The courageous journey of seriously wounded Iraq War veteran, Tomas Young, ended this past Monday, nearly eleven years after he was ambushed in a wholly exposed military truck. He passed away in Seattle while being lovingly cared for by his wife Claudia.
Tomas did not go quietly, despite his being paralyzed from the chest down, excruciating pain, comas and reliance on caregivers. He became an anti-war peace activist, addressing convocations and responding to as many interview requests as his agonized condition could tolerate.
I learned about Tomas when his mother, Cathy Smith, called from Walter Reed Army Hospital in 2004, where her son was under care. She said Tomas liked to read and wanted me to visit him. I called legendary talk show host Phil Donahue and asked him to join me in bringing Tomas a box full filled with some thirty books. We learned that he enlisted in the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks because he wanted to help bring the perpetrators of those attacks to justice and also acquire some savings for a college education. Instead, he was sent to Iraq which had no connection to 9/11 or to any national security threat to the U.S. In his words, “We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned.”
Phil was so taken with his story that he stayed in close touch with Tomas and his family and helped him spread his story. With Ellen Spiro, Phil Donahue produced the gripping documentary based on Tomas’ story, Body of War, in 2007. The story was the excruciating experiences of Tomas Young, who managed to travel to some film screenings to support soldiers “speaking out against this war.”
One of the most memorable clips from Body of War showed George W. Bush joking and looking around for weapons of mass destruction (his omnicidal fabrication) at the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in 2004.
Another memorable scene, one that uplifted the human spirit, was the personal exchange between Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Tomas while a recording of Tomas and Senator Byrd reading the list of those announced Senators who voted against the invasion of Iraq played in the background. Senator Byrd deemed these lawmakers “the immortal 23.”
After he received the call that he had been dreading for ten years, Phil told me that Tomas’ body and mind “took every hit” but he fought to live for over a decade. Phil committed himself to that heroic decade of survival, helping him along the way to get better health care and rehabilitation, encouraging him to keep going, and facilitating Tomas Young’s voice and place in recorded history. This friendship that developed from such a dire circumstance is a book in itself.
It was on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War that, near death and in hospice, Tomas Young sent a “Last Letter” to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Here are some of his searing words from that letter, which, of course, neither the two war criminals nor their taxpayer-funded staff bothered to even acknowledge.
“I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries…I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.
I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because…I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.
Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago…you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.
I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks… I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East…I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history…I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11…We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins?…
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.”
In the annals of military history, moral courage is much rarer than physical courage, in part because of the long-lasting sanctions against dissenters and those who speak truth to power about the faults in our own society. Tomas Young had both moral and physical courage. His example should be heeded by young soldiers in the future who are ordered by their gravely flawed politicians to make the ultimate sacrifice for their leaders’ illegal follies and ambitions.