Lifestyle Spotlight

From the archives: Paralyzed after a firefight, Tomas Young has made peace his new mission

Updated: 2013-03-21T16:26:10Z

By STEVE PAUL

The Kansas City Star

Originally published Oct. 22, 2007

Some days his muscles start vibrating, like ropes of Jell-O beneath his skin, and Tomas Young decides to stay in bed. Most of the time, though, he musters the attitude it takes to slide into his wheelchair and face the day.

Maybe it will be one of those days when a telemarketer calls and he delivers his sucker punch.

You’re 27 and retired? they’ll say when he answers their demographic questions. You must be lucky. How do you get to do that?

You go to Iraq, he’ll say, and get shot and become paralyzed from the chest down.

Then the dimple deepens in Young’s sharp-featured face. Amusing. It’s one way to cope.

Young, a graduate of Winnetonka High School in Kansas City, North, is one of more than 28,000 military men and women who have returned home less than whole -- wounded physically, mentally or both.

And like some of his former brothers and sisters in arms, Young had spoken out against a war that he did not believe in even before his unit deployed in March 2004.

Mike Wallace profiled him early last year in a "60 Minutes" segment about wounded Iraqi war vets, and Young has recounted his journey from warrior to "anti-warrior" for media outlets from coast to coast.

Now, Young’s tale of attitude, war and its painful human cost is on the verge of going wider. He is the subject of a documentary film produced and co-directed by television’s Phil Donahue. The movie, "Body of War, " needs a distributor and is being shopped this fall at film festivals -- last month in Toronto, this past weekend in the Hamptons.

And if you’ve caught wind of rocker Eddie Vedder’s anti-war anthem, "No More, " which he wrote for Donahue’s movie, the inspiration came directly from Young, ordinary guy and profoundly wounded vet.

"What we have, " Donahue said of Young’s story, "is a drama that’s playing itself out in thousands of homes across America behind closed doors."

At first Young was gung-ho.

As a 17-year-old Winnetonka junior, he was an early enlistee in the Army. But a shoulder problem got him discharged.

Then, a few years later, came Sept. 11, 2001.

With Americans stunned by the airborne terrorist attacks, the 6-foot redhead called a recruiter and asked to re-enlist.

"I figured it was the best thing a young man who is physically able should do, " he said.

Young was working at a Northland Kmart, making minimum wage and not sure what the future would bring anyway.

By February 2002, he passed the physical and, after basic training, landed at Fort Hood, Texas, as part of the 1st Cavalry Division.

Young expected to be sent to Afghanistan. He was all for the mission to "smoke out" and exact revenge on the "evildoers, " as President Bush called them.

Now, Young refers to the Afghanistan campaign as a "diversionary tactic" on the way to the wrong war in Iraq.

Young had paid enough attention to understand that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had little to do with Sept. 11, and he came to the conclusion that the nation had been misled.

While training in the woods of central Texas, he wondered aloud why the U.S. was in Iraq.

"Shut the ... up, Young, " officers told him.

Iraq. April 4, 2004. For four days, Spc. Young and Alpha Company had been at Camp War Eagle on the northeast edge of Sadr City. The densely populated Baghdad slum was simmering. Occupation authorities had shut down the local newspaper. Residents of the Shiite enclave were enraged.

Young mostly monitored radio traffic. He wanted a desk job, and he got it. But late in the afternoon on this day, he was told to haul butt on a rescue convoy. Another squad had been pinned down in an alley four miles away.

Several Humvees headed out, and Young and others packed into the back of an open-air truck. Some trucks had tarps that sheltered soldiers from the view of rooftop snipers. This one didn’t.

While pulling up the rear, Young’s truck was hit by small arms fire. Within minutes, six soldiers were wounded. Then a bullet pierced Young’s chest, below the left collar bone, severed his spinal cord and lodged in the rear of his Kevlar jacket. Young dropped his rifle and instantly realized that he could not feel a thing.

Young said he owes his life to Staff Sgt. Robert Miltenberger, who, by one published account, heroically treated his soldiers’ wounds in between moments of firing back at snipers.

Amid the sloshing blood, the screams and the gunfire, Young, helpless and limp, wanted to die.

Miltenberger and the rest of Young’s unit made it back to Camp War Eagle. Young was airlifted to Kuwait for emergency surgery then to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. A week later, Young’s mother, Cathy Smith, heard her son waken from a medically induced coma as he lay in bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

"Mommy, " he cried.

Smith spent three weeks at the hospital with her son. One day she offered to arrange a visit from anyone he wanted to name.

Ralph Nader, he said, because Nader was the only presidential candidate that year who had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning and talked about bringing the troops home as soon as possible.

Nader showed up and brought along his friend Donahue. Donahue and Smith talked for hours.

"I can’t just pat this kid on the head, " Donahue recalled thinking after that meeting. "I just felt that people should see this."

Young returned home in summer 2004, and in October of that year he moved into a new home that was fully accessible to those with disabilities. Joining him was a onetime high school friend. They got engaged and decided that together they could handle the challenges of his new life.

Smith had discovered a support group for military families and, knowing of her son’s rising anger over the war, she pointed him toward a new group, Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Their family reflects a delicate balancing act. Young and his mother traveled to Fort Campbell, Ky., to see his younger brother, Nathan, as he deployed to Iraq.

"I walk a tightrope because I have to support both of them, " Smith said.

"I spend a lot of time saying how proud I am of Nathan for going to Iraq and fighting his war and telling Tomas how proud I am of his staying home and fighting his war."

After Young married, he and his bride honeymooned at "Camp Casey" in Crawford, Texas, where war critic Cindy Sheehan tried to get the attention of the vacationing president. Sheehan’s son, Spc. Casey Sheehan, had died from a gunshot to the head on the same Sadr City rescue mission that had left Young a paraplegic.

Young attended other protests and became active with the anti-war veterans group, which today numbers about 650 former and current service members. He appeared in ads for Democratic candidates. He wheeled through the Capitol to argue against this year’s troop buildup in Iraq.

After only eight months, his marriage fell apart.

This summer, on Aug. 5, Young rolled onto the stage at the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago, introduced by Vedder, Pearl Jam’s singer. Vedder had spent more than an hour on the phone talking with Young, then sent Donahue two new songs for the movie.

"I speak for a man who gave for this land, " one of the songs begins.

Young’s love of music led to a compilation of anti-war and inspirational songs, things as varied as Public Enemy and Johnny Cash.

The compilation is expected to be released by Sire Records when "Body of War" hits screens. The record company last month announced a gift of $100,000 in Young’s name to Iraq Veterans Against the War.

On a crisp, sunny fall day, Young sat at a table in his Kansas City, North, house. Four remote-control devices sat side by side in front of him. An ashtray was filled with cigarette butts. Beer bottles lined the kitchen and dining-room walls.

Young pulled a binder off a shelf. An inch thick, it was filled with clippings about "Body of War." The documentary premiered Sept. 11 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Festival audiences voted it the third-best film out of nearly 350 shown and gave Young a resounding ovation. Variety’s review was a little chilly, but other critics were impressed.

Most days, Young reads, plays video games, listens to music and talks on the phone. At 7 p.m. each weeknight, he tunes into MSNBC to watch Keith Olbermann, a fierce fellow critic of President Bush. Fuel for the attitude that keeps Young going.

Young’s mother visits every few days. He has an assistant who helps him travel. Last week he taped a show with Montel Williams in New York. Next month he will attend the American Film Institute Festival in Los Angeles for another screening of "Body of War."

The film deals intimately with Young’s daily struggle to live, and it intertwines his story with the 2002 congressional debate on the Iraq war resolution.

"He’s really a very good soul, " Donahue said of Young. "What’s important is that the emotional impact of this is so huge. The closer you get to it, the more dumbstruck you become."

Young’s mood swings can be wide and long, not helped by his divorce. There are many days when he wonders whether he would have been better off not coming home at all.

Now he is butting heads with the Department of Veterans Affairs over anti-spasticity medication.

By speaking up, though, Young has found a new mission -- and he’s earned his share of critics.

"Of course, " he said, "I support the troops and what they do, but I question the leadership."

Young said he had been told that his anti-war stance was insincere because he was in a wheelchair.

"Meaning, I guess, if I had not been shot and paralyzed I’d either be neutral or I’d support the war, " he said. "But if I’d have been shot and paralyzed in Afghanistan, I’d be quiet as a mouse."

BOOK DETAILS FIREFIGHT

The story of the Sadr City firefight on April 4, 2004, in which eight U.S. soldiers died and Tomas Young and 59 others were wounded is told in a recent book, The Long Road Home, by Martha Raddatz, an ABC correspondent.

To reach Steve Paul, call 816-234-4762 or send e-mail to paul@kcstar.com.

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