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Nikki Haley struggled with PTSD after Emanuel shooting, saw horrors as UN ambassador

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NEW YORK — When Nikki Haley’s voice trembled at a press conference in Charleston the day after the Emanuel AME Church shooting in 2015, reporters noted it. They weren’t used to seeing this human side of a politician known for a veneer of practice and polish.

A month later, Haley sat down in the governor's mansion to talk about the tragedy with The Post and Courier.

When the interview began, she already clutched a tissue.

“I had to find a way to kind of put my arms around the people of the state and lift them up. And I didn’t know how to lift myself up,” she said.

She began to cry.

It felt like a moment. But really, it was evidence of a much larger struggle Haley faced.

On Tuesday, from an office overlooking Manhattan the day she released her new memoir, Haley again sat down with The Post and Courier. She explained how after attending all nine Emanuel victims’ funerals, after seeing devastated loved ones fall over the slain bodies of their loved ones in caskets, she often broke down crying.

She held press conferences, then cried in her office.

She threw herself into long days during the 1,000-year flooding that fall, then went home and cried in bed. She struggled to eat.

In the quiet of home, she still heard the wailing, still heard the funeral songs, still felt the suffocating drape sorrow.

Yet, it felt wrong. People had just lost sons and mothers to racist violence. 

Why was she crying?

With the Manhattan skyline behind her on Tuesday, Haley said the words: post-traumatic stress disorder.

Coming forward

Haley decided to reveal her treatment for PTSD in her new book, “With All Due Respect,” so that others would recognize what she didn’t.

“I thought people who got PTSD were people who were in battle and people who had gone through tragedy, not someone who witnessed it or was on the outside,” she said. “Reconciling that with myself was really difficult.”

Her road to realization began one night when she broke down over dinner with her new chief of staff, Swati Patel, and her husband, Nick, who happened to be Haley’s physician.

He encouraged her to get professional help, which she did.

She also worked harder. She focused her grief on leading the state through the historic flooding. Then the next year, with Hurricane Matthew forming, her chief of staff came to her. A shooter had opened fire at Townville Elementary in the Upstate.

“I just fell apart.”

She went to the hospital to be with the parents of 6-year-old Jacob Hall. She saw his devastating injuries and tried to comfort his parents as they held out hope for him.

Then she went to another funeral, this one filled with people decked out in superhero costumes little Jacob loved.

“It was just more and more tragedy, and it just compounded. But I never let myself drop the ball on South Carolina. I look back now and I’m so much stronger than I was four years ago,” she said.

As she moved forward with therapy, and turned more to her Christian faith, she began to feel joy again. She also became more determined to work hard for policies she believed in. 

“With help, you can come out of this stronger on the other side," she said. "But you have to get help."

Joining Team Trump

The day before the Emanuel shooting, Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign in New York City. As the summer months wore on, his candidacy caught traction.

Haley’s mother, Raj Randhawa, a native of India, was an early Trump supporter.

“As a legal immigrant, she especially appreciated his views on immigration. She had strong feelings about people coming into the country the wrong way,” Haley writes in her new book. “Trump understood that.”

Haley also liked his views on immigration. But his rhetoric turned her off.

“It took me back to the Mother Emanuel murders,” she writes. “Trump was touching raw nerves. The more he did so, the more I worried that some deranged person might react with violence.”

That December, from the governor’s mansion in South Carolina, she delivered the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.

“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation,” she said in the speech.

Later, when Haley called on Trump to turn over his tax returns, Trump retorted via tweet: “The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!”

She famously responded with what she calls “Southern-woman code.”

“Bless your heart.”

It established mutual respect, she says, enough that he chose her to serve as ambassador to the United Nations despite her sparse international policy experience. Eighteen months after the Emanuel shooting, less than two weeks after a jury sentenced murderer Dylann Roof to a death sentence, the Senate confirmed Haley 96-4.

While most headlines focused on her battles with the United Nations and speculation over her views of President Trump, her experience with the Emanuel shooting drove her to seek out other suffering, to understand it and address it.

“I went to countries where life is cheap, liberty is nonexistent, and happiness a distant dream,” she writes.

She recounts a visit to a refugee camp in Ethiopia where she met with about 100 women in a tent. One woman described being gang-raped as a young girl. Later, South Sudanese soldiers tore her baby away and tossed him into a fire. She had to eat her own child’s flesh.

As the woman spoke, others shared their own stories of unimaginable trauma and loss. They tugged at familiar feelings for Haley.

“The pain that I had during the Mother Emanuel tragedy comes back when I see those refugees in South Sudan. It comes back when I see other people’s pain and lives taken. It’s all that same pain that comes back. It makes me more sympathetic to them. It makes me want to help them so much more,” she said.

But it wasn’t only the trauma of the Emanuel shooting. Or the Townville shooting. Or the floods or hurricanes.

There is a certain way that childhood pain burrows deeply into the essence of a person. And speaking from long ago was still a little brown girl in a small South Carolina town.

Small-town childhood

Go back to that small town of Bamberg, where Haley grew up, and ask her childhood friends about reading her first book, “Can’t Is Not an Option.” Many share their regrets.

Regrets that Haley didn’t confide in them the snubs and sting of being treated like an outsider, a brown girl in a black-and-white world, as she describes it. And regrets they weren’t attuned enough to ask about it.

They will feel the same regrets when they read her new book in which she retells many of the same stories.

The kickball game of girls divided up into teams, one black and one white.

The pageant leaders who disqualified Haley and her sister because they weren’t sure whether to put them in the black or white contest.

The vegetable stand owner who called police when Haley’s father, a Sikh who wore a traditional turban, arrived to purchase produce.

“I was always very sensitive to other people’s pain because I had lived it,” Haley told The Post and Courier.

Roberta Brabham Cothran was a year older than Haley. Her mom owned a salon and cut the Randhawas’ hair. She thought she had known Haley well, that her childhood friend had been easily and warmly welcomed into their friend group.

“It made me personally sad because I didn’t know she felt that way,” Cothran said.

When Haley was growing up in Bamberg, it was (and still is) a small town of about 2,000 where, like many small towns, black and white people lived mostly in separate areas. Its public schools had only recently desegregated under court order and maintained separateness where possible — black and white student councils, black and white homecoming courts, all within the same school.

But Cothran mostly recalled sweltering days when their pack of friends rode bikes to each other’s houses. With towels around their necks, carrying change for snacks, they’d head for the local community pool, the center of all things summertime.

En route to the pool, they’d stop at the Randhawas to grab Haley.

“She always fit right in with our group,” Cothran said.

The white group.

You see, the community pool was for members only. White members.

“I don’t think it was a planned whites-only pool,” recalled Vicki McMillan, one of their friends.

Then she paused to think.

“I’m sure of it.”

Then again, there also wasn’t a black pool in town.

But Haley’s portrayal of her early treatment in Bamberg miffed others who knew her.

Trent Kinard, Bamberg County’s council chairman and a childhood friend, noted that the Randhawa family’s business boomed. People didn’t shun them; they shopped there. The family built a stately home. Haley was a popular girl, he said, smart and likable with lots of friends.

“She was just Nikki.”

The people of Bamberg ultimately accepted her. So did the people of South Carolina, he said.

Haley agreed.

“At the end of the day, that small town in South Carolina accepted us," she said. "The state of South Carolina elected me governor. We had come so far. So, if anything I feel blessed. I feel grateful."

Coming home, soon

When Haley told Trump that she planned to resign last year, it had nothing to do with politics or future plans to run for president, she insists.

For eight years, serving as governor and then ambassador, she’d been on call 24 hours a day.

“Whenever I picked up my phone I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that bad news was coming,” she writes.

Her parents, both in their 80s, live with Haley and her husband, Michael. Her mother has Parkinson’s disease. Her son is a senior in high school, and she wants to be part of his college decisions and pursuits. Her daughter is a student at Clemson University, Haley's alma mater. 

“It was more not letting work take over and making sure we enjoy family every chance we get,” said Haley, who is 47. 

Last month, she and her husband bought a $2.4 million house on Kiawah Island, sparking rumors that her return to South Carolina signals a return to politics and a potential bid for the presidency in 2024.

But in New York on Tuesday, Haley denied that, instead describing the peace she finds near the water. She described family summer vacations at Kiawah that their children loved.

With an empty nest ahead, they want a place that will entice their children to visit — often.

“Now that they will both be out of the house, we want a place that they will be happy to come back to,” she said. “Just the peace of it all. And getting back home. New York is fine, and we’ve enjoyed it here. But I’m really anxious to get home.”

Their son graduates from high school in May. The family will move back then, right into the humid heat of Charleston in summertime.

Future plans?

When Haley left the office overlooking Manhattan Tuesday, she hurried out into a frigid New York afternoon. Traffic was jammed, police officers everywhere, because Trump had just finished speaking nearby at the Economic Club of New York and was heading out.

As Haley crossed a busy sidewalk to get into her black SUV, a man spotted her and called to her about Clemson football, which Haley loves.

Haley laughed and kept walking.

As her driver opened the car door, another stranger spotted her.

“You’ve got my vote in 2024!” he hollered.

Haley laughed again and disappeared into the car, which pulled out into honking traffic, still snarled as the president's motorcade prepared to move.

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Contact Jennifer Hawes at 843-937-5563. Follow her on Twitter @jenberryhawes.

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