Last fall, Jason Kander was considered a rising star in the Democratic party.
The U.S. Army combat veteran had served as Missouri’s Secretary of State, nearly beaten a Republican incumbent for a U.S. Senate seat in 2016 and was the front-runner in the race for Kansas City mayor. There was even talk of him running for president.
But Kander made headlines when he suddenly dropped out of the race to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. In a public letter to his supporters, he admitted it was a step he’d avoided for years.
“I was afraid of the stigma. … But it’s just getting worse,” he wrote. “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.”
He ultimately got help from the Veterans Community Project, a Kansas City-based nonprofit co-founded by Chris Stout, a 2018 Top 10 CNN Hero. The veteran-run group is known for providing tiny homes to homeless veterans. But it also assists all former servicemembers with issues like jobs, transportation and mental health.
“During my mayoral campaign, I’d toured and was blown away by it. Then when I made my announcement … I quickly realized that navigating the VA process was a bit more than I’d expected. So, I reached out,” Kander said. “I went in and they treated me like any other vet they serve.”
“All of us here have experience with all of the shrinks at the V.A., so we just started helping him through that process,” Stout said. “People most often see us as an organization that provides housing. … It’s great that (now) people know that we’ll help you with anything when you walk in the door.”
The treatment helped Kander. So did hanging out at the group’s outreach center.
“(Before) I didn’t make time to hang out with other veterans like maybe I should have because it’s been very therapeutic to do that,” Kander said. “There’s a reason that past generations have been hanging out at VFW halls. There’s a comfort in being around fellow combat vets.”
Earlier this week, the organization announced that Kander will help lead the nonprofit’s national expansion. The group hopes to open eight additional locations across the country by 2022. Kander calls the role his “new mission.”
“I was really impressed by everything that VCP does and found it inspiring,” Kander said. “Long term, we want to end veteran homelessness nationwide and make sure no veterans fall through the cracks.”
In an interview with CNN’s Kate Bolduan earlier this week, Kander reflected on his journey.
“My first message to people is, if you think something might be wrong, something is wrong, and you should get help,” he said. “Right before the announcement [that he was withdrawing from the mayor’s race], I said to my friend, ‘I feel weak.’ But now I don’t feel that way about it. I feel like it’s the strongest thing I’ve ever done.”
Stout agrees that admitting you need help is the first step.
“It’s absolutely 1000% part of the process. So often people know they have stuff going on, and once they are able to share it, they can get help,” Stout said. “(Kander) used the term ‘post-traumatic growth’ and it’s true. He’s a different guy (now). … All of us working there have seen it.”
As for his political future, Kander told Bolduan that he’s not thinking about it right now.
“I don’t feel like I have to think about the future to feel better,” he said. “So, I have no idea what I’ll do, but I do know that I care a lot about Veterans Community Project and to me this is public service. So, if the question is ‘Are you back?’ ‘Yeah. And I’m doing this.’”
CNN’s Kathleen Toner spoke with Stout about what else has happened with Veterans Community Project since he was honored as a Top 10 Hero in 2018. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: Has being a CNN Hero impacted your work?
Chris Stout: It absolutely has. The aftermath is hard to quantify, but it’s really cool. I don’t struggle getting meetings like we used to. Whenever I attach the video link to our emails, I’m able to get in and meet with people. It helps expedite what we’re doing. It also brought us a $300,000 donor – all because of the CNN piece.
One story is that Lauren Bush Lauren (the granddaughter of President George H.W. Bush) was my presenter at the Tribute Show. Well, when we were sitting there talking, she mentioned the Stand-To Veterans Leadership Program that George W. Bush puts on. So, I applied, and they chose me and 42 others. The funny part is that I was at an event last month where President Bush spoke, and I got to meet him. He saw my service dog, Tom, and said, ‘He reminds me of Sully!’ – his dad’s service dog – and I said, ‘Well, actually, they’ve met.’ And I showed him a picture of when they were together at the CNN Heroes show.
CNN: When we filmed with you in Kansas City, you were still building some of your tiny homes. Where do things stand now?
Stout: When you were here, we had 13 finished and were working on the second phase of 13 more. Those are now done and we’re finishing the last 23 homes, as well as our on-site community center. Both are supposed to be done on Veteran’s Day, which will bring it to 49 homes total.
CNN: And some of your fellow CNN Heroes will be helping with that.
Stout: We’re joining forces with Luke Mickelsen, who builds bunk beds for kids in need. His organization has a chapter in Kansas City, so I went to a build out there and I realized that we are close to having another 23 houses done – it would be cool if we could have Luke build the last 23 beds. So, he’s coming out at the end of October for that. Then we also looped in Stan Hays from Operation BBQ Relief (2017 Top 10 Hero, based in Kansas City) and his group is coming out to feed the 150 volunteers.
CNN: I also heard that your organization is going to be featured on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
Stout: Yes – this week! They were going to be filming in Kansas City and I think, originally, they were looking for a resident to participate, but we nominated one of our co-founders who is … a little rough around the edges. He is transitioning into a new role from building the homes to the fundraising side. That’s just something you can’t do showing up in shorts. So that’s ultimately why we did that. So, they redid his house and all that stuff, but they also came to the village and did a tour last November. So, it’s good – it’s going to get us some exposure to a new group that we probably don’t normally reach.