March 4, 2024

Health Mettler Institute

Healthy LifeStyle & Education

Ruben Gallego made mental health part of his campaign. Specifically, his own.

Ruben Gallego made mental health part of his campaign. Specifically, his own.

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When Ruben Gallego was in Iraq, he was known as a problem solver.

Consider the case of the snoring Marine — in which Lance Cpl. Jonathan Grant used to keep the barracks awake with the tremendous sound of sawing lumber. Grant had told his brothers-in-arms that he didn’t mind if they woke him up when it got too loud, but getting out of bed to shake him awake seemed like a chore.

“So,” said John Bailon, a friend of Gallego’s and member of his unit, “Ruben tied a rope around Grant’s foot, and every time he started snoring, he’d give it a yank. It pretty much worked!”

Grant was a friend to everyone in the unit — an affable man known for his seemingly endless candy stash that he was happy to share. But he was Gallego’s best friend. Grant had been Gallego’s unofficial trainer, helping Gallego lose weight and pass a fitness test when they were both stateside. Before shipping out, Gallego had held Grant’s baby and promised his wife to look out for him in Iraq. On May 11, 2005, Grant’s amphibious assault vehicle struck an improvised explosive device. Gallego had been in a nearby vehicle and was sheltering in an Iraqi family’s home when he got the news of Grant’s death from a fellow Marine.

Gallego felt like his chest had been pulled apart by grief.

When Gallego returned home, the post-traumatic stress from his time in Iraq changed his life.

His PTSD gave him recurring nightmares, often about Marines from his company — 22 of whom had been killed during his deployment. It sometimes caused him to drink and smoke too much. It put a strain on his marriage, which ended in divorce. And it made him prone to what he called “extreme outbursts.”

It also, in a way, made him a congressman.

“I had an addiction to artificial points of success,” Gallego said during an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “Like being able to run for this or run for that.”

Gallego had been ambitious before he went to war, but after, he went into overdrive: entering politics as an operative, winning a seat in the Arizona State House and, in 2015, heading to Washington to represent the Phoenix area in the United States House of Representatives.

His successes were a shield — a way to prove to himself and others that he was doing fine, and a way to keep his mind from having time to wander. “I was always trying to keep myself busy,” he said.

The itch to keep climbing didn’t seem to dissipate once in Congress. Two-terms in, Gallego flirted with a Senate run in 2019, (he bowed out, in part, due to lagging poll numbers against his would-be Democratic primary opponent, the astronaut Mark Kelly). During the first year of Biden presidency Gallego lobbied (unsuccessfully) to be secretary of the Navy. And now, he’s keeping himself busy once again, having launched a bid for the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

Gallego’s adopted state of Arizona has recently become ground zero for some of the country’s most-crazed politics: “Cyber Ninjas” looking for election fraud where it doesn’t exist; a former dentist turned congressman who was stripped of his committee assignments for posting a cartoon that showed him murdering Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.); a MAGA celebrity, Kari Lake, who still refuses to concede her defeat in the 2022 race for governor. Gallego is the first entrant in a contest that’s almost two years away, but he could well be running against Lake, and also Sinema — the corporate Democrat turned independent who spent much of the past two years stymying her former party’s legislative agenda.

To stand out, Gallego has spent a lot of time talking about progressive politics — with hopes of raising the minimum wage and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

But Gallego has also made mental health an important part of his campaign. Specifically, his own.

“I can disprove the idea that people that have PTSD are like these raging balls of fire that are ready to explode,” he said. “Or the opposite, that we’re like these meek individuals that are crying every night or something like that.”

Traditionally, politicians have avoided discussing their mental health issues when seeking higher office. Any member of Congress with a basic grasp of history would be aware of the late vice-presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton, a Democratic senator from Missouri, and how he was booted from 1972 Democratic ticket after news broke about his past experiences using electroshock therapy to treat depression. And Gallego says he has concerns about being defined as the “PTSD candidate.”

Mental health issues aside, voters can expect to hear a lot about Gallego’s temperament — that of a pugnacious politician, the type who speaks and tweets with four-letter words and has a standing invitation to appear on MSNBC. Gallego’s opponents are certain to try to portray him as a figurative bomb thrower if not a literal one.

Already, he said, he’s noticing a storyline forming among “right wing Twitter handles” about him as an “angry” candidate — a sort of “subtle way of saying I’m an unstable guy with PTSD without saying the PTSD part.”

“I don’t think 20 years ago you would have had a public servant being that frank about a mental health diagnosis,” said Shaili Jain, a PTSD specialist.

But, Gallego has made the bet that voters have a better and more nuanced understanding about mental health struggles than they may have had in the past — due in small part to public figures, like Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) whose office recently announced he’d entered inpatient care for depression at the Walter Reed Medical Center, and Jason Kander, a former rising-star in the Democratic Party, who abandoned a potential run for president to deal with his own PTSD after serving in Afghanistan.

“Americans are starting to understand and trust leaders who have dealt with their stuff,” said Jason Kander. “Because everyone has their stuff.”

After four years of Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency, three years of a global pandemic, screaming matches about what books belong in libraries and an insurrection at the seat of American democracy — voters may have more “stuff” than ever.

And in this way, it’s possible that a candidate’s PTSD may be less of a liability that it once was.

It may even be relatable.

Gallego grew up in Chicago. His mother was a secretary, his father was “an a–hole.”

The elder Gallego worked construction jobs to provide for the family, but would often come home in an abusive state. The physical stuff, Gallego said he could handle no problem, but the emotional stuff — making fun of him for reading books, calling him “gay” for the way he ate his food — has stayed with him ever since.

When Gallego was in seventh grade, his parents separated and his father left the family. It was a relief, but it created a financial struggle that resulted in Gallego, his mom and three sisters moving into a small two-bedroom apartment just south of Chicago. Gallego slept on the living-room floor. He wouldn’t have his own bed until he got to college.

Gallego had thought about entering the Marine Corps after high school, partially because he wanted to serve his country, but also because it seemed like a surefire way to collect a paycheck. But his grades were good enough to earn him a scholarship to Harvard, a school his mother said he couldn’t turn down. He earned cash as a bouncer at a Cambridge nightclub, cleaning toilets on campus and occasionally picking up serving jobs for student events.

“I used to serve drinks at Pete Buttigieg’s little political club at the Institute of Politics,” he said. “I hated them all.”

It was a hard adjustment, being a poor kid at a rich person’s school, and Gallego’s academic performance got so bad he was asked to “pause” his enrollment. He joined the Marines during that break and made it back to Harvard the following year. He started dating a young woman named Kate Widland, who had bid $22 on him during a social club charity auction, and graduated in 2004.

In 2005, he shipped out to Iraq.

“He had checked into our unit, and the gossip was there was a Marine who went to Harvard,” said Bailon. “That was an anomaly. We were like, we have to meet this guy.”

Bailon’s first impressions of Gallego: he was short, and he was a passionate, vocal Democrat.

“That ruffled some feathers,” he said. “It was fun to watch.”

Gallego had a habit of beating everyone on base in Trivial Pursuit, but he was not “the stereotype of someone who went to Harvard,” said Andy Britten, the unit’s fireteam leader. He was down for the grunt work, always up to carry “another 100 rounds or 200 rounds” of ammo when asked, “and he would never complain.”

He endeared himself to his colleagues in other ways too, including spearheading a successful smuggling operation, in which his girlfriend would fill care packages with hollowed-out stuffed animals carrying bottles of booze. It became known as “Operation Teddy Bear.”

Gallego made friends easily, and they became family the hard way. Being on the battlefield together — the endless hours of boredom, the moments of terror, the act of protecting one another — was enough to make them feel like brothers. And it helped that Gallego could make people laugh.

Kris Fox recalls the time he and Gallego got stuck in a sandstorm, unable to see more 25 yards in front of them, but kept hearing the sounds of remote-activated improvised explosive devices. It was incredibly tense, which Gallego helped alleviate with his “dark military humor.”

“He’d be like, ‘I hope the next one goes off on your side,’” Fox said.

Britten said he and Gallego once jumped into a ditch together after having a rocket-propelled grenade shot at them.

“We just looked at each other and laughed,” he said. “Just the levity, given the situation and knowing what we had to do, laying in a ditch in Iraq.”

After the firefight ended, they collected a handful of the shells, which Britten said he still has today.

“I’d bet a dollar he still has his too,” he said. (Gallego confirmed he does).

The shells were souvenirs Britten kept from a time he survived, but he said he carries plenty from the deaths he witnessed too. Their battalion — which included Gallego’s company and two others — lost 48 men, the highest number of casualties by a single Marine battalion since the Beirut bombing of 1983.

“PTSD made sense,” said Andy Taylor, a squad leader. “Given what we went through.”

Gallego returned home and did his best to continue his life where it left off. He stayed together with Kate and the two of them moved to Arizona. They married in 2010.

Gallego was struggling emotionally but was successful professionally. He figured that meant he couldn’t really have a problem. The strong exterior was so convincing that Bailon would ask Gallego how he was able to be so successful while carrying the burden of the war.

“I just stuff it so deep inside,” he recalled Gallego saying, “but when it emerges, it’s tenfold.”

In 2016, Kate became pregnant. The pressure of being a congressman and of being an expectant father, on top of the anxiety, moodiness, survivor’s guilt and the constant striving for success was too much for Gallego to handle, he said.

“What am I chasing here?” Gallego asked himself in one therapy session, according to his memoir. The answer: “A reason to be alive. Because I didn’t think I deserved to be.”

He’d already been having trouble being getting close to people ever since the war, he said, out of fear that the people he loved most would be taken away, like they had been in war. Now, he could no longer commit to the relationship.

They broke up while Kate was still pregnant.

On a recent Wednesday, Gallego power-walked down the hall of the Rayburn House Office Building to be on time for a hearing held by House Committee on Natural Resources. In normal times, this committee’s top priorities include overseeing geological surveys, international fishing agreements and historical battlefields. But, since these are not normal times, before the committee could turn its attention to, say, the Mining Law of 1872, members needed to discuss whether they would be allowed to do so while armed.

“How many members feel like they would need to carry weapons into our committee hearings?” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) had asked, after proposing a firearm ban.

A few hands went up, including freshman Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) who was wearing a lapel pin that resembled a semiautomatic rifle, and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) who once owned a gun-themed restaurant called Shooters Grill.

“I feel I need one everywhere here,” Boebert said.

“And would those be loaded weapons, presumably?” Huffman asked.

“Not an unloaded weapon!” Boebert scoffed.

“Do you think we’re going to hurt you?” Luna chimed in later. “We would never hurt you. I would use my firearm to defend you. Just to be clear.”

“Just a point of clarification for Mr. Huffman,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), the vice chair of the committee offered when it was his turn to speak. “I didn’t raise my hand earlier because I don’t participate, I don’t go there, so don’t read anything into my lack of response. I want to keep the bad guys guessing.”

Boebert made the point that there were “unhinged” people out there, and that there were plenty of examples of political violence to point to as cautionary tales: the time a deranged gunman shot up a baseball practice attended by congressional Republicans; the 1954 attack on the Capitol by Puerto Rican nationalists. As Boebert spoke, Gallego, rested his hand on his chin and raised his eyebrows.

“The member from Colorado forgot to mention January 6th, which was also an assault on representatives,” Gallego said.

“Yes, it was awful when Ashli Babbitt was murdered,” Boebert interrupted, referring to the woman who was shot and killed by Capitol Police while attempting to climb through a shattered window into the Speaker’s Lobby.

Gallego had been on the House floor that day, had stood on a chair and helped his fellow members put on their gas masks. In problem-solver mode, he made a plan to use the pen in his jacket pocket as a shiv if he had to fight. (“If it got to it, I would stab someone in the eye and take whatever weapon they had,” he said.) Later, he counseled fellow members of Congress about how to deal with their insurrection-related PTSD.

The condition was a permanent part of him. He still thinks about Grant, his snoring friend, whose wife he could only visit once after his death because it was too painful.

“I feel guilty that I let him die,” Gallego wrote in his memoir. “I told her that I would take care of him.”

For much of the war, Gallego had sat next to Grant on their convoys, and it was impossible to shake the feeling that he could have died with his friend, or maybe even instead of him.

“I should have been the one to die,” he wrote. “I’ll never get beyond that fact.”

Grant had a family, Gallego had been unmarried. He couldn’t get beyond that fact, but maybe he could learn to live with it. By the time of the insurrection, Gallego had been doing the work in therapy for years, working on himself and his communication skills. Talking about his struggles publicly had helped. And some facts had changed. He’d raised a son, co-parenting with his ex, Kate, who is now the mayor of Phoenix. And he’d started fresh with a new relationship, too. In 2020, he proposed to a Democratic lobbyist named Sydney Barron. He was better about communicating his feelings with her. In 2021, they got married, and they are expecting their first child later this year.

Because of all this, Gallego felt as if he could actually give out some good advice when his colleagues asked him how to deal with their insurrection-related traumas.

“Some of the advice was simple,” he said. “Drink a lot of water. Exercise. Walk around.”

And, if walking wasn’t enough, they could always follow Gallego’s example, and find something new to run for.