Last week, we asked you to consider using Memorial Day to remember service personnel forgotten by society. This week, we contemplate the purpose of Memorial Day for a soldier who may or may not be dead yet.
The uncertainty is part of the astonishing tale of Tomas Young, a 33-year-old Iraq War veteran who has chosen to affirm his life by ending it.
Young’s story begins in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when he, as did many young men and women, volunteered for Army service to strike back at al-Qaeda. “I wanted to go to Afghanistan and get the people that did this to us,” he explained in the 2007 documentary of his life, Body of War.
However, something happened to the patriotic narrative in the months following the attacks. Though Osama bin Laden’s trail led back to Afghanistan, policy makers in George W. Bush’s White House had in mind another war altogether. When Tomas Young finally touched ground in the battle zone on March 31, 2004, his boots were in Iraq.
Concluding a routine rescue mission four days later, Young and 24 other soldiers were jammed into an open 2 1/2 ton truck designed to transport 18. As they rolled through downtown Sadr City, they were ambushed by insurgents, for whom “it was like shooting ducks in a barrel,” Young recalled later. Young, sitting cross-legged in the truck bed, was hit twice, one bullet through the knee and one bullet cutting his spinal column in two. He knew at once he was paralyzed from the chest down. Had his lungs not collapsed, he would have called out for someone to put him out of his misery on the spot.
Instead, Young was flown out of Iraq into Kuwait, where Army doctors concluded the severity of his injuries warranted the care of specialists. He was taken first to a military facility in Germany and then to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. There, undergoing treatment and therapy, he requested a visit from consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Tomas Young wanted to tell America a few things about this war.
The Kansas City native has always stressed that if he had been wounded in Afghanistan, he would have accepted his lot. However, Young never agreed with the orders he obeyed to deploy to Iraq. “When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we didn’t invade China just because they looked the same,” he said.
As Young told Derek Seidman at Znet in 2005, he was watching the House debate a war appropriations bill on C-SPAN one day, and was amazed to see an amendment to provide VA hospital improvements voted down, while what he characterized as “enough pork to feed Sally Struthers’ African village many times over” was approved for inclusion in the bill. Angered by this disregard for the welfare of wounded troops and disillusioned by expansion of the conflict after President Bush’s declaration of “Mission Accomplished,” Young soon joined an organization called Iraq Veterans Against the War and became a prominent antiwar spokesman, noted for provocative comments such as, “How can you say you support the troops if you support the false ideas they may die for?”
When Nader came to Walter Reed, he brought along broadcaster Phil Donahue, recently let go by MSNBC for his antiwar attitude. The talk show host realized the scope of the story Young had to tell, and he collaborated with director Ellen Spiro to bring it to the screen in Body of War. It is not an easy movie to watch, depicting Young’s daily struggles with the physical aftershocks of his wounds. There are emotional scars as well; during the filming, Young’s first wife divorced him and his mother became his primary caregiver.
Body of War earned excellent reviews and a number of film festival awards. From his wheelchair, Young continued to speak out against the immoral Iraq war, and he met his future wife, Claudia Cuellar. In 2008, though, his health worsened. A blood clot in his arm led to a pulmonary embolism and subsequent coma. When he awakened, the progress he’d made since being shot had dissipated. His speech and short-term memory were now affected. He could no longer hold a spoon in his hand.
Last July, able to digest only soup and Jell-O, Young was beset by abdominal pain. “I went to the VA and they treated me like a second-class citizen, a junkie looking for pain medicines just to get high,” he said. At a private hospital in Kansas City, surgeons removed his colon. The pain abated briefly, but returned with a vengeance.
Young checked into hospice care to better manage his pain. There, he made a fateful decision. In February, he announced via Skype that he had had enough of diminished quality of life: “After my one-year anniversary with my wife [he married Cuellar on April 20, 2012], I will begin to wean myself off of food and one day go away.”
Following the announcement of his impending suicide, Young released, on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, “The Last Letter,” a scathing denunciation of George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney. “Before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens…know fully who you are and what you have done,” he wrote. “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.”
Tomas Young may or may not be gone by the time you read this, but his diatribe, born of a sense of betrayal by the country he loved, will endure. His broken body will be remembered as well, the summary of patriotism and sacrifice we are asked to honor on this and every Memorial Day.