Tomas Young at his home in Kansas City, Mo. (photo Claudia Cuellar)
KANSAS CITY, Mo.--I flew to Kansas City last week to see Tomas Young. Young was paralyzed in Iraq in 2004. He is now receiving hospice care at his home. I knew him by reputation and the movie documentary "Body of War." He was one of the first veterans to publicly oppose the war in Iraq. He fought as long and as hard as he could against the war that crippled him, until his physical deterioration caught up with him.
"I had been toying with the idea of suicide for a long time because I had become helpless," he told me in his small house on the Kansas City outskirts where he intends to die. "I couldn't dress myself. People have to help me with the most rudimentary of things. I decided I did not want to go through life like that anymore. The pain, the frustration..."
He stopped abruptly and called his wife. "Claudia, can I get some water?" She opened a bottle of water, took a swig so it would not spill when he sipped and handed it to him.
"I felt at the end of my rope," the 33-year-old Army veteran went on. "I made the decision to go on hospice care, to stop feeding and fade away. This way, instead of committing the conventional suicide and I am out of the picture, people have a way to stop by or call and say their goodbyes. I felt this was a fairer way to treat people than to just go out with a note. After the anoxic brain injury in 2008 (a complication that Young suffered) I lost a lot of dexterity and strength in my upper body. So I wouldn't be able to shoot myself or even open the pill bottle to give myself an overdose. The only way I could think of doing it was to have Claudia open the pill bottle for me, but I didn't want her implicated."
"After you made that decision how did you feel?" I asked.
"I felt relieved," he answered. "I finally saw an end to this four-and-a-half-year fight. If I were in the same condition I was in during the filming of 'Body of War,' in a manual chair, able to feed and dress myself and transfer from my bed to the wheelchair, you and I would not be having this discussion. I can't even watch the movie anymore because it makes me sad to see how I was, compared to how I am. ... Viewing the deterioration, I decided it was best to go out now rather than regress more."
Young will die for our sins. He will die for a war that should never have been fought. He will die for the lies of politicians. He will die for war profiteers. He will die for the careers of generals. He will die for a cheerleader press. He will die for a complacent public that made war possible. He bore all this upon his body. He was crucified. And there are hundreds of thousands of other crucified bodies like his in Baghdad and Kandahar and Peshawar and Walter Reed medical center. Mangled bodies and corpses, broken dreams, unending grief, betrayal, corporate profit, these are the true products of war. Tomas Young is the face of war they do not want you to see.
On April 4, 2004, Young was crammed into the back of a two-and-a-half-ton Army truck with 20 other soldiers in Sadr City, Iraq. Insurgents opened fire on the truck from above. "It was like shooting ducks in a barrel," he said. A bullet from an AK-47 severed his spinal column. A second bullet shattered his knee. At first he did not know he had been shot. He felt woozy. He tried to pick up his M16. He couldn't lift his rifle from the truck bed. That was when he knew something was terribly wrong.
"I tried to say 'I'm going to be paralyzed, someone shoot me right now,' but there was only a hoarse whisper that came out because my lungs had collapsed," he said. "I knew the damage. I wanted to be taken out of my misery."
His squad leader, Staff Sgt. Robert Miltenberger, bent over and told him he would be all right. A few years later Young would see a clip of Miltenberger weeping as he recounted the story of how he had lied to Young.
"I tried to contact him," said Young, whose long red hair and flowing beard make him look like a biblical prophet. "I can't find him. I want to tell him it is OK."
Young had been in Iraq five days. It was his first deployment. After being wounded he was sent to an Army hospital in Kuwait, and although his legs, now useless, lay straight in front of him he felt as if he was still sitting cross-legged on the floor of the truck. That sensation lasted for about three weeks. It was an odd and painful initiation into his life as a paraplegic. His body, from then on, would play tricks on him.
He was transferred from Kuwait to the U.S. military hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, and then to Walter Reed, in Washington, D.C. He asked if he could meet Ralph Nader, and Nader visited him in the hospital with Phil Donahue. Donahue, who had been fired by MSNBC a year earlier for speaking out against the war, would go on, with Ellen Spiro, to make the 2007 film "Body of War," a brutally honest account of Young's daily struggle with his physical and emotional scars of war. In the documentary, he suffers dizzy spells that force him to lower his head into his hands. He wears frozen gel inserts in a cooling jacket because he cannot control his body temperature. He struggles to find a solution to his erectile dysfunction. He downs fistfuls of medications--carbamazepine, for nerve pain; coumadin, a blood thinner; tizanidine, an anti-spasm medication; gabapentin, another nerve pain medication, bupropion, an antidepressant; omeprazole, for morning nausea; and morphine. His mother has to insert a catheter into his penis. He joins Cindy Sheehan at Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas, to protest with Iraq Veterans Against the War. His first wife leaves him.
"You know, you see a guy who's paralyzed and in a wheelchair and you think he's just in a wheelchair," he says in "Body of War." "You don't think about the, you know, the stuff inside that's paralyzed. I can't cough because my stomach muscles are paralyzed, so I can't work up the full coughing energy. I'm more susceptible to urinary tract infections, and there's a great big erection sidebar to this whole story."
In early March 2008 a blood clot in his right arm -- the arm that bears a color tattoo of a character from Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" -- caused his arm to swell. He was taken to the Kansas City Veterans Affairs hospital, where he was given the blood thinner coumadin before being released. One month later, the VA took him off coumadin and soon afterward the clot migrated to one of his lungs. He suffered a massive pulmonary embolism and fell into a coma. When he awoke from the coma in the hospital he could barely speak. He had lost most of his upper-body mobility and short-term memory, and his speech was slurred significantly.
It was then that he began to experience debilitating pain in his abdomen. The hospital would not give him narcotics because such drugs slow digestion, making it harder for the bowels to function. Young could digest only soup and Jell-O. In November, in a desperate bid to halt the pain, he had his colon removed. He was fitted with a colostomy bag. The pain disappeared for a few days and then came roaring back. He could not hold down food, even pureed food, because his stomach opening had shrunk. The doctors dilated his stomach. He could eat only soup and oatmeal. Three weeks ago he had his stomach stretched again. And that was enough.