Art by Shepard Fairey
Iraq War veteran Tomas Young, gaunt and bed-bound in hospice care, was managing his pain and health with a menagerie of high-octane painkillers and antibiotics, including medical marijuana dispensed from a vaporizer. He spent his days in a darkened apartment, with his wife, in Portland, Oregon, knowing his time would be up soon. He had already suffered a series of serious health setbacks, including a colostomy and pulmonary embolism in concert with his war injuries, that fell in succession like dominoes and took his life two years ago this week.
While he lay in bed, he penned “The Last Letter” to mark the 10th anniversary of the first aerial bombing of Baghdad in the spring of 2013. An emotionally-excruciating personal dispatch that excoriates the decisions of the Bush administration, this open letter to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney served as an eviscerating indictment of American foreign policy, and its treatment of veterans after their service.
It also publicly expressed his wish to die.
Seven months later, Young would pass away at the age of 34, on the eve of Veterans Day 2014, but not before his letter spread across the internet at rocket speed.
“I have, like many other disabled veterans,” he began, “come to realize that our mental and physical wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned,” Young wrote. “I hope you [President Bush] will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, 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.”
A bullet had pierced Young’s spine in April 2004 during an ambush in Sadr City, an event that would later be known as “Black Sunday.” His convoy had trudged through treacherous territory, during the nascency of a rapidly-shifting form of warfare, and they were underprepared and unprotected. Young was a young, intelligent Army specialist with a high ASVAB, or Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery score, and he had a reputation for questioning orders during his short military career. Young enlisted just a few days after 9/11. He found the military action in Afghanistan just, but quickly felt perplexed about the sudden shift toward what would become the Iraq War Resolution — disputing the logic from the beginning. “When we were attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, we didn’t go after the Chinese,” Young told Billboard in 2008.
Young was shot just five days after his deployment to Iraq, paralyzed from the chest down. He hadn’t discharged his weapon once.
Within a few years, Young transformed from combat soldier to one of the most vocal and recognizable opponents of the war throughout the aughts, often mentioned in the same breath as Cindy Sheehan (whose son Casey had died in Sadr City) and similar activists. He would muster all his available energy, speaking passionately at rallies, schools and, often, at huge concerts. Tomas, however, physically embodied not only the cost of war, but specifically, how botched the war in Iraq had become. Disheveled and wheelchair-bound, yet affable with a charismatic personality, Tomas’ presence at any given speaking engagement emanated a palpable sense of gravity. A chance meeting with media personality Phil Donahue while he recovered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center catalyzed “Body of War,” a 2008 documentary directed and produced by Donahue and documentarian Ellen Spiro. “Body of War” documents Young’s military career, his injury and his transformation into an anti-war activist — providing a visceral cinematic argument against the “War on Terror.” While much of Tomas’ journey is tragic, the film ends with a sense of optimism.
The book “Tomas Young’s War,” by Louisville-based author Mark Wilkerson, picks up where “Body of War” left off, from his high-profile activism, up until his death. He describes Young as “not your fundamental runt — he was a bright light.” Wilkerson is a journalist and a veteran, having served as a helicopter crew chief with the 101st Division in Somalia in 1993.
It wasn’t his military background that led Wilkerson to Tomas. It was his love of The Who. For his book “Who Are You: The Life of Pete Townshend,” Wilkerson approached Eddie Vedder to write the foreword. “I wanted somebody to do the foreword who wasn’t in The Who, and who was a member of my own generation, rather than guys who were the same age as my dad,” he told me on a mild summer afternoon sitting outside Quill’s Coffee in The Highlands. Wilkerson became fast friends with Vedder, who also was a personal friend of Tomas Young and was in the midst of writing original music for “Body of War.” This was Wilkerson’s introduction to Young, and he was impressed with how the film portrayed a happy ending on a tragic story. “He’s got a manual wheelchair. He’s pretty upbeat. He’s living on his own. He’s figured out how to cope with his injury and live with it, and he’s found a purpose, ya know, and people are listening to him. He’s a really good activist. And that’s how the film ends basically.”
“You’re used to seeing this guy in [‘Body of War’], and ‘The Last Letter’ comes out, and there’s a picture of Thomas [with it] and it looks like he’s 45,” Wilkerson said. “He’s got a beard, and he looks really haggard and drawn and exhausted, and he’s saying ‘I’m in hospice care, and my days are numbered’ and I’m like… what on Earth happened in the past five years?”
Young had publicly expressed interest in writing a book about his life, so Wilkerson reached out to see if he had interest in someone helping him tell his story. “He said he would be delighted for me to do that, which is quite a word for somebody who is on hospice care,” Wilkerson recalled.
A little over a week later, he traveled to Kansas City for the first of 12 total visits before Young passed away at age 34. With Wilkerson and Young both veterans, as well as fans of similar pop-culture touchstones, the friendship came naturally. “Tomas Young’s War” is the 225-page result of these interactions — the second act after “Body of War.” The cover is illustrated by Shepard Fairey, who is arguably second only to Banksy in the world of street art and who has been responsible for some of the most iconic artifacts of the current zeitgeist, such as the “Hope” screenprint for President Obama. “Hope” resonated in 2008 after years of a dark and troubled footprint from the Bush administration, domestically and abroad — it was a fitting tribute for a man whose broken body represented the blunders of hastily executed, disastrous preemptive doctrine.
And the details of a military-disorganized come outlined en masse in the beginning chapters, though Wilkerson insisted on maintaining an editorial distance. “I wanted to keep the politics out of the way as much as possible, because I wanted it to be a story with broad appeal and a timeless story,” he said, viewing the book more as a biography than an advocacy narrative. But the facts remain that 2-5 Cav, Tomas’ unit, still drove into a hurricane of gunfire, with 12 soldiers in the open back of a truck, completely exposed. Armored vehicles were considered “unnecessary,” based on poor intelligence, according to close friend and fellow soldier Riley Soden. The 2-5 Cav never received training on the Iraqi people or their customs, and the strategy confused many of the infantry (though Tomas was the rare personality interested in vocalizing such). After his injury, Tomas’ mother did not receive any meaningful information from the Army, or Walter Reed, for over a week. And ultimately, by the time a level of organization and rapport with the population was established, higher-ups flipped the script.
The facts speak for themselves, and in 2016, we’re beginning to see history accurately judge the myopic decisions of the previous decade. Wilkerson said confusion in war is sometimes natural, as it was during his time in Somalia, but “the war they were fighting, and the war that needed to be fought, was the wrong approach strategically, and they just kept on banging their heads against the wall and getting the same exact result. That first rotation Thomas was part of was a second wave of troops. They rotated pretty much everybody all at once. That first round hadn’t worked. Fallujah had just happened. [Shiite cleric Moqtada] Al Sadr was really starting to get some ground. The [Coalition Provisional Authority] was making wrong decisions. Meanwhile back home [then-Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and Bush were saying ‘We’re winning! Things’ll be better. The troops will be coming home soon. It was just nuts.”
Using his body as a symbol of a disastrous conflict, with total transparency, giving the public a comprehensive portrait of the true cost of war, made Young singularly unique.
“I don’t think it’s natural to invite the world to come take a look at everything, to just expose all of your problems and the horror of what’s happened to you, to everybody,” Wilkerson said. “I tried to give a real good picture of what it was like to be in that house [in Tomas Young’s War]. That’s heavy duty. He couldn’t move basically. The first time I went to shake his hand, his fingers move, but they couldn’t grasp. Here’s life for Tomas: sitting in the room in the dark and sucking on his bag full of marijuana vapors and watching TV and dealing with fricking chronic pain and throwing up.” For Donahue, Tomas’ openness creates a loftier narrative of advocacy. “Every president seems to think going to war is the only way he can show he has balls,” he said. “We wage war after war — and nobody seems to be embarrassed by this. Well, it’s time to tell the stories that do more than glorify sacrifice. It’s time to tell the stories that make us want to put an end to war, once and for all.”
But the intimacy he offered in “Body of War” and “Tomas Young’s War,” to both journalists and the public at large, is only part of what made Tomas exceptional. “There was a spark there throughout… his strong personality and humor shone through all the way regardless of whatever ridiculous array of drugs he was taking,” Wilkerson said. “The way he dealt with it made it unique, and that attracted people to him. I mean he’s in hospice care, and I am the most uncomfortable person in the room between us, and I’m trying to ask a question about what led to the decision to… and I’m kind of tapering off, and he says ‘What, end my life?’ and he’s trying to help me out and goes into this big heavy reasoning about why. He can hardly speak clearly, and then says ‘Plus, the Playstation 4 is coming out in like two months, and I just ordered it, and I don’t wanna waste that.’”
As testament to the impact Young left, the book includes quotes from Glenn Greenwald — the journalist who brought Edward Snowden to the world and said: “Tomas Young’s is a story that every American should know.” Also included were writer Christopher Hedges, filmmaker Michael Moore and people he called friends, such as Vedder and Donahue. Congruent to his thoughtfulness, though, Tomas’ views were nuanced and not easily categorized. “I think when some people grab these role models or heroes or whatever they’ll just simplify them down to ‘Thomas Young was anti-war’ or ‘he was a peace activist’ but he wasn’t anti-war, generally,” Wilkerson said. “He said that ‘Afghanistan was the right fight, and if I would have been injured in Afghanistan, I wouldn’t be doing all this.” Still, those views, at least during the zenith of the Iraq invasion, were novel.
Tomas appeared on a “60 Minutes” segment, “Wounds of War,” which profiled five wounded veterans and their lives afterward. He was the only voice who spoke out against the Iraq war. “It felt like a Trident chewing-gum commercial,” he said later. “It was like, ‘four out of five vets support war over peace.’”
The personality of Tomas Young parsed apart with detail and sensitivity throughout the documentary and biography profiles a person familiar to so many of us. An American kid who likes comics and rock and roll and Vonnegut and baseball. Beyond that, Young reminds me of so many young men I grew up around, cultivating an exceptional reliability for me. Tomas was only five years older than me, and his personality fits the mold of so many young, smart guys with an interest in the counterculture. “Tomas Young’s War” lets you get to know this man, one who could easily have been any one of my friends I grew up with, born in the early ‘80s and reminding me of people I loved and respected — some ended up in the military, others didn’t. And chances are, you know someone, or many others, exactly like him. Tomas is your friend or brother or neighbor. But, yet, he was an exceptional man who endured unthinkable physical and emotional pain, and allowed us not just a glimpse, but a full survey, as a final, courageous, subversive move to raise awareness of veterans’ issues.
“We move our focus away from the soldier when he leaves the battlefield,” said Wilkerson. “I think we’ve started to wake up within the last few years. We’re talking about veterans now out of necessity because there are 2.5 million of them in this country due to this war in Afghanistan and a huge amount of them are injured and are having issues assimilating into society. Suicide rates are sky high.” On how our country’s perception of veterans has changed since 2008, Wilkerson added: “I think [‘Body of War’] came out at a time when people weren’t prepared to have that conversation and hopefully we’re in the middle of the conversation now. Perhaps our ADD nation can spend a couple hours getting to know one of our injured veterans and what he went through. His war started the day he was shot and it lasted 10 years.”
Much of Tomas Young’s story remains unique, hence his legacy. But just as much of his story isn’t unique, which is one of the United States’ most shameful tragedies. When Vedder penned the song “No More,” Tomas remembered, “[h]e asked if there was anything I wanted to be mentioned in the song, and I said, ‘Well, we have this saying at the VA that nothin’s too good for a veteran, and so nothing’s what they’ll get.’”
Veterans Day deserves more than remembrance for those who sacrificed. Tomas Young’s legacy asks you to also observe all the grisly details — both with the human cost of war, and that people are not disposable, despite how our country treats veterans after their service.