Congressman Seth Moulton’s quest for the presidency may seem quixotic, given he’s one of 23 Democratic candidates (so far) struggling to distinguish himself among a field of better-known candidates like Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Some have dismissed Moulton’s candidacy, and that of quite a few of the others, as simply bids to boost their own profiles.
But last week Moulton staked out higher ground, using his campaign to draw attention to a critical issue facing U.S. combat veterans: mental health.
At a Veterans’ Town Hall in Lynn, and later in interviews on CNN and other media sites, Moulton, a former Marine who served four tours of duty in Iraq, for the first time revealed that he had suffered from post-traumatic stress, that he had sought treatment that has helped, and that he still goes for routine therapy “check-ups” once a month. He urged other struggling veterans to do the same.
And then he laid out a plan to address mental health needs for veterans and civilians alike.
“It was awesome,”Jon Lazar, the veterans service officer in Nahant, said after the town hall. “It’s a sheer act of courage, and brave, to get up there, especially in front of a lot of people, and talk about it.”
It was also risky. Moulton admitted he’d resisted telling his story before, in part because he feared there would be political fallout that could end his career. But he decided, he said, that as a presidential candidate he needed to be completely honest, and he wanted to lessen the stigma many veterans fear about seeking mental health care.
The story he told was heartbreaking. As a young platoon leader in Iraq in 2003, Moulton was speeding north with an armored convoy when he saw a small boy lying in the road, injured and writhing in pain. Marines ahead of them had been shooting at insurgents and struck the car the boy was riding in, killing his parents.
Because stopping to help would have endangered their mission and the entire platoon, Moulton made the decision to drive around the child and keep going.
“It was one of the most painful decisions I have ever made in my life, because there is nothing that I wanted more to do than to stop that vehicle and get out and to help this 5-year-old boy,” Moulton said. “And that image of that boy writhing in pain in the middle of the road is something that haunted me every single day when I came home — frankly, every single day that I was there.”
Sometimes he had cold sweats, flashbacks, bad dreams, but he told no one. Eventually, he confided in a Harvard professor at graduate school who urged him to get professional help. He did, and it made all the difference.
Moulton’s story is not uncommon. What’s different is that he got help; half of veterans with post-traumatic stress do not. Many commit suicide.
The plan he has rolled out would mandate a counseling session for combat veterans; routine mental health checks, just like physical check-ups, for active-duty military personnel and veterans; an ad campaign encouraging veterans to seek help, and more. He also wants routine mental health check-ups for high school students, a national 511 mental health hotline, and therapies such as yoga and mindfulness taught as part of physical education classes.
Whether Moulton’s presidential bid goes anywhere or nowhere, he has performed a service for his country by drawing attention to what is a national mental health crisis among veterans. His decision to make it personal, in the midst of a presidential campaign, gives the issue the kind of national exposure that can build momentum for change, and may very well encourage others to seek help.
It was a brave step to take.