ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Jason Kander, a Missouri politician seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party and a favorite in the Kansas City mayor's race, is dropping out. Kander is a veteran who served in Afghanistan, and today he said he's bowing out of the race in order to seek treatment for his PTSD and depression.
NPR's Quil Lawrence covers veterans and the VA, and he joins us now. Hi, Quil.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Tell us more about Jason Kander, a Democrat with deep appeal in a deep-red state.
LAWRENCE: Right. He's a lawyer. He was a former Missouri secretary of state. He did a tour in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer back in 2006 and then came home and got into Missouri politics. He made a surprisingly good run in a deep-red state to unseat Republican Senator Roy Blunt in 2016. And if you've heard of him, you've probably heard of him from this ad.
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JASON KANDER: I'm Jason Kander, and Senator Blunt...
LAWRENCE: And he's in an empty warehouse blindfolded, and he's assembling an AR-15-style rifle. And while he's doing it, he's talking about gun rights. And he says he supports gun rights, but he also supports background checks, he says, to keep terrorists from getting one of these. And then the gun is assembled. And he takes off the blindfold. And he says...
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KANDER: Because I'd like to see Senator Blunt do this.
LAWRENCE: And the ad got him national attention. He later had a bestselling book about lessons from politics and the military. He was even mentioned as a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 so really seemed like a rising politician in the Democratic Party.
SHAPIRO: And his decision today to pull out of the race came as a surprise, and it came with a very honest and emotional letter - message. Tell us about it.
LAWRENCE: Right. It was just hours ago. Kander posted a statement that he was tired of denying that he had a problem, that he'd been - that he had symptoms of PTSD. He had nightmares, and he'd been suffering from depression. And he'd felt changed ever since he came back from Afghanistan 11 years ago. He said that when he should have been celebrating, for example, having raised a record amount of funds in his mayoral campaign, he was actually in crisis, and he was on the Veterans Crisis Line - the VA's Veteran Crisis Line - in tears saying that, yes, he had been having suicidal thoughts.
So he decided that he should take a step back from the campaign and from the organization he started, something called Let America Vote, which is an anti-gerrymandering and anti-voter suppression organization. He says he's getting VA treatment and that he's not permanently retiring from politics. He's expecting to be back.
SHAPIRO: Even with all of the conversation about and support for people who have PTSD, how much stigma is there still today?
LAWRENCE: Well, I mean, there's a lot of stigma. And it can also depend, for example, on what stage you're at in a military career. If you're active duty military and you raise your hand and get treatment, it can make you undeployable. So a lot of people will hide it because they want to be able to stay in the fight.
And, I mean, I can't think of a politician who's disclosed this sort of thing except usually on the - you know, on the tail of a scandal that's going to come out involving some misbehavior. But, I mean, this is a serious crisis. Just last week, the VA released statistics saying that suicide has increased, especially among Kander's generation of veterans. And Kander said he wanted to do this in part to help others confront this in public, that it isn't a sign of weakness.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence. Thanks, Quil.
LAWRENCE: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.