Army veteran Jason Kander reflects on 9/11 anniversary, Afghanistan War and healing
As America approaches the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it's a somber reminder of the lives lost but also those forever altered. Army veteran Jason Kander was one of them.
“I grew up, not in a military family, but in a family where if you had the ability to help people, you did. I had always admired people who served and like most people, my grandfather and great grandfather served in World War II and World War I,” he explained. “When 9/11 happened, it just flipped the equation for me and it went from being 'maybe someday' category to, 'I’m going do this and I'll figure out the rest of my life around it.'”
As the world watched the events unfolding in horror, Kander recalled it all. “I remember those moments vividly. I was on my way to chemistry class when I heard about the first tower. Later that afternoon my roommates and I found out there was a place to give blood so we headed down there,” he said.
Though they waited for hours, they were unable to give blood because the location didn’t have the capacity to take anymore. But the words of one of the staff members stuck with him.
I hope you find some other way to help.
“At that moment it all crystallized for me. I had been thinking of joining all day but at that moment, I knew I would. Later that day I looked up the physical fitness standards for the Army and went on a run,” Kander shared.
He enlisted in the Army National Guard in 2003 and while earning his law degree from Georgetown, was commissioned as a second lieutenant through the ROTC program. Upon graduation in 2005, Kander volunteered for a deployment to Afghanistan and left a well-paying position as a lawyer to willingly serve in a combat zone. In his book, Outside the Wire, Kander openly shared how crazy everyone thought he was. The first hour in Afghanistan began forming the invisible wounds which would take a decade to truly be discovered.
Not only was Kander continually in rooms with terrorists, he also went outside the wire up to four times a week. Before long, he was used to it, and eventually became a Convoy Commander walking newly arrived troops through the same instructions he received at arrival. Things like, there was no armor, if they were hit with an IED or ambushed, death was probably a reality. Though Kander walked many troops through these instructions, there was one new soldier he will always remember.
"I think about that kid a lot," Kander wrote in his book. "I think about his path to that moment, how he volunteered to sign up after 9/11, knowing he'd probably end up in a place like Afghanistan, in that seat behind me on his way outside the wire. And in that moment, he chose to put his job first and get in the Pajero." What struck Kander was how the young man had to choose between an easy path in his life or the right one, and in the end, he chose the right thing to do.
After his four month deployment to Afghanistan as an intelligence officer, Kander returned home. He taught Leadership Skills in Combat for OCS at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for awhile and also practiced as an attorney. He left the Army as a captain in 2011.
In 2008, Kander was elected into the Missouri House of Representatives and in 2012, became the Secretary of State. He was the youngest statewide elected official at the time. Just four years later he announced his Democratic bid for the United States Senate and went viral when he assembled a rifle blindfolded in a commercial.
Kander didn’t win his bid for the historically Republican-held seat, he only narrowly lost by three points. It was noticed.
He announced his intent to seek the mayoral seat for Kansas City, Missouri in 2018. There were even rumors circulating he’d be running for president (he eventually confirmed those). Kander was in high demand and had earned a solid reputation as a changemaker in the legislative space. But a year later, he walked away from it all.
Though he could have continued his mayoral bid and most likely easily won, it wasn't the right choice for him. On the outside, Kander had everything squared away: He married his high school sweet heart, built a successful career and had a promising future in politics. But there were invisible struggles no one was aware of.
In 2019, he shocked the world when he publicly announced he was seeking treatment for depression and PTSD. Kander openly shared it was caused by his time as an intelligence officer deployed to Afghanistan. In a Facebook post, Kander wrote:
"About four months ago, I contacted the VA to get help. It had been about 11 years since I left Afghanistan as an Army Intelligence Officer, and my tour over there still impacted me every day. So many men and women who served our country did so much more than me and were in so much more danger than I was on my four-month tour. I can’t have PTSD, I told myself, because I didn’t earn it.
But, on some level, I knew something was deeply wrong, and that it hadn’t felt that way before my deployment. After 11 years of this, I finally took a step toward dealing with it, but I didn’t step far enough.I went online and filled out the VA forms, but I left boxes unchecked – too scared to acknowledge my true symptoms. I knew I needed help and yet I still stopped short. I was afraid of the stigma. I was thinking about what it could mean for my political future if someone found out.That was stupid, and things have gotten even worse since.
By all objective measures, things have been going well for me the past few months. My first book became a New York Times Bestseller in August. Let America Vote has been incredibly effective, knocking on hundreds of thousands of doors and making hundreds of thousands of phone calls. I know that our work is making a big difference. And last Tuesday, I found out that we were going to raise more money than any Kansas City mayoral campaign ever has in a single quarter. But instead of celebrating that accomplishment, I found myself on the phone with the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line, tearfully conceding that, yes, I have had suicidal thoughts. And it wasn’t the first time.
I’m done hiding this from myself and from the world. When I wrote in my book that I was lucky to not have PTSD, I was just trying to convince myself. And I wasn’t sharing the full picture. I still have nightmares. I am depressed.Instead of dealing with these issues, I’ve always tried to find a way around them. Most recently, I thought that if I could come home and work for the city I love so much as its mayor, I could finally solve my problems. I thought if I focused exclusively on service to my neighbors in my hometown, that I could fill the hole inside of me. But it’s just getting worse. So after 11 years of trying to outrun depression and PTSD symptoms, I have finally concluded that it’s faster than me. That I have to stop running, turn around, and confront it."
For the next year, Kander worked with the VA to process and work through it all. “No matter who you are or what you did, the military taught you someone else did more. It was good training when you had to go do dangerous things but it isn’t for life post-military,” he explained.
The Veterans Community Project veteran leadership quietly supported him in the early stages and assisted him with navigating the bureaucratic system of the VA. After witnessing the extraordinary mission and work, Kander began volunteering. Today, he’s leading the national expansion of the organization dedicated to serving homeless veterans.
As the world reacted to the chaos surrounding the Afghanistan troop withdrawal in August 2021, Kander turned his focus to fellow veterans. “It’s an extremely difficult week. Fortunately, thanks to treatment I’ve had the opportunity to take advantage of at the VA, I feel I have the tools and know how to use them so I am making myself useful to my Afghanistan veterans,” he explained. “We are all checking on each other and that helps.”
Kander has utilized his platform to voice the feelings many veterans are having. Through national media appearances and podcasts, it’s his intent to ensure veterans' voices are being heard. “It’s frustrating because it kind of feels like the American people found out this week that there’s a war in Afghanistan and they're really pissed about it,” he said.
But in his eyes, it's because they didn't have to think about it. “One of the lessons is that wars are a lot more likely to last 20 years when the average American back home doesn’t suffer even the most minor inconvenience or disruption to their daily routine,” Kander said. “I try not to be resentful toward those who want to write off the entire effort as a waste when they weren't a part of it. What really bothers me though, is seeing people suddenly act like they were against this war from the beginning.”
His message to fellow veterans as the events continue to unfold in Afghanistan and the 9/11 anniversary comes was direct.
“One, check on your buddies. One of the hardest parts of being a veteran at a time when America has gone the longest consecutive period in its history without mandatory service means that a lot of us tend to feel isolated. It’s a big reason why they feel like what they are going through isn’t normal or must not be okay,” Kander explained. The second message was to take care of yourself. “We’ve done a very good job of getting the message out there that getting help isn’t a sign of weakness but is strength. But what we haven’t gotten out there is that treatment for PTSD is effective. It isn’t a terminal diagnosis...I refer to post-traumatic growth.”
As he and his fellow veterans continued to watch the Taliban retake Afghanistan in horror, the question of, "What was it all for?" kept coming up.
Kander was adamant in highlighting the important missions of retaliating against al-Qaeda and fighting international terrorism and though the United States was ultimately unable to help the Afghan people retake their country from terrorists' rule, it was never in vain or the wrong thing to do. Because when faced with the two choices Kander often references - easy or right - those who serve this country tend to go for the right one regardless of the sacrifice involved.
The American blood, sweat and tears left in the Afghanistan sand prove it.