AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
There are about two dozen Democrats running for their party's nomination in 2020, each one striving to be distinct. And Congressman Seth Moulton did something last night that's maybe never been done and carries some political risk. He spoke about mental health care - his own mental health care. Moulton is a Marine combat vet. He announced his campaign's mental health care proposal, and he disclosed that he's seen a therapist for post-traumatic stress. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Seth Moulton is a third-term Democrat from Massachusetts. Central to his campaign are his four combat tours in Iraq. Last night, he talked publicly for the first time about one consequence of that service - post-traumatic stress.
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SETH MOULTON: And it happened on the second day of the war.
LAWRENCE: This is a cellphone recording of the speech. It's not very clear, but Moulton tells the story of a young Iraqi boy he saw as his platoon rushed toward Baghdad in 2003. The boy's parents had been killed in the crossfire between U.S. Marines and Saddam Hussein loyalists. Moulton says he wanted to stop and help the boy, but he decided it would've put the whole platoon in danger. He pressed on with his mission.
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MOULTON: But it's one of the most painful decisions I've ever made in my life.
LAWRENCE: Thoughts of the boy haunted Moulton for years, he says, sometimes waking him up in a cold sweat. Only after he left the Marine Corps did he finally seek treatment for post-traumatic stress, and it helped. Now, he says, bad memories from the war don't disrupt his life.
MOULTON: These are memories that I'll have till the day that I die, but they're memories I can control now.
LAWRENCE: Speaking by cellphone with NPR, Moulton said he kept it confidential, even as he made veterans' health care a priority in Congress.
MOULTON: But now I'm applying to lead the country, and I think it would be disingenuous not to lead by example and share my own story about my own struggles with these issues.
LAWRENCE: A few other politicians have gone public about PTSD. Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego said he dealt with it after his Iraq service. Afghanistan vet Jason Kander withdrew from the Kansas City mayor's race last year to get treatment. Moulton is almost certainly the first modern presidential candidate to talk about it, but he's not the first to propose fixing mental health care at the VA or at the Pentagon - especially his proposal to fill the VA's tens of thousands of vacancies for health care providers is something many have said, and no one has done. Destigmatizing mental health care, though, is something Moulton hopes his announcement will help with.
MOULTON: One of the reasons why I was reluctant to go and get help was because I knew so many veterans who had it much worse. And I hope that my example will show other veterans that even if they think that they don't have it as bad as some of the other folks out there, they should get help, as well.
LAWRENCE: Moulton is not the only vet in the race. Pete Buttigieg served in Afghanistan, and Tulsi Gabbard served in Iraq. All three have highlighted their military service and use that credential to criticize President Donald Trump. Trump received five draft deferments and avoided going to Vietnam. All three veterans in the race have made it clear they'll be making that an issue in 2020. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.