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Remembering Tomas Young

The anti-Iraq war veteran who was shot, paralyzed and died of his injuries ten years later is the subject of Mark Wilkerson’s new book “Tomas Young’s War,” a reflection on Young’s life and activism

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NADIA KANJI, TRNN: Three days after 9/11 at the age of 21, Tomas Young felt compelled to act on his patriotism and so he signed up for the military with the hopes of fighting in Afghanistan. Instead Young was deployed to Iraq in 2004. But 5 days into his tour Young was shot and left paralyzed from the chest down, never to walk again. When he got back to the U.S., horrified at the illegal war he was made to fight, Young became a prominent anti-war veteran. He died in November of 2014 at the age of 34. His life is remembered in Mark Wilkerson’s book Tomas Young’s War. 

Mark Wilkerson is joining us today in the studio to talk about the many days he spent with Young, documenting his life after his tragic incident. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARK WILKERSON: Thank you.

KANJI: So you knew Tomas Young well before he died. In your book you write about the first time you went to his home and met him. Can you tell us what it was like to meet him personally? 

WILKERSON: Everything was just as I imagined. It was a house that was full of artwork and memorabilia and all of these symbols of the passions that he had. Books and art and music and his old military uniforms and things. But it was a house that was mostly unused because Tomas was isolated to a hospital bed, to a bedroom in the back. Those were my impressions that this guy was like a prisoner in this tiny little room in the back of a house and that’s how he spent his days.

KANJI: Was he living alone at the time?

WILKERSON: No he was living with his wife Claudia. 

KANJI: And struggling with his condition, Young contemplated ending his life by stopping his medicine and nourishment. And as you mentioned his last letter he wrote a letter called the last letter A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Chaney from a Dying Veteran, where he said and I’m going to quote his letter “My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope for your sake that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and 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”. 

So you yourself spent 8 years in the military. Can you tell me about your impressions of this letter, his initial decision to end his life and then him deciding to keep on?

WILKERSON: You know Tomas had a very strong sense of betrayal even before he was injured. When he joined the military right after 9/11 he expected to go to seek retribution against those that had attacked us and after he had signed up the Bush Doctrine became apparent. The preemptive war and as it became evident that Tomas was going to go to Iraq he became really despondent and went and sought psychological help. He actually moved himself from a line infantry platoon to a support position to try and put himself in a safer spot but he wound up going and following orders anyway. But there was a very strong sense of betrayal from the very beginning, pre-injury. I think his time as an activist was also an outlet for that. A very useful and constructive outlet that gave him purpose and the last 5 or 6 years that purpose was greatly diminished because of his physical problems, the health setbacks he’d had. He had a pulmonary embolism, he couldn’t speak clearly, he was essentially quadriplegic for the last 6 years of his life. I think a lot of that became pent up and the letter was a catharsis for that and actually Tomas and I talked about it. He said it was a very cathartic letter.

KANJI: Why did he decide to keep on and not end his life?

WILKERSON: You know, Phil Donahue, the father of talk shows probably was very close with Tomas and was a very strong supporter and a friend and visited Tomas often. And he told me Tomas always wanted to live. Throughout all of this Tomas wanted to live. But he had so many issues with his health that I describe in detail in the book. The pulmonary embolism, the loss of the use of his hands, his speech being severely degraded, going into a feeding tube, pressure sores, excruciating chronic pain that resulted in him having a colostomy and he’d gone through so many things and the excruciating pain came back and this is right before he made the decision. And he was just finished. He just couldn’t take anymore. He wanted no more surgical intervention, testing, being poked and prodded, he just wanted to be left alone. 

So once the letter came out and he received this outpouring of support and interest and letters and emails from all over the place and all this media support and interest I think that void him substantial. And also the time he was spending with his new wife Claudia. They’d just been married April of the year before. I think those 2 things really served to reinforce to Tomas that he was important, that people cared about him beyond just his immediate family.

KANJI: You mentioned also that he wouldn’t have written the letter if he had been deployed in Afghanistan where he wanted to go and fight after 9/11. The war in Afghanistan turned out to be a disaster so do you understand where he came from?

WILKERSON: Well he always said he wasn’t necessarily antiwar but anti-Iraq War. He never understood why as many of us never understood how we somehow drew a line from 9/11 to Iraq. I think at the time that the film came out that wasn’t, I think now we’re all asking that question and we weren’t 6 years ago or 8 years ago. 

KANJI: After spending a lot of time with Tomas Young what set him apart from other veterans who was injured like he was? Did he see himself as representing them?

WILKERSON: I think it’s very, it would be a natural human reaction to a catastrophic injury to curl up into the fetal position and not talk to anybody and suffer in silence and not want to share. Tomas did the exact opposite. He showed everybody everything. I mean there’s a scene in the Body of War film where his mother’s giving him a catheter for the very first time. He allowed Ellen Spiro who filmed that scene said she had her eyes closed, she promised I’m not looking I’m just pointing the camera. She was embarrassed. We’re embarrassed to watch it as an audience. 

But Tomas understood this kind of stuff is what people need to see. When I was at his house once he was getting ready to do a tube feeding and he lifted his shirt up and he showed me all the different tubes and the scars. He had Claudia his wife showed me a can of the nutrient. I mean he understood that I needed to see everything and we talked about everything. That’s one of the things that really set Tomas apart was his openness and his unflinching honesty regardless of whether it was an embarrassing anecdote he was telling me, he understood that there was a bigger truth that he was trying to tell. 

Another thing that set Tomas apart was just his really strong character. He was very sharp, observant, in touch with current events. From the beginning of the time I knew him, dilaudid and morphine and later on it was switched over to methadone and morphine but really heavy duty drugs and an array of other stuff too. And somehow through all that fog of medications this really sharp sarcastic observant guy was still there, he still shown through.

KANJI: What did Tomas Young reveal about the army that resonated with you, someone who’s again been part of the army but wasn’t communicated with the American public?

WILKERSON: I don’t know, we had pretty similar backgrounds. We were both enlisted guys in the army. We both came from backgrounds where we signed up; one of the major reasons we signed up was we didn’t have a lot of other options. Tomas wanted to go to college, I wanted to go to college. So that was a major reason for him signing up in addition to the 9/11 issue. Of course I signed up way before 9/11 but we shared that similar background and just the fact that we were both enlisted guys in the army there were a lot of things that we could talk about without having to explain to each other.

KANJI: Was that part of why you wanted to write this book?

WILKERSON: Yea well I think the bigger part was probably that I had been over to Somalia when I was in the army and had a little brush with combat. Nothing like the guys in Iraq and Afghanistan saw and I’d actually left Mogadishu a couple of weeks before the Black Hawk down incident happened. But I was a Black Hawk crew chief in Somalia and for 6 months we would fly over the marketplace in Mogadishu and be shot at and come back and see holes in the helicopter. I went through enough situations where it really reinforced that this is real stuff that goes on. When we sit over here and there’s some little military adventure going on the other side of the planet it’s very far removed from the average person. Especially now there’s only less than half a percent of our population is actually physically involved in the military. So most of us don’t know anybody in the military or don’t have personal connection.

KANJI: And lastly, what do you hope the book achieves? And if there’s a passage from the book that you would like to read to us?

WILKERSON: Yea what I would like the book to achieve, I talked about it a little bit earlier, that the lack of understanding between the average citizen and what really goes on in the military. What war really means. What it means when we say boots on the ground, that there are actually people in those boots that come home after the war is over, after the battlefield is silent. They come home and it’s not over. That’s why I called it Tomas Young’s War. Tomas was only in Iraq for 5 days. But his war was 11 years of paralysis and horrible health complications and depression and frustration and just chronic pain that just rattles around for generations. 

I talked to Claudia just a few days after the news came. In addition to grieving the loss of her husband she was trying to figure out how she was going to pay for his cremation. The VA would not pay until it was determined that the cause of Tomas’s death was service connected. Claudia said that the novelty of moving to Seattle had quickly worn off when Tomas encountered the same resistance regarding pain management. Just as in the past both in Portland and Kansas City, Tomas was forced to plead his case to try to convince the medical staff how much pain he was experiencing. It often involved an ER visit which Tomas abhorred. He had endured this all before and quickly became discouraged. Tomas had an appointment to meet with his doctor regarding the pain management issues on November 24th. His death however was completely unexpected. While the precise cause was unknown, Claudia thinks he was simply exhausted from the pain and the battles with the VA. She’s adamant that his death was not intentional. That Tomas would’ve contacted his family first if he planned to end his life intentionally. And anyway they were running out of pills, there weren’t enough for a deliberate overdose.

The gathering in Kansas City was a modest affair attended by friends and family. There was a table with framed photographs of Tomas, a couple of photo albums and an arrangement of flowers. A copy of Eugene Richard’s book War is Personal lay open to the section on Tomas. A guest book was available for guests to sign. Cathy brought a copy of the Body of War DVD and played it on a nearby TV. People gathered to talk about the lost friend, their lost son, their lost brother. Tomas’s niece Alexis, played with a visiting veteran’s PTSD service dog. Her mother held her baby brother Michael Vincent Young, who shares the middle name of his uncle Thomas who he will never know. Thomas Young was 34 years old.

KANJI: Thank you so much. So to end this segment, we’re going to play a song by Eddie Vedder that he wrote for Tomas Young called No More. Thank you so much for joining us. 

End

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