There were 8,920,000 military veterans in the United States as of last June, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Sometime last Sunday or Monday, hours before Veterans Day began, that number dropped by one, when Tomas Young died at home in Seattle, with his wife by his side. He was one of many soldiers who were sent to Iraq and were grievously injured there.
The public may know more about Tomas Young than about most veterans, thanks to the remarkable documentary “Body of War,” directed and produced by legendary talk-show host Phil Donahue and filmmaker Ellen Spiro. His journey, his struggle and now his death follow an arc along the tragic U.S. wars and occupations in this post-9/11 world.
Like so many, Tomas was inspired to join the military after Sept. 11. He was surprised to learn, though, that he would be deployed not to Afghanistan, but to Iraq. On April 4, 2004, five days after Tomas arrived in Baghdad, he was shot in the spine, paralyzing him from the chest down. The injury rendered him a paraplegic, causing a cascade of additional complications. His breathing was labored. His body’s capacity to regulate temperature was impaired, occasionally requiring that he wear an ice-pack vest. Despite the enormous challenges, Tomas summoned tremendous strength and embarked on a path of antiwar activism.
During the summer of 2005, he joined the grieving mother-turned-peace-activist Cindy Sheehan at Camp Casey, the protest camp in Crawford, Texas, not far from the ranch of then-President George W. Bush. Cindy named the encampment after her dead son, Casey, killed on the same day in the same city—Sadr City—where Tomas was shot. Cindy Sheehan stood in protest outside Bush’s retreat while he vacationed there, and the protest grew and grew. Tomas joined Iraq Veterans Against the War, and served on its board of directors.
In 2008, I spoke with Tomas. He directed a comment to then-Vice President Dick Cheney: “From one of those soldiers who volunteered to go to Afghanistan after Sept. 11, which was where the evidence said we needed to go, to [Cheney], the master of the college deferment in Vietnam: Many of us volunteered with patriotic feelings in our heart, only to see them subverted and bastardized by the administration and sent into the wrong country.”
“Body of War” depicts the personal cost of war. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, Young meets Sen. Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator, with the most votes cast in Senate history (more than 18,000). Byrd said his “no” vote on the Iraq war resolution was the most important of his life. Young helps him read the names of the 23 senators who voted against the war resolution. Byrd reflects: “The immortal 23. Our founders would be so proud.” Turning to Young, he says: “Thank you for your service. Man, you’ve made a great sacrifice. You served your country well.” Young replies, “As have you, sir.”
The release of “Body of War” propelled Tomas into the limelight, as the country became embroiled in the hot summer and the 2008 presidential elections. It was then that a blood clot lodged in his arm, causing severe complications. He lost most of the use of his arms, and suffered diminished ability to speak. He never lost his deep commitment to peace, or his hope that those responsible for the war would be held accountable.
In February 2013, appearing before an audience of “Body of War” in Litchfield, Conn., via video stream, he shocked the audience by telling them that he intended to end his own life by stopping eating.
He was still in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo., with his wife, Claudia Cuellar. Tomas was battling extreme, chronic pain, and as Claudia told us after his death, he found some relief from marijuana, which is illegal in Kansas and Missouri. So they moved to Oregon, where medical marijuana is legal. Unfortunately, Claudia felt the Veterans Affairs hospital in Portland did not support his use of marijuana, and punitively reduced his prescription pain medications in response. Seeking a safe, compassionate place for Tomas, they moved to Seattle, another place with legal medical (and now, recreational) marijuana. Tomas and Claudia felt the VA dragged its heels, leaving them to ration his pain pills.
It was in the midst of this ordeal that Claudia found Tomas, last Monday morning, lying in deep silence. He was dead.
Eighteen months earlier, he had written an open letter to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. He ended the letter: “My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.”
May Tomas Young, who fought so hard for peace in life, now rest in peace.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.