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Life Will Never Return to Normal for an Injured Vet Like Tomas Young

Phil Donahue's documentary <i>Body of War</i> offers a chilling view of how the lies that led us to war changed the life of one Iraq veteran.
 
 
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In the opening minutes of Body of War , we find a 25-year-old man struggling to put on his pants. He is wiry and tattooed, sitting shirtless on his bed, his thick eyebrows furrowed in concentration. His face is weathered beyond its years. He works to get one leg into his jeans, then the other, moves on to his sneakers and finally, his wheelchair.

Three years after this scene was filmed, paralyzed Iraq war veteran Tomas Young admits that dealing with his personal day-to-day challenges on camera took some getting used to. But "eventually it dawned on me that the more graphic and in-depth [the documentary] got into my life, the more people would see the consequences and ramifications of making an impetuous decision." The decision he refers to is the U.S. government's rush to invade Iraq in 2003; from the opening moments to the end, Body of War interweaves scenes from Tomas' life as he learns to live with his paralysis with C-SPAN footage of the October 2002 congressional vote that is responsible for it. As senator after senator parrots the lies of George W. Bush in a drumbeat for war, a sick sense of dramatic irony sets in. We all know how the vote will play out. But few could imagine what it means to be Tomas Young, one of the tens of thousands of veterans who have returned from Iraq with life-altering injuries after being betrayed by the government they enlisted to serve. Tomas Young feels that betrayal acutely. He lives with the consequences every day.

Tomas joined the army right after 9/11. As he tells it, he saw President George W. Bush standing atop World Trade Center rubble on TV and knew he wanted to help hunt down Osama bin Laden. He called his local recruiter on Sept. 13. "I joined to go to war with Afghanistan and with al-Qaeda," he tells me over the phone, from Kansas City, Mo., his hometown. But when it came time to deploy, he was not sent to help smoke out the "evil-doers" from their caves as Bush swore to do. Instead, he found himself in Sadr City, Iraq, questioning the premise for the war. ("When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, we didn't go and attack China," he says.) And, in 2004, he did not see any terrorists, nor did he fire a single shot. ("All I saw were women and children running away from gunfire.") Less than a week after arriving in Sadr City, on April 4, 2004, Tomas was riding in an unarmored Humvee with no covering when he was shot, hit just above his left collarbone. "All of a sudden my body just went completely numb," he recalls. He was paralyzed from the chest down.

Tomas spent nearly three months being shuttled between hospitals, ending up at Walter Reed Medical Center in April 2004. Reeling from his injury and hopped up on painkillers, it was there that he first encountered former talk show host and producer Phil Donahue -- who'd recently lost his MSNBC program because, as a leaked memo would eventually reveal, he was "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war." The young, paralyzed veteran made a profound impression on Donahue. "Every time I look at Tomas, I think about the president. 'Bring it on,'" he tells me in a phone interview from his home in New York. "There he was, 24 years old, lying in bed, in the prime of life … This is what we call catastrophic. This is a hugely consequential injury." Tomas' condition, Donahue decided, was exactly what Americans needed to see to truly understand the human costs of the what he calls "the most sanitized war of my lifetime."

The struggle of recovery

Body of War is anything but sanitized. "The movie was filmed during the first two years of my injury, which is the roughest recovery time," Tomas explains -- and it shows. When we first meet his wife-to-be, Brie, she's at the computer, on an Internet message board, looking for advice on Tomas' "bowel problems." Their wedding is approaching, and they're concerned about him having an accident while he is in his tux. It's just one of the ways his body fails him. He relies on "puke pans" for his morning nausea and, in part thanks to the catheter he wears, his frequent urination leads to constant urinary tract infections. And then, of course, as Tomas puts it, there's "a great big erection sidebar," i.e. the problem of erectile dysfunction.

When his wedding day arrives, on a rainy afternoon in August 2005, the couple looks young and happy. He is wearing black Converse All-Stars. Walking down the aisle after declaring their vows, Brie's dress gets caught in his wheelchair. "Damn your big dress," he laughs.

But their relationship is strained. Brie is as much a caretaker -- or "roommate" as he says to her when he gets upset -- as she is a wife. They speak bluntly about their sexual limitations -- and their frustrating attempts to overcome them. ("I could count the number of times we've had sex on one hand," she says at one point.) When it becomes clear that the marriage is on the rocks, it's hard to imagine how someone so disabled could possibly fend for himself. After all, his injuries run far deeper than even his wheelchair would suggest. "I can't cough," he says at one point in the film. His stomach muscles are too damaged.

Yet Tomas is shockingly mobile, a soldier-turned-activist whose work takes him across the county. As the film documents his travels -- to Crawford, Texas, where he and Brie join Camp Casey for their honeymoon; to an anti-war demo in D.C.; to New York, where his stops include the World Trade Center site -- the sheer physical exertion of it all make his determination all the more impressive. In one scene, stressed out and tired, Tomas is stuck in New York City traffic, trying to get to Brooklyn, where he will be speaking at a church. The city is mired in a transit strike, and it has taken 30 minutes to travel a single block in midtown. When he finally arrives at the church, he has to interrupt himself a number of times, taking short breaks and bowing his head until the dizziness goes away. His lightheadedness, he tells the crowd, may cause him to "say uh and stammer" a bit, "so forgive me if I sound a bit presidential." The audience laughs, and for the next several minutes, Young holds their attention through his words and presence, which is itself such a damning indictment of the war.

Resisting the war

Soon after returning from Iraq, Tomas joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), the group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who organized the Winter Soldier hearings in Silver Spring, Md., this past March. In part due to the fact that there are only a handful of members in Kansas City -- but more because of his demanding schedule filming and promoting Body of War -- Tomas describes his involvement these days as "extremely sporadic." But IVAW members often attend screenings of Body of War to get the word out about the group. As he puts it in the film's press materials: "I want Body of War to be a tool for counter-recruitment."

Still, like many members of IVAW, Tomas wants to make it clear that his opposition to the war is not proof that he doesn't support the troops. "I think military service is very honorable and noble," he tells me. Indeed, his younger brother Nathan -- whose own deployment to Iraq is one of the more heart-rending moments in the film -- is currently on a second tour in Iraq. Tomas considers himself a patriot, and he paraphrases a Frederick Douglass quote to explain: "A patriot is 'someone who loves their country but rebukes and does not forgive its sins,'" he says. And he cannot forgive the way the Bush administration has misused and abused the troops in this war.

In the film, one character stands in sharp contrast to Tomas' take on patriotism, his stepfather Mike, an unrepentant Bush supporter and right-wing talk radio devotee who could represent any number of Americans who just can't seem to face up to reality. When Cindy Sheehan travels to Crawford in the summer of 2005 to demand a meeting with Bush, he and Tomas' mother Cathy are watching on TV. "There's your buddy," he tells his wife. "She's there because she's our voice," she says. "Yeah, she's your voice, not mine," he replies. It's not long after that Tomas travels to Crawford himself. He and Casey Sheehan, it turns out, were shot on the same day.

Especially given his mother's unwavering support for him, I ask Tomas if his stepdad has come around on the war. "He doesn't necessarily support it, because he sees how much it costs." It's not clear if that means bodies or dollars (he is a "taxes Republican"), but regardless, "he supports me standing up for something I believe in." Besides, they no longer argue politics. When they do, Tomas compares it to "bringing a knife to a gunfight." ("He's the one who brings the knife.") Unlike Tomas, his stepdad "gets his news from people who don't pay actual attention to the news."

Tomas' story is one of thousands

Phil Donahue was watching C-SPAN in October 2002, as senators from both parties worked themselves into a frenzy over the imminent threat posed by Saddam Hussein. "It was a debate that will rattle around this nation for the rest of the century," he tells me. "And nobody saw it. I did. I was so stunned I couldn't get over it." As the executive producer and co-director, along with filmmaker Ellen Spiro, Donahue felt very strongly that Body of War should include footage of the run up to the war vote. Tomas agreed. "This is a year after the towers," says Donahue. "You see it right there in the screen how easy it is to scare the people." In the context of the election season, it's especially unsettling to watch an agitated, slightly younger-looking John McCain stomp around issuing warnings about Saddam. ("Each day that goes by he becomes more dangerous … The longer we wait, the more dangerous he becomes.") Not to mention Hillary Clinton, who can be seen saying that Saddam provides "aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists." As a mechanized voice tallies the votes in favor of the war in alphabetical order, the names serve as a sobering reminder that, while we blame the Bush administration for railroading the country towards the disaster in Iraq, we have the legislature to thank for greasing the wheels. The title Body of War applies as fittingly to Congress as it does to Tomas' ravaged body.

A powerful exception is Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, whose impassioned pleas for his fellow congressmen to "slow down" before casting a vote that will come back to haunt them falls on deaf ears. Byrd is over 90 years old, the longest-serving member in the history of the Senate and, by Tomas's account, "the coolest old man." In one of the film's most poignant scenes, the two meet at Byrd's office on Capitol Hill, where the senator shows Tomas the vote of the "Immortal 23" who opposed the war. "He was so proud of the vote that he pulled it down off the wall," recalls Tomas, who helped him read the names of the 22 fellow senators who joined him. Of his 17,000-plus votes during his tenure, Byrd calls his vote against invading Iraq "the most important vote I have ever cast."

Tomas returned to Walter Reed last weekend, for the first time since he himself was a patient there. It was "something I wasn't ready for," he says. He went with Tom Morrello, the former guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, who was in town to do a benefit concert for IVAW, and whose music appears on a collection of protest songs that is a companion project to Body of War , coordinated by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. Among the veterans they met, "two of the guys we talked to were expected to make a complete recovery," says Tomas. "The other two I felt the need to give my phone number to." One is a veteran who had been injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2003 and whose leg had just been amputated after a blood clot was found that had been building for the past five years. "They had to amputate just below the kneecap … He cried several times, asking me 'how do you talk to your friends and family about this?'"

A central goal of Body of War is to remind people that there are veterans like these coming home every day. With over 4,000 U.S. soldiers killed, some 50,000 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq. Their injuries are largely invisible. "We have less than 5 percent of the Americans fighting this war," Tomas says. That the rest of the country is mostly tuned out angers him. "They don't have a personal stake in it. They don't have a son or a daughter of a husband or wife to worry about."

For more information on where to see Body of War , visit www.bodyofwar.com.

To read Tomas Young's own writing, go here.

Liliana Segura is an associate editor and staff writer at AlterNet.