“The greatest mentor I’ve ever had was the minister of my college church, Peter Gomes. He was an extraordinary man who was a gay, black, Republican, baptist minister. He was a moral guidepost for the whole university of Harvard and he talked a lot about the importance of service. He believed it wasn’t enough just to believe in service or support others who serve, but that you have to find a way to do something yourself. As I approached graduation, I started looking at different options, but it was hard to sit in that church and not be struck by the names on the wall of the Harvard men who died in WWI. I always had so much respect for those young eighteen year old kids who served on the front lines so I signed up. Although I decided to join before 9/11, the fall class for OCS was full so I didn’t start my training until just after. I spent all of 2002 thinking I had just missed the war because I figured Afghanistan would be over and that would be it. I ended up deploying four times in six years. I was attached to the 1st company Marines in Baghdad so I came face to face with the inhumanity of war pretty early. We came across a car of civilians that Marines just ahead of us had shot at thinking they were insurgents. The parents had died, but their five year old boy was writhing in pain in the middle of the road. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, but we couldn’t stop and take care of him because we had to press the attack. I hoped the Marines behind me would, but there was nothing I wanted to do more than to stop in our tracks and get out to help this kid.
That experience, I mean literally the image of this boy, haunted me for a long time. I’ve had to come to terms with that decision, but I still think it was the right decision. I would’ve endangered the lives of dozens, if not hundreds, of Marines by stopping. I would’ve halted the whole battalion in its tracks. I unfortunately have a number of stories like this and they serve as good reminder of how hard war really is. In many ways these experiences have been the most impactful of my life and made me who I am today. However, when you walk away from experiences like those, they can sometimes leave a deeper impact on you both physically and mentally. There were times when I felt depressed, withdrawn, or feeling a real lack of purpose with anything I was doing. That’s when I decided to get some help and see a therapist. I started going when I was in graduate school because they had mental health counselors available on campus. Then I decided to try the VA before I found a therapist that I liked better in private practice. I think it’s incredibly important to find a therapist that you can connect with and I actually went through a few before I found one that I liked. I think the best thing we can do is make mental health care as routine as physical health care. The same way you go in for an annual physical, whether you’re sick or not, you should get regular mental health check-ups. Regardless of whether you have an issue or not, it is good preventative medicine. Normalizing it, that’s the whole point, that’s the key. I think the military can lead the way here because if the military normalizes treatment on active duty, then veterans and civilians alike will better understand how these are good practices for themselves as well.
I recently co-sponsored a bill to improve veteran access to mental health care services because I believe our military members and veterans deserve the best healthcare in the world. I believe we need to fill all the vacancies of mental health professionals at the VA as the minimum starting point. I’ve also called for doubling the number of mental health professionals at the DOD for active duty troops because I think a lot of the problem is just getting people to admit they have a problem. I know I had that issue myself and it took me a long time to admit I could use help. I think if we start that process on active duty, it will be better for everyone else down the road. I think that would be a great starting point because I’ve seen how impactful those results can be with organizations like Headstrong and Homebase in Boston. There are a lot of outside programs that have done amazing work with veterans and augmented the VA in real ways. I want to continue to speak out on the stigma surrounding mental health because I hope my example will help others. I no longer deal with these issues, but what I do have is an amazing opportunity to bring these issues to light now that I’m running for President. I think this is the right time to show the country, both veterans and non-veterans alike, that you can have a mental health issue, you can deal with it, and that you can succeed. I hope to bring this country together and challenge Americans to believe in the values of our country so much that they are willing to serve the country to make it better. Whether that’s in the military or at home, I think we need to be aspirational again. We need to find the courage to face the toughest issues both as a country and in our own lives. If I’m applying for the most important leadership position in the country, then I should lead by example and share the full story of my own challenges.”