
Andy Slavitt 18:17
What do you mean by redemption?
Well, I felt I hadn’t done enough, you know, I had served a four month deployment. There were people there, who were there when I got there, and were still there when I left. And there were people who I had been through training with, who were wounded, people who, you know, like, there were people who had given so much more than me. And so a lot of what I did in politics was because my parents raised me right, and they raised me to serve and to care, but also a lot of the pace at which and the vigor at which I threw myself into it was about a need to feel as though I was going to find this redemption by achieving some transcendent thing that in reality was a mirage. And so, to make this answer even longer, part of what you asked is what did it feel like on a day to day basis. I was thinking about this yesterday how to describe this, on a day to day basis. It’s like, if there was this threat right behind your shoulders right behind your neck where you can’t, you can see it only peripherally when you turn your head, but you know it’s there and you feel it all the time, but you can’t quite get a hold of it. And then combined with sometimes just feeling like your shirt is too tight. That’s like the idle nature of it to me. And then they’re all the symptoms as well that I had.
Andy Slavitt 20:04
Can you recount for everybody? What led up to you making the decision that you were going to very publicly not only talk about this and deal with this, but really changed the course of what would have appeared to be this trajectory? That was almost too good to be true.
Yeah, let me take you, like a few months prior to my announcement that I was going to step back from everything. So the first time that I really decided, like, was willing to admit to myself not that I had PTSD yet, but that there was something genuinely wrong with me was, it happened in New Hampshire. And at that point, I had been on the road for a year I’d given big speeches in 46 states. And it was all building to this moment I had met with President Obama had done all the things and, and I was like, this was the moment where I was going to give the big speech in New Hampshire to a huge crowd, live on, you know, road to the White House on C span where my parents were watching at home. And everybody in the room knew. This was the moment where Jason Kander is going to give a speech where he’s not going to say I’m running for president. But where everybody’s gonna watch this speech and decide whether they’re okay with the fact that he clearly plans to run for president, right? And it was a very big moment in my life. And up until then, I had become aware at least somewhat that I was basically going from one endorphin filled, performing moment to the other, and in between, it was just gray […], like time with my family, all that that none of that mattered, my addiction was that, that’s what made me feel alive and made me feel redeemable. And so this was it. Like I hear, I was like, this was the moment like I was keynoting this event, where the year before me, I think it had been Elizabeth Warren, and the year after me, it was gonna be Joe Biden, two years before me, it was like Hillary Clinton. I mean, this was the moment and I crushed it, like I murdered it. And I knew I had, and I felt amazing all night. And the next morning, I get up, and I go to the airport in Manchester, and the TSA guy sees my ID and says, oh, it’s the next President of the United States. And I’m still feeling high. And then I get to my seat on the plane. And I felt as empty as ever. And they usually lasted longer than that, those endorphin highs.
Andy Slavitt 22:26
How did you know that when you came down from that sitting on the plane, that this was something that needed to be addressed, versus kind of part of a continued pattern.
I had been feeling this way for so long, and I had become so emotionally numb, which was not a term I had available to me at the time. But it is now and that emotional numbness was a result of, you know, you alluded to this a minute ago, like when people turn to substance or they turned all these things, I turned to public attention, to accolades, to adulation, that kind of thing, and career like, if I was building a career and building something that I thought was going to make a difference, then I was avoiding myself, and I didn’t have to be alone with myself, I couldn’t be alone with myself, you would not find me sitting alone with my thoughts, right? But I had come to this pattern where it was like, I just got to keep these events, these highs close enough together that I can just, I’m good, you know, as long as I keep and, and it had all been building to this. And I knew that if this level of high was only going to last, like 12 hours, then I’m running out of options, right. And I was scared. I was scared by it. And so I voiced, I’ve already spoken with my wife about it. She’s the only person I’ve ever talked about it. But I voiced this feeling of depression, and complete exhaustion to […], my campaign manager, and he had thrown out there. The idea of well, you know, you could get off airplanes and just stay home in Kansas City and run for mayor. And it was like, somebody just threw me a life preserver, because I just said yes, I should do that. And in my mind. What I was doing was, I was gonna go home, I was gonna become mayor of my hometown, that I love him. My kids are sixth generation Kansas Citians, I was going to become mayor in my hometown. And I was going to make a difference for my neighbors like a difference I could see. And that would be the way that I would fill up this hole inside me. And it should have been so much fun, Andy, like, you know, most campaigns, you’re desperate to get name recognition, right? I had 100% face recognition, like I would knock on doors. And people would bring out my book from my first book for people, for me to sign. People drive down the street and yell I’m voting for you. I mean, we were ahead in every poll, we sold $25,000 worth of t-shirts on the first day, you know? So it should have been great. And it was all going great professionally but over the course of that campaign, which lasted 99 days for me, things would happen in the campaign that should have been great. And I couldn’t feel a thing. And this gets back to the emotional numbness.
Were you numb? Or were you also getting sad and depressed and scared?
I was numb and the depression was getting worse. And it had been getting worse for a long time. But now it was getting worse, much faster. And now, I was spending most of this campaign either really angry, or just really just numb or thinking about ending my life, because I felt like a tremendous burden to my wife and to my son and to my family.
Was that the first time you felt suicidal?
I had trickles and flickers of this over time. But it was, it was getting louder. It was ideation. You know, in my mind, I didn’t know that term then. And so finally, one night, I had sort of this, like just glimmer of an idea that maybe I should try something else, you know. And so I got up from the couch, sitting there with my wife and I went the other room, and I called the Veterans Crisis Line. And I thought, because again, I had this imposter syndrome, this sense that it was Stolen Valor, the idea of me claiming the mantle of PTSD. I was real sheepish about it. And I was, I thought they might tell me, look, this is an important line, we got to keep this open, don’t you know, this wasn’t your service, but you need to, you need to not call this number or, you know, I was embarrassed about it. And one of the very first questions the woman on the other end of the line asked was have you had suicidal thoughts. And the only person I ever admitted that out loud to was Diana, my wife. But I said yes. And like it was just a spigot like, tears came out of me. And the most important thing that happened was the way she responded to me, she asked me about my service, that kind of thing. And her entire tone of voice was that of somebody who was talking to someone who didn’t sound any different than anybody they talked to that shift or ever in that job. And that clicked for me. And I realized, I’m not any different than any of these other people. And then I went into the other room. And I got off the phone. And we talked about how I was going to need to go to the VA. And I went in the other room and I Googled, I Googled PTSD, which I had done many times before. But every time I had ever done it in the past, I had done it to read it in a way where I could tell myself that that’s not me. And tell myself some fiction. And this was the first time that I read it with an open mind. And doing it that way, having just had that experience. It was like somebody had just written a paragraph about me. And I cried really hard. And my wife helped me and I remember saying a couple of things. One was, you know, it’s been 11 years and the whole time, I had no idea that I got hurt over there. And then the other thing I said that was a really big deal for me, was I said out loud to my wife, I said, I don’t want to do this anymore. I was done. And I knew I was done.
Andy Slavitt 28:04
It’s an extraordinary moment, in a very moving story. And I encourage people to not just hear this, but read about it. As I listen to you what’s really interesting is how the very thing that you think you are the adulation, the attention, the success, in some form was becoming a trap for you, and you had to get out of it. I think the thing that I found very encouraging, was just if you seek treatment, how treatable this is, and how did you experience that?
What is wild to me about that is that I actually didn’t come to the realization that PTSD treatment is supposed to work until a few months into therapy when it was working. And what I mean by that is, when I made the decision, like, you know, a couple days after calling the crisis line, I made my announcement that I was going to go to the VA and everything, which was a whirlwind, right, because I had just hit the self-destruct button on this thing I’ve been building for my entire adult life and the only thing that was going well in my life, and traded in for a complete unknown, because I had no idea whether I could get better. I had no idea whether I was past the point of no return because I didn’t know. I didn’t know how it worked and so I threw myself into treatment and a few months in I was starting to feel a lot better. I was doing the homework, I dedicated myself to it. And then I started to really struggle with these feelings of well, why did I get better when it seems like nobody else ever does? Because when you think about it, where are the public portrayals fiction or nonfiction of people achieving post traumatic growth? They’re non-existent. Now we are inundated with what I refer to as PTSD porn, which is, you know, portrayals sometimes grippingly accurate of people within the throes of PTSD, but always, you know, so upsetting, like a guy or gal who they’re, they’re beating their spouse, they’re abusing drugs, they’re robbing a bank, sometimes they’re doing all three in one scene, right? And the amount of times that you see somebody who’s been through treatment for PTSD, and they’re doing well, and they’re managing it, and they’re going on with their life, it’s just it doesn’t happen. And so that was the frame of reference I had. So when I said to my therapist, like, did I never have PTSD? Because how am I feeling so much better after a few months, and all these other people have not been able to make it through it? And he said, look, I need to show you something. And he pulled up all the studies done by the VA. And what they showed was the vast majority of people who enter treatment and committed to the program and did their homework, the vast majority got better to the point at which the symptoms no longer disrupted their lives, and they no longer on a daily basis, you know, qualified as people who, like were struggling with PTSD. And I had no clue about that. But that’s when it became clear to me that what I needed to do next for me, not for the world, like not like this is what I need to do the way I was before I got treatment. But like, what I wanted to do next was I wanted to achieve that post traumatic growth, and then be able to model that, because I figured if somebody had done that, on the public scene, you know, so many years earlier, I wouldn’t have waited over a decade, I wouldn’t have let my situation got so bad. So the interviews I’ve done, this book, is my way of, frankly, just writing the book that doesn’t exist until now. And that I needed to read 14 years ago. And if I had, I think I would have done things different.
Letting the world see you healthy, even with setbacks. But healthy, in this new language, this post traumatic language, I think about all the trauma that we think gets inflicted in this society every day, it’s hard for us not to have the conversation about the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. That happened a couple of months ago. And all the shootings that have happened before and since. I’m haunted by this one, little girl and Uvalde, who talked about, who survived, who wiped her friend’s blood all over her in order to survive. And now she says she can’t go to sleep at night, because they’re going to come and get her she’s a dear eight year old little girl. And I used to think about 21 victims, 20 victims. And I think no, that’s not right, there’s hundreds of victims there. Every kid in that school, hell, all these kids not in that school, who are going to other schools around the country who saw that their parents have all these little kids who send their kids to school every day. Like it’s a day experiencing some sort of trauma as well, Jason?
Jason Kander 32:56
Yes, and I would widen the circle greater than that, I would widen it to you and me, I would widen it to parents who feel responsible, because we’re part of a society that hasn’t protected these kids, I can tell you that every mass shooting, particularly when involves children, I find it you know, deeply triggering, like, and I don’t know if that’s tied to my individual trauma, or, you know, because I, in my mind, I’m a soldier who protects people. Or if it’s just, you know, I’m a dad, or whatever it is. I think it goes back to this sense that of two things, one, feeling hesitant to in any way. Own that as that is traumatic for me, as well as for them, right? And then when you don’t do that you avoid it and you never allow yourself to deal with it. Right? But then the other part to it is for people who, let’s say they just are they live in that town or they live in Texas, they live anywhere in America and in some way have the most proximate connection to that, right? Like, and that’s the sad thing about these shootings being so prevalent is we all have some proximate connection to it, you know, there was a mass shooting in the Denver area at the end of last year, where one of the victims was a woman who was best friends with one of my very close friends and who I had had dinner with once and 6 months before that there was a mass shooting in a grocery store out there were a friend of mine from Kansas City who had just moved there happened to be in the grocery store at the time and was unharmed. Now my brain wants to tell me those, I wasn’t affected by that. I don’t have anything to deal with about that. And no, I have no right to deal with anything about that. But that’s not true. And as a result, you know, if I listened to that, then I don’t deal with it. And I don’t talk to anybody out loud about I don’t say this is upsetting me. And when I don’t do that, I don’t deal with the feelings and then they come to me in my unconscious. They come to me at times when I don’t realize they’re happening. So I’ve learned in therapy that I have to process those. And then for the people who were involved for my very close friend who lost their best friend who feels like, well, my friend Jason was in a war. That’s his trauma, what right do I have, I wasn’t even there when my friend was shot, they then get to a point where when they realize this might be PTSD, that I should deal with, if we go back a minute ago, to where we were with all of the portrayals of PTSD are people in the throes of it, they’re all PTSD, porn, they’re never post traumatic growth, that leads Americans and people worldwide to a really dangerous false belief, which is that PTSD is a terminal diagnosis, from a career perspective, and possibly from a life perspective. And we are constantly having this conversation, for instance, about veterans of, well, let’s get it across to them. That what it requires is strength, not weakness to go get help. And that’s great. We’ve gotten that across veterans and other people, I think, get that what we have to get across is, if you get diagnosed with PTSD, that is the beginning of you getting better. That is not the end of your career. And it’s not the end of your life, my suicidal ideation, was a symptom of my depression. And my depression was a symptom of my PTSD, largely the fact that I didn’t get a good night’s sleep for 11 years. So, you know, if I had instead dealt with the PTSD, then we’re getting nowhere near a terminal diagnosis, from a career or life perspective.
Andy Slavitt 36:56
You know, I think my version of your events of your life, which I’m sure you should care nothing about, but I’ll give it to you anyway, is half the circle was the circle drawn of somebody in the public guy who was at the top of the world, admired, masculine, tough. But so what, but so what, the so what turned out to happen later, when the person with those characteristics could admit that he had to deal with problems that he had to deal with feelings, that people who are often macho top of the world military culture, are very good at always dealing with or are perceived to be good to deal with that as a result that, you know, we turn to other things. And look, we’re all influenced by these cultures, we can pretend we’re not. But we all want to be admired. We all want to be liked. We all want to be ratified to some extent. And there was just no way to feel ratified by saying there’s something wrong with me. And so I feel like you climbed that mountain for a purpose. You might not have known at the time.
Jason Kander 38:06
Yeah, it was not on my radar. But at all, I agree with you. That is how I feel. And I appreciate it. I, you know, I think that the typical narrative in America for people who, like when there are folks who everybody says that person experienced trauma, the narrative that we’re all interested in, and then therefore, the narrative that we tend to write for ourselves and try to pursue is one of redemptive heroism. Because we’ve been taught that when you go through something, I mean, when as I say this, there’s going to be countless movies that are going to come to your mind because it’s so self-explanatory. But we’ve been taught that when you go through something, the way you get out of it, is you achieve some great feat to redeem it. Right? And I’ll give you a really recent example, which is not long ago I saw Top Gun too. Top Gun Maverick.
We just had an episode last month about Top Gun Maverick. We had Jay Ellis on the show.
Perfect, so I’m far beyond for me to criticize the movie, okay, I loved it. I took my kid who was great with my dad and my brother. But to me, the Top Gun movies are a perfect example of this myth that we tell ourselves of redemptive heroism because what are those movies about? They’re about a guy who went through a horrible thing. It happened in training, but he lost and hope I’m not spoiling the first movie for everybody. But he lost his best friend, okay. And he and he lost his best friend in a way that he felt partially responsible for whether he was or he wasn’t, right.? And what happens in the next scene, the next scene, Tom Skerritt, his CO, walks in and says, You got to get past it. Right. You got to get past it and watch the rest of that movie, but it’s about him getting past it going out, doing a great heroic thing, saving other people and then he’s fine. The movie ends, he’s fine. And I’m not gonna get into the second movie, but it doesn’t divert from that right. So for people like me who I can tell you, I was after Afghanistan. I was a platoon trainer for Officer Candidate School. Which is to say, you know, I was a guy who yelled and screamed, and then mentored and prepared people to lead troops in combat. And one of the first things they would do when they came in, because we just wanted to see if they could write a paragraph is we would make them write a little short paper, why did you join the army? And I always found it hilarious how many of these soldiers said they joined the army because they saw Top Gun, and I really constantly just give them trouble. Like, you know, it was just another thing I could kind of bug them for, you know, they’d be at attention, I’d be like, you know, you join the wrong branch. But it was illuminating to me that, you know, now I look back and I see that consciousness of American veterans, for instance, is so informed our idea of what a man is, is so informed by films like that from the 80s and 90s. And probably decades before and since that just show you that if you just do something to make up for it, you’ll be okay. And that’s not how it works. I know because I am an expert in finding ways to do something that makes up for it. And actually, the only way out is through, you got to go live in your unpleasant stuff. And you got to live in it long enough, and tell the story long enough to your therapist, and meditate on it and listen to it in your headphones over and over and over again. Until like in my case, the day you walk into your therapist’s office and you say, I’m tired of this story, Can we do another it’s boring to me. And he laughs and gets excited and says, awesome. Boredom is the goal. If the story bores you, instead of making you break out in a sweat, then it no longer controls you. You control it. And that’s how it actually works.
So before Top Gun, Maverick we should have had Top Gun analyze this was right, when he deals with his stuff. And then we could, that he could have gone and been Maverick again.
Because let me tell you, Maverick is going to be a five times better combat leader. If Maverick has dealt with what’s going on with him and the feelings he has about his responsibility in Goose’s death. If he’s done that, that’s going to inform the way he leads his people.
Andy Slavitt 42:02
Wow, let’s talk about Afghanistan. I want to start by talking about your interpreter and the relationship you build with your interpreter. And the people over in Afghanistan been help us understand how and I think it’s just a precursor for helping us understand how you experienced the events of the last year when the exit began. And all that happened.
You know, one of the things that I’m proud of the way I handled Afghanistan in the book is it relates to this is that, you know, I know that not everybody is going to want to read like a soldier’s memoir straight up just about soldiering, right? So there’s a chapter where I just kind of give you a day, I’m like, here’s one day I remember really well. And it just, I’m just pulling it out. And, you know, it’s not a particularly special day, but just to give you a feel of what it was like over there, right? But one of the things that I focus on in that is my relationship with a couple of different translators, right? Because what I’m glad for people to learn about is that these people are not just then it’s just like, they’re not machines that are just standing there, taking language and turning it over to the other side. These people are partners when you’re over there, right? My translator Salam was a partner and a cultural guide, when I’m in a meeting with people and it’s tense, and I don’t know what their intentions are. And he may not, it’s incredibly important, that every word, I mean, you, you know, we’ve been in politics, we know how important every word and a high stakes meeting can be. Now pass it through the texture of language translation, right? And everybody is armed, and tense. So, to have somebody who can steer you away from cultural mistakes, and to guide you in a way that helps you get to your objectives. That person, that’s beyond any buddy cop movie, okay? That’s your partner. And whether they’re translators, or just the other great people that we worked with over there, over the course of 20 years, we as a country, and by extension, or through us as soldiers, we made promises to these people. And that promise was, you stood with us, and we’re going to stand with you. And it is not a platitude to them. It is meaningful. And, you know, we all any of us who have been in and out of government, or even in any corporate structure, you know, you get these things like you go through a little two day training, and they give you a certificate that says you did this or your boss writes a little note, hey, you did a great job with this. We get these and we take them for granted. And maybe they’re locked away somewhere. But probably they don’t even make it home from a deployment or from a work trip or whatever, right? The Afghans who we worked with, I can tell you from doing this for the last 10 months, they understood that there was a high probability that one day they were going to need to prove to somebody what they did, and they didn’t lose one of those things. They saved every photocopy of every ID written in English that allowed them to get on to any base. They saved every little commendation certificate that was printed out been masked and signed by an auto pan by a colonel, they saved all of it, because they knew that one day they were going to need us to get them out of there, they were going to get killed. And so it is a horrific experience to have those people send those things to you. So that they can live in your phone and in your computer. Because they know that if they are caught with them by the Taliban that has taken over their town, that they’ll be shot in the head, they have to burn those materials, and they have to trust you to hold on to them on the other side of the ocean. And then they have to trust you to help navigate the process to either get them into the airport or later for us because we weren’t able to do that. Get them into a town up north where we could get a plane in and sneak them out. That’s a lot. And so when you feel and this kind of goes back to what we talked about a minute ago, this, even if you’re not directly involved in it, that feeling of the society, you’re a part of letting down something so important. You know, yes, we’ve gotten a lot of people out. But there’s a lot more people who need to get out. And there are people in third party countries right now who are in limbo who deserve to be here, including my translators family. And that’s a very hard thing to carry around. And there’s people should just know that there are a lot of American veterans and veterans to the diplomatic corps, and just a lot of volunteers who are carrying that around, but put the Americans aside for a minute. Over the next few years, people are going to increasingly, I hope, in large number meet Afghan refugees. And they’re at first, you know, eventually they’re going to I think these are industrious people. And they’re going to be in auspicious positions. But at first, they’re going to give you your coffee at Starbucks. And they’re going to sit quietly in the front seat and your Uber or your left. And it’s really important to me that everybody understands that every person you meet, like that is a hero. So the work that I’ve been doing for the last 10 months, is just trying to help those people get to where they need to be.
Andy Slavitt 47:00
You are completely dependent on them. They took an enormous risk to help you and by, by extension, all of us. And they’re now in a position where they as you describe it, the rugs but really yanked out from under them. Help us keep focused on the scope of the challenge till today. How? How many people are we talking about? What’s the size of this? What should people be doing? And be like feel? One of the coping mechanisms many people listen, the show have is just give me something to do. Small thing to do. Absolutely help it help people understand what, how to keep the microscope here, and help people understand what could be done.
There’s a few things, I appreciate that question. There are 10s of 1000s, if not more Afghan allies who absolutely should be assisted to get out of that country, because they’ve earned it through their service with us. And because they’re in danger, whether they worked with NGOs, or women’s rights groups, or they were judges, female judges, for instance, who put away people who were Taliban, and now we’re back in charge. And all the other like more conventional stuff that you hear about the people who work directly with us, they’re still there. And we need to ramp up our processing, and our attention to it so that we can, we can move them through the system and not make it so difficult. And then we can work to get them out. That’s one. And that is something the administration can do and is to some degree working on. And I think could do better. But he’s working on. Two, for those who have come here or who are on their way here in the next few months, and are currently at you know, like what we call lilypads, like third party locations around the world awaiting processing, we need to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which is something that we did for Vietnamese refugees. But we didn’t do it until the 90s. We absolutely cannot do that. Again, we cannot wait that long. We need to give these people a smooth and quick process to be a part of our communities because they’ve earned it and to be able to begin to succeed here and to work here. And we can support we can support these refugee resettlement agencies all over the place. There’s one that I’m working with a lot in St. Louis, and also in Kansas City. That is just doing incredible work. And we have to recognize that look, my wife is a Ukrainian immigrant. She came here as a refugee from Ukraine in 1989. I’m in no way trying to denigrate the importance of the role that Ukrainian refugees are playing right now and how horrific that is at all. But I do want to make sure that people don’t lose focus on Afghanistan because there is a difference. While Europe is going to and rightfully so, deal a great deal a lot with you Iranian refugees, the difference here in terms of why we should continue to keep our focus, we can keep it on both. But why we can’t lose our focus on Afghanistan is we did not go to Ukraine and spend 20 years asking people to sacrifice their lives for us, and promise them that if they did, we would have their back. And there are so many people like me all across the country, who said those words, and just want to keep that promise.
Andy Slavitt 50:28
We’ve had so much of these people, and have this very vivid image, that there are people who are over there watching your back, you Jason. And we owe them, let alone the point you make, which is the right one, which is all of our stories, all of us here in America, with very, very few exceptions. There was some situation where somebody took mercy on us, let us into their communities, got us on a ship data through the country helped us assimilate. And these are very, very special group of people that I so appreciate you calling our attention to them. I want to finish, not the way that probably 95% of your interviews are going to finish which is well, Jason, are you gonna get back into politics and run for President? Because I think I know enough to know that you’re gonna do what’s right for you. But I do want to ask question that leans in that direction a little bit. Because, selfishly for the country, you’re a part of a group of people that actually ended up having to meet around the same time period. Pete Buttigieg was another, Beto O’Rourke was another, Stacey Abrams was another, just a group of really promising young people who I think it’s safe to say, represent a new generation, and a new articulation of a version of our country. And we’re going through a lot of hard stuff as a country. So the selfish part of this question is people are looking for the articulation of where we go from here and how we become a better country and why we should believe again. And so rather than asking you about your future, I want to ask you about our future. You are now fast forward. And you had from that, from that New Hampshire speech that you gave where you killed it. It’s now a few years later, tell us your vision of your view of this country, and what the opportunity is ahead and what our priorities need to be.
Jason Kander 52:33
Well, I don’t want to sugarcoat it like I’m, I used to, when I would get a question like that. I felt like it was my job to just submit all the optimism I could manage. And I remain optimistic because by disposition I am and also because like, what’s the alternative? But I’m really worried. But I’ll tell you what, I like what thoughts I go to, when I’m feeling cynical maybe about it or defeatist about things. I think about the conversations I have with people younger than me, because, you know, I’m now, I’m 41 now, so I’ve reached the age where I can say things like it’s really energizing to talk to young people.
No, you can’t. I’m not gonna give you that. I’m 55. And I feel like you had a lifetime of stuff ahead of me. So I appreciate that. I appreciate younger Yeah, no, look, I appreciate the impact you have on younger people than you should. But I do think Your generation has yet to have their influence felt in this country.
Oh, I agree with that. And yeah, let me be more clear, that’s a good point. Like, I guess it wouldn’t be enough for me if I because I do feel like my generation, which I’m just barely a millennial. So the millennial generation, imbues me with a lot of optimism, because overall, you know, the outlook and the priorities of the millennial generation, I think is one that is, is going to steer us in the right direction. And that’s why there’s such an effort to disenfranchise so many members of it by the right, it’s to win by subtraction. But what then takes me to the level of like, I think there’s a real chance we’re going to be okay, is then when I also when I add to that conversations with Generation Z, and I see how much more clearly, even more clearly, even the millennials, they look at the situation and go, we question all of these ridiculous assumptions that you people are working with, you know, the idea that nothing can be done about climate, the idea that we’re just going to accept that this is the way democracy fails to work in this country, like, they are so dissatisfied, but not dissatisfied to a point of inaction or throwing up their hands. So I don’t have a way to articulate here’s how it’s going to be fixed by these combined generations or here’s how it’s going to be salvaged because I don’t know that it will be. But I know that if and when it is, it’s going to be through that energy, that that unwillingness to accept the situation. And unwillingness to accept this trajectory, which is so deeply ingrained in these generations across the geography of the country. And that makes me feel really good. And if I had a magic wand, which I don’t, what I would do to get us there much faster, is I would institute some form of mandatory not military, if people don’t want to do military, some form of short mandatory service in this country, and not for the reasons that most people typically bring it up. They usually bring it up because they feel like everybody should have skin in the game. And everybody know, that’s not why it is important to me. It’s important to me, because I feel like one of the hardest questions to answer these days is what does it mean to be an American? Because to me, it means like, what can we all agree on right now, it’s like, everybody has a strong view, one way or the other on Taylor Swift, and one in three people watch the Super Bowl. But we are not where we were, where we all had something to draw on as a shared experience. And when you don’t have shared experience, it is very difficult for democracy to function. Because for democracy to work, you have to feel some sort of connection with people who have very little in common with you. And we are in a time, technologically, and electorally, where all of the incentives are driving us apart. And we tend to think of, of our politics as mirroring, that mirroring our societal change, mirroring our cultural change mirroring the technology, we think that Fox and MSNBC is which pushing our politics apart, but that’s not true. What’s happening is we have designed a system where nobody has to know anybody else. Where through gerrymandering, through voter suppression, through the way we do elections, we’ve created separate constituencies, and our media, and our conversation is following where the customer is, you know, if everybody started a conversation easily with an icebreaker that wasn’t, hey, here’s how the Royals are doing but was instead like, hey, would you do for your service that would change the fabric of this country? And I know that for a fact, because I’ve never met a veteran that was a stranger to me. Because when you know, someone’s a veteran, and, you know, it’s, we’re just sort of what unit were you with, and boom, we have something in common, we can disagree on everything. But that person and I, we will see each other’s common humanity.
You know, all the things you could have said, Jason, what’s appealing to me about what you said here is primarily that it’s not a quick fix formula. It’s not a policy, it’s not a slogan. It is a reinvestment. And as you say it’s not a cure. But it’s almost that without that foundational understanding, and empathy, we don’t have a lot to build on, it just becomes harder to build the other stuff.
Jason Kander 58:08
Yeah, democracy doesn’t work when winning is zero sum. And when, you know, look, when the voter suppression movement started, it was large corporate donors wanting to increase their power by reducing the vote share of people who weren’t gonna vote their way. And the average voter on the right, had no interest in it. But that’s changed because the way our culture has changed is, whatever hurts the other side helps me. And it’s gonna be really hard for us to get where we need to go. If we see the other side as the other side the bad guys, right? And the thing is, there’s context for this, we all have it, like, my neighbor has a let’s go Brandon shirt, okay. But our kids play together. And he and I can watch Chiefs games in his garage in the winter, and get along fine. Now, like, if politics comes up, it’s going to be very difficult for our relationship. And it’s happened slightly at times before.
Well, he’s got to know your politics.
Yeah, he does. And there are people on my side of the aisle who say, Oh, you compromise, you know, no, no, I live in Kansas City. And if I want to save souls, which is what I want to do, I want to bring people around in my point of view, when I’m gonna have to be near them. And on the other side of that is, if we want people to see the humanity of us, if we want white people in the suburbs, who don’t feel affected by the issue to care about the fact that there are that there are black people in the suburbs and in the urban core, who there is a political party targeting their voting rights, then they’ve got to have relationships with those people. Yeah, you know, and for them to care about it. And so that’s the direction I see it going. And, and for me, like, I do think that part of that is, you don’t have to be to kinda go to where you started this or know you don’t have to be running for office. To achieve those sorts of things, there’s lots of ways to be in public service. It’s why I do the work; I do at veterans community project. I’m using this right now to shove in this piece of information about the book, which is that all of my royalties are going to combat veteran suicide and veteran homelessness through veterans community project. But I say that dimension that point, but also to say, getting involved in your community and things, whether they be political or not. All of that exposes us to people who don’t think and don’t see the world exactly the way we do. And I do feel that my generation and the generation following mine has a great desire and eagerness to do that. And that does make me feel at least long lasting tinges of optimism.
Andy Slavitt 1:00:46
Well, look, I’ll go one further, as a Gen X. I learned a lot from your generation and the generation that follows. And I still think I’m capable of changing and learning and contributing based on what you guys do.
I think you’ve demonstrated that, Andy, I don’t know that we get credit for that. But you know, I think you’re doing a lot.
Well, you’ve given me, as I’ve mentioned earlier, in one case, what the one example but I would just say more, probably you’ve given me a lot more courage. And I think you your example gives people and you’d give people courage, whether it’s to take the risk to deal with their thing, whatever their thing is, whether it is to start that conversation, whether it’s to make a contribution, another way. Your example so far in your 41 years, and your 41 years has been to give people, I think an example of what can change when you take those steps and take those very difficult steps. I mean, only the courage is actually taking that step that picking up the phone you did in that time went in saying I don’t want to do this anymore. Once you take that step, the other steps become marginally easier. It’s nothing after that courage, to take to do that first thing. You have given a life example to people, and you’re only 41, man. So I’m really looking forward to continuing to track with you.
Jason Kander 1:02:09
Well, thanks, man. Likewise. I appreciate it a log.
Thanks for being in the bubble.
Want to hear what’s coming up in July, do you want to kind of calendar, sneak preview. Well, of course, we’re going to cover COVID. And whatever is happening in COVID, Bill Hanage is going to come on. Because if BA5 comes here. Things change, as we talked about a little bit earlier. And one of them what’s happening to our immunity in particular, Scott Kirby, I need your help on this one, Scott Kirby. He’s the CEO of United Airlines. I want to know every email question you ever wanted to send to the CEO of an airline about your travel experience? How bad it is, how good it is, how expensive it is, how much you love the peanuts, how much you hate the peanuts, and what you didn’t like the person sitting next to you. I hope it wasn’t me. But send me your questions at email@example.com. And I will put them to Scott Kirby, then a great slew of things coming up. We’re going to do a show on the secret kind of deadliness of fentanyl, and the combination of fentanyl and Snapchat, oh boy, this is a big one. Chris Murphy is gonna come on the show at some point soon. Talking about the heroic work he has done to get the gun bill passed. We’re going to talk about other issues that are important to us all, including what’s happening to food not just here in the US. But the cost and availability of food. And in Africa is this crisis that people are talking about real, is it not? So lots going to happen in the course of July, the team at in the bubble are going to make sure that you get a chance to hear about it. And we’re going to cover it great. And I hope you tune in, and listen and enjoy. We will talk to you on Friday with a great Friday conversation.
Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kathryn Barnes, Jackie Harris and Kyle Shiely produced our show, and they’re great. Our mix is by Noah Smith and James Barber, and they’re great, too. Steve Nelson is the vice president of the weekly content, and he’s okay, too. And of course, the ultimate bosses, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, they executive produced the show, we love them dearly. Our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, with additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia where you’ll also get the transcript of the show. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter. If you like what you heard today, why don’t you tell your friends to listen as well, and get them to write a review. Thanks so much, talk to you next time.