How a US soldier went from warrior to anti-warrior

July 8, 2016

Tomas Young's War
Mark Wilkerson
Haymarket Books, 2006
225 pages, US$17.95

Tomas Young never even fired his weapon. He was gravely wounded on his fifth day in Iraq in 2004. What followed was a story of unimaginable grit, courage, love, inspiration — and tragedy.

Young joined the army shortly after the September 11 attacks as a way to express his patriotism and to search for some direction in his life. During basic training at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, he earned a reputation as a troublemaker for questioning the “infrequent and inappropriate training”, according to Mark Wilkerson's new book Tomas Young's War.

He had expected to be sent to Afghanistan and was upset when he received orders to deploy to Iraq.

Shortly after he arrived, while riding in a convoy of military vehicles, Young was hit by a bullet that travelled through his upper body and severed his spinal cord. He was left paralysed from the chest down.

After more than a week of misinformation from the army about where Young was and the extent of his injuries, his mother, Cathy Smith, found her son at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC, just as he was waking from a medically induced coma.

Smith fought the system tirelessly to get her son's needs met — not always successfully. She was shocked when he was released from hospital on July 16, 2004, only 103 days after he was wounded.

Young, his mother, a wheelchair, a shower chair and a bag with an overwhelming number of medications were loaded into Smith's car, and she began the long drive to her home in Kansas City, Missouri.

Young had always had an interest in politics, so while he was in hospital, his mother asked him who he would like to meet. Young asked to see Ralph Nader because he was the only presidential candidate to oppose the Iraq war.

Nader showed up with a stack of books. He brought along his friend, TV host Phil Donahue, who later made the aptly named documentary Body of War about Young's experience and the high cost of war in terms of soldiers' lives and broken bodies.

Within the first year of his injury, Young decided to speak out against the war. He joined Iraq Veterans Against the War and became a powerful spokesperson for the cause. He directly confronted and accused some of the people responsible for his injuries. Young spoke to families of veterans during a stint at Camp Casey with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan outside then-President George W Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Because of the publicity leading up to Donahue's documentary, Young made several public and television appearances, including on 60 Minutes with four other wounded soldiers. Young was surprised to find that he was the only veteran who opposed the war. “It felt like a Trident chewing-gum commercial,” he said. “It was like, 'Four out of five vets support war over peace'.”

He was also surprised that his remarks about poor unit leadership were edited out of the final version of the program.

Much of Wilkerson's book deals with the pain and humiliation of Young's physical condition and his attempts to survive and lead a meaningful life. He insisted that there be no sugar coating or shying away from the indignities of living in a paralysed body and the effects on those he had to rely on for survival. The totality of his suffering was important to his anti-war message.

Young lived for a while with his mother, lived alone for a time and married twice — his marriage with his second wife Claudia Cuellar is an amazing love story. Despite his paralysis, a pulmonary embolism and varying degrees of constant pain, he managed a difficult life with dignity and moments of great joy.

The main villain — besides the war — in this tale of human suffering is the Veterans Administration (VA). Young is aware that he received better care than most because of the documentary, but he still found dealing with the VA a nightmare.

Young's trips to the VA in Kansas City became so stressful that he had to take a tranquiliser before each visit. He describes in excruciating detail the events in that hospital that led to his decision — against medical advice — to remove his feeding tube.

When he moved to Portland, Oregon, he had a somewhat better experience with the VA. He described the care as “like a person who is steadily going blind doing target practice”, whereas “in Kansas City, it was like a completely blind man taking target practice”.

When asked about VA health care in an interview with Smith Magazine, he described the VA staff as “amazing”.

“They do the best with what they can,” he said.

He described a “criminally underfunded” health care system serving patients from at least four former wars and a constant stream of patients from the current ones, including those seriously injured in both physical and mental terms. Of course, there is never a lack of funding for the machinery of war.

In 2013, Young's pain became so great that he decided that the time to die had arrived. He set a date.

A few days after announcing his decision at a screening of Body of War and on the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, he wrote a scathing open letter to Bush and former vice-president Dick Cheney excoriating them for their war crimes.

The letter, which left no crime of the war uncovered, appeared on the Truthdig website and brought worldwide attention to Young's plight. Writing the letter gave him some sort of catharsis and a realisation that he still had a voice against the war.

He decided to stay alive and spend as much time as he had left loving his wife. In November 2014, he died peacefully in his sleep.

Wilkerson told the story Young would like to have written, but could not because of speech problems and problems with his hands. Wilkerson did a great job of getting inside Young's head and drawing heavily from interviews with Young and those close to him.

The result is a book that sometimes feels as if Young himself is telling the story from start to finish.

Tomas Young's War is gut wrenching, inspiring and often painful to read, while at the same time impossible to put down. Young often expressed frustration at the public's lack of engagement with doing something — anything — to stop the war. Near the end, he talked about helping with counter-recruitment efforts to keep kids from joining the military, but his health was failing too fast by that point.

The various scandals plaguing the VA's (mis)treatment of veterans' health has, not surprisingly, outlived Young. Recently, VA secretary Robert McDonald flippantly compared VA wait times to wait times in lines at Disneyland.

New programs to help suffering veterans pop up daily, but veterans still commit suicide at the rate of 22 a day, testifying to the ineffectiveness of those programs. Meanwhile, the top executives of the Wounded Warrior Project have been exposed for lavishly spending donor money on themselves.

Wars waged by the US continue to rage on, creating ever more soldiers and their victims with varying degrees of physical and mental debilitation. US President Barack Obama has continued to expand Bush's wars of empire, while simultaneously managing to restore a degree of credibility to the US war machine.

The celebrities and ordinary people who were touched by Young's fight against the war often described Young's injury as the “true cost of war”. But for the architects and managers of empire, like Obama, this is a price that is easily borne.

What the political and foreign policy establishment cannot bear is an anti-war movement that stretches from the streets into the ranks of the army and back again. The day that such a movement is built is the day that we can truly honour Young's wish to make war history.

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