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Democrats 2020: Seth Moulton, the Iraq war veteran who spoke out about suffering from PTSD

David Millward
Seth Moulton, the Democratic candidate who spoke out about suffering from PTSD - FR62846 AP

In the not so distant past, admitting to psychological problems would have been political suicide.

Back in 1972 Thomas Eagleton, who had been nominated as George McGovern's vice-presidential running mate, was unceremoniously dumped from the ticket.

But the climate is different now and Seth Moulton, one of three military veterans seeking to be the Democratic presidential nominee, opened up on television about suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

He did so as he sought to put the mental health of veterans onto the political agenda. 

In the past Mr Moulton, 40, had been reluctant to mention his own struggle, fearing the political consequences of telling voters he has sought help from a therapist.

"Candidly, that is why I haven't talked about it before," he told the Telegraph at a campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire.

"The truth of the matter is, there is a long history of presidents who have dealt with depression: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant. There are a lot of presidents who are veterans, who have gone through some of these same challenges.

"I remember reading some of the letters of George H W Bush, talking about the same sense of guilt and remorse when he lost some men from his plane that I felt coming back from Iraq.

"None of these people have talked about it before and I think it's time to change that and say you can deal with mental health issues and also be running for the top position in our government."

There is little evidence that the 40-year-old Massachusetts congressman has suffered any political damage from going public about his own difficulties.

Given his military record, that is hardly surprising. Mr Moulton did four tours of Iraq. He was awarded a Bronze Star for having "continually exposed himself to enemy fire", according to the citation.

Mr Moulton has since emerged as a fierce critic of the Iraq war.

His fourth tour was at the express request of David Petraeus, who was commanding coalition forces at the time.

"He was due to go back to graduate school, but got the call from Petraeus," recalled David Gergen, an American political commentator who first met Mr Moulton when he was at Harvard back in 2001.

"I don't think it was an easy decision. It was hard on his parents. He went into tough territory."

Mr Gergen remains impressed by the man he met as a student.

"He is someone who continues to grow and mature, fulfilling his early promise." 

Senior military figures, including retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal, have also supported Mr Moulton during his political career.

Mr McChrystal was among those backing Mr Moulton when he challenged John Tierney, a long-term Democratic incumbent, for Massachusetts' sixth district in 2014. 

Mr Tierney was a reliable Democratic congressman, who had been in post for nearly two decades.

Backed by the party establishment, Mr Tierney was expected to see off his young rival.

Having been raised in Marblehead, an affluent upper-crust town about half an hour's drive north of Boston, Mr Moulton was an unlikely candidate to throw into a part of the state with a sizeable blue-collar vote.

Endorsed by the liberal Boston Globe and the more conservative Boston Herald, Mr Moulton defied the odds by defeating Mr Tierney in the primary and holding the seat in a bad year for the Democrats.

"He's the real deal," said Betsy Merry, an estate agent and friend.

"We had a son who was about 10 years younger than Seth in Afghanistan and I thought it was important that we had people making decisions about war who had actually been there."

Since entering Congress, there is little doubt that Mr Moulton, who is among the tranche of moderate Democrats, has ruffled a few feathers, especially when he opposed Nancy Pelosi becoming House Speaker.

"I do very much appreciate the credibility and moral force he brings as a combat veteran to the opposition to unwise wars,"  said Barney Frank, a former Massachusetts Democrat congressman.

"I supported the man he beat in the primary. But he asked me to help in the campaign and I attended one of his fundraisers.

"I have had strong disagreements with him. I don't think he could have been more wrong than he was in his attack on Nancy Pelosi.

"I feel his running for president is unfortunate. In Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren has already staked that out, based on a much fuller and more impressive record.

"I think he is running the risk of being seen as always challenging women political figures.

"He is claiming that he would transform things, but I am not convinced by all this generational politics."

Mr Moulton's maverick nature has not surprised Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets, a progressive military veterans organisation which endorsed Mr Moulton's congressional campaign.

"He is a risk taker," he said. "To understand Seth, you have to look back to his first campaign, when he took on the Democratic party machine and won.

"In the 2014 congressional race, the Republican governor won the district, but Seth saved the seat for the Democrats.

"So he entered Congress without being beholden to the party machine.

"He is running at a time when the Democrats have had a generational shift and he has to tap into that. He did well in his CNN Town Hall where his position on guns will appeal to the party's base."

Before the starting gun was fired for the Democratic race, Mr Moulton was seen as one of the brightest hopes of the younger generation of candidates.

But the birth of his first child delayed his entry, leaving him playing catch up with his rivals.

But Mr Soltz is not ruling out his chances.

"In a field of 24 Democrat candidates, everyone has a chance, it's like the FA Cup, everyone has a chance."