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Hedges: Tomas Young’s Iraq War Survival, Dissent & Life End

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Chris Hedges’ eloquent, heart-breaking account entitled “The Crucifixion of Tomas Young” is worth a full reading.

Hedges recently traveled to Kansas City to visit the disabled 33-year old Army veteran, Tomas Young, who had been the subject of a movie documentary entitled “Body of War” and whose paraplegic body since then has deteriorated to such a degree Young has decided to put an end to its horrifying regression.

Hedges writes:

... Young, whose long red hair and flowing beard make him look like a biblical prophet ...

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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.

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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.

Hedges explains Young’s initial and profound wounding:

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.

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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.

Young remarried in 2012, his beloved Claudia, and wants to spend a little more precious time with her before he opts to go off his feeding-tube after April 20th, their one year anniversary.

Hedges continues with Young’s health nightmare:

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. ...

As for Young’s impulsive life choice to join the army, Hedges relates:

Young joined the Army immediately after 9/11 to go to Afghanistan and hunt down the people behind the attacks. He did not oppose the Afghanistan war. “In fact, if I had been injured in Afghanistan, there would be no ‘Body of War’ movie to begin with,” he said. But he never understood the call to invade Iraq. “When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor we didn’t invade China just because they looked the same,” he said.

He became increasingly depressed about his impending deployment to Iraq when he was in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. He asked the battalion doctor for antidepressants. The doctor said he had to meet first with the unit’s chaplain, who told him, “I think you will be happier when you get over to Iraq and start killing Iraqis.”

“I was dumbstruck by his response,” Young said.

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“If I had known then what I know now,” Young said, “I would not have gone into the military. But I was 22, working various menial jobs, waiting tables, [working] in the copy department of an OfficeMax. My life was going nowhere. Sept. 11 happened. I saw us being attacked. I wanted to respond. I signed up two days later. I wanted to be a combat journalist. I thought the military would help me out of my financial rut. I thought I could use the GI Bill to go to school.”

Young is not the first young man to be lured into war by the false sirens of glory and honor and then callously discarded by the war makers. His story has been told many times. ... It is the story of Hector in “The Iliad.” It is the story of Joe Bonham, the protagonist in Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel “Johnny Got His Gun,” whose arms, legs and face are blown away by an artillery shell, leaving him trapped in the inert remains of his body.

Hedges describes where and how Young spends his days.

Young’s room is painted a midnight blue and has a large cutout of Batman on one wall. He loved the superhero as a child because “he was a regular person who had a horrible thing happen to him and wanted to save society.”

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“I spend a lot of time sitting here in my bedroom, watching TV or sleeping,” he said. “I have found—I don’t know if it is the result of my decision or not—[it is] equally hard to be alone or to be around people. This includes my wife. I am rarely happy. Maybe it is because when I am alone all I have with me are my thoughts, and my mind is a very hazardous place to go. When I am around people I feel as if I have to put on a facade of being the happy little soldier.”

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For Young, the war, the wound, the paralysis, the wheelchair, the anti-war demonstrations, the wife who left him and the one who didn’t, the embolism, the loss of motor control, the slurred speech, the colostomy, the IV line for narcotics implanted in his chest, the open bed sores that expose his bones, the despair—the crushing despair—the decision to die, have come down to a girl. Aleksus, his only niece. She will not remember her uncle. But he lies in his dimly lit room, painkillers flowing into his broken body, and he thinks of her. He does not know exactly when he will die. But it must be before her second birthday, in June. He will not mar that day with his death.

Hedges finds such nobility and hope reflected in Young’s loving consideration of his baby niece:

And though he is an atheist, though he believes that there is nothing after death—that, as he says, “the body is like a toy that runs out of batteries, only there are no replacements”—his final act honors the promise of Aleksus’ life. As he spoke to me softly of this child—it hurts, even now, he said, to know she will grow up without him—I wondered, sitting next to him on his bed, if he saw it, the glory of it, his final bow not before the specter of his death but the sanctity of her life. The resurrection.

[cross-posted on open salon]

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Martin Finnucane's picture
Submitted by Martin Finnucane on

I might like God better if he gave us a little justice *now*, instead of having to wait. He sees every sparrow that falls and all that, but He couldn't have spared Tomas Young? I would have, and my love is not beyond human understanding, and my mercy is far from infinite. Sadly, I'm even farther from omnipotent.

Submitted by lambert on

Not an easy one.