Earlier this week, James Hoyt, one of the first four soldiers in WWII to discover the Buchenwald concentration camp which led to its liberation in 1945, died at his home. He was buried yesterday.
Hoyt had rarely spoken about that day in 1945, but he recently opened up to a journalist.
"There were thousands of bodies piled high. I saw hearts that had been taken from live people in medical experiments," Hoyt told author Stephen Bloom in a soon-to-be-published book called "The Oxford Project."
We have truly lost a great American hero, but his story can still teach us about a much-discussed issue plaguing America today: the thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from PTSD.
It's been over sixty years since that day in 1945, when Hoyt stumbled into the camp where he witnessed the bony and emaciated masses crying with joy for the prospect of rescue, but throughout his life, the image remained burned in his, and other witnesses', brains:
Said Retired Gen. Robert Sentman:
"When the prisoners saw Jim, they picked him up and threw him in the air, that's how happy they were after seeing such horrors. Prisoners had been hung from hooks to die. He saw a lampshade made from a prisoner's tattoo. Jim carried those horrors with him forever. He never got what he had seen out of his mind. If you ever wondered about Jim, think about what he saw."
For 63 years, Hoyt suffered from PTSD -- visions of the horrors he found refused to retreat from his mind. As recently as last year, Hoyt continued to attend a weekly group therapy session at a Veterans Affairs facility.
"Seeing these things, it changes you. I was a kid," he said. "I still have horrific dreams. Usually someone needs help and I can't help them. I'm in a situation where I'm trapped and I can't get out."
Hoyt was invited to attend the 50th anniversary of the liberation, but he declined. "I didn't want to bring back those memories."
"Thinking back, I would have pushed to be a psychologist -- if for no other reason than to understand myself better."
Precious little else is reported in terms of how Hoyt's condition continued to affect his life, but the fact alone that the horrific dreams spanned six decades points to the power that PTSD can have over a life. Concerning reports of more and more soldiers returning from the Middle East suffering from PTSD have raised concerns and demands for policies that take care of our veterans.
Yet, despite the outcry for real veterans' care services, the Republicans' mantra of "Support the Troops," seems to stop where rhetoric meets action. This simply wouldn't be a blog of the times unless I narrowed my critique to highlight a very specific Republican. John McCain's war history serves as an ironic but shameful contrast to his voting record and current policies on veteran care:
Time and again in the U.S. Senate, McCain has stood with President Bush, not our nation’s veterans, by under funding VA health care. And now McCain says he wants to ration treatment for service members and veterans by providing health care only to soldiers injured in combat.
Shameful- apparently, McCain only wants to heal the wounds that can be seen -- which is uncannily consistent with reports that he only has eyes for his image.
And yet, long before McCain had the Republican Presidential nomination in the bag, he was still voting with disdain for the mental health needs of our veterans:
In 2006, McCain voted against adding $1.5 billion to pay for veterans mental health care, readjustment counseling, rehabilitative care, and lowering fees for veterans. The funding would have been paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes.
I read earlier on Kos that veterans are donating to Obama's campaign six times more generously than to McCain's. Message to McCain: smear ads may work on certain segments of society, but to our veterans, real action speaks volumes.
The Veterans' Mental Health Extension Act of 2007, introduced in October of last year, has been passed by the Senate, and is sitting in the House for passage. There's a petition by Progressive Future to urge Congress to get this bill passed as soon as possible, as many more veterans are poised to return to the United States with reported alarming rates of PTSD among them. In memory of James Hoyt, in celebration of his bravery and his contribution, as well as in memory of my family members who did not have the fortune of being liberated and making it out, I signed. I ask you to do the same.