Veteran Author Examines Connections Between Writing, Healing

By Ted Iliff
VVWP Board Vice President

Like too many veterans, Jason Kander’s after-action battles at home were far more daunting and debilitating than anything he had experienced in Afghanistan.

It took 10 years of untreated trauma and the flame-out of a once promising political career to shove Kander onto the path toward understanding and healing.

The former Missouri secretary of state and Army intelligence officer also came to realize the power of writing and storytelling as therapy for veterans who struggle with the unrelenting mental torture of combat memories that won’t fade away.

Kander, 41, was the keynote speaker for the Veterans Voices Writing Project annual Veterans Pen Celebration Nov. 12 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. The suburban Kansas City native’s comments centered mostly on the transformational experience of writing his latest book, Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD.

Kander told his mostly veteran audience that day he had not connected the concepts of writing and therapy until he started preparing his remarks. Then he realized the linkage.

“In the process of writing (the book), what ended up happening is that I had to really work hard to crystalize what it was I had learned,” he said. “I had to take what I had learned from therapy and sand it down and get it to a place where I could pass it on to other people, put it in a real book, and that was sort of therapeutic in and of itself.”

He cited the second chapter of his book, telling the story of one of his days in Afghanistan, as an early revelation of the power of writing.

“That ended up being very therapeutic for me because when you’re in the middle of telling a story like that, you’re there,” he said. “There was a therapeutic element. It wasn’t the easiest to release.”

As the writing evolved, he said, other revelations popped up from the effort. “For me it wasn’t just therapeutic because it forced me to clarify my own concepts of what I had gone through for myself,” he said. “But it also provided a lot of value because there were certain ideas that I wanted understood. I realized as I was writing that there were ideas that I wanted to communicate.”

One idea centered on his discomfort with the often-quoted line for PTSD-afflicted veterans that seeking help is an act of strength, not weakness. While not dismissing that concept, he said other forces are at work that keep veterans away from the treatment they need. He said not enough emphasis is given to the fact that “getting help works, is helpful and will actually make a difference.”

He added that during the 10 years before he sought help, the public portrayal of PTSD didn’t help.

“I was looking at the depictions of PTSD in the news and on a screen, and it was pretty much always the same thing. It was a combat veteran careening downward, robbing a bank after they shoot up heroin. It’s what I refer to as, pardon the expression, PTSD porn. It’s just constantly showing over and over again this tragic tale. And in therapy what I learned was that when you commit to the program, the vast majority of people who do that get better. They are able to reach some post-traumatic growth, and they’re able to manage their symptoms of PTSD. It’s way more common than the first example I gave—the voyeuristic example.”

The military also shares some responsibility by the way it conditions new recruits from day one of basic training to think that what they do in uniform is “no big deal” because others endured or are enduring far worse. While conceding that form of indoctrination is necessary, he said it can lead to chronic and sometimes lethal mental health problems when combat veterans are suddenly reinserted into civilian life with no preparation for the bewildering social and cultural differences from the day they enlisted.

“The problem is, when I came home, nobody disabused me of that (it’s no big deal) notion,” Kander said. “So as a result, all that time that our society could see me not getting help and considering it as some form of weakness, actually what I was doing was going ‘I have it on good authority that what I did was no big deal, so it (PTSD) can’t possibly be connected to my service.’

“And if you believe what you did was no big deal, then you believe, quite reasonably, I think, that going to get help for this wound, this injury…is the last thing any of us are going to do. Writing about it, crystalizing this idea was helpful to me to be able to see that and then be able to communicate it.”

Kander expressed deep concern for what he called the “civil-military divide” in this country and recommended veteran storytelling as one potential antidote. He said combat veterans famously refuse to talk about their experiences because they fear they won’t be understood by civilian relatives and friends who have never served. The only time they feel comfortable talking about combat, he said, is in the company of other veterans.

“We have to get to a place in order to heal that civil-military divide, where that gap isn’t so great and (a veteran) feels like they can talk about it,” Kander said. “We expect them to be the same person they were before the war. That is not a reasonable expectation.
“I understand why people want to sanitize war. But I think we all understand that when you sanitize war you make it more likely you will go into war, and you make it a lot harder for those who have returned from war to feel anything but isolation, particularly in a (nation) where less than one percent of the population serves.”

Kander said he appreciated the “public affirmation and reception” he has received for seeking help and writing about it. He said veterans who tell their stories will discover what a difference they can make and how infectious it can be.

“If you make the choice to be public about what you’re doing in terms of getting treatment,” he said, “you’re giving a permission slip to someone in your life to go and do the same. And that might save a life.”

If you or someone you know is interested in starting a writing group for veterans, please contact Lori Kesinger, VVWP Outreach Director, at