Tomas Young spent five days as a soldier in Iraq before a sniper shot him, severing his spinal cord and spiraling the young man toward what would eventually be a painful, early death.
That death came early Monday morning. Young, 34, had lived 10 years with his tremendous injuries. Ten years during which he showed America what valor looks and sounds like.
The former Kansas Citian became an internationally recognized figure, a wounded veteran who pressed the issues that all Americans need to ponder about war.
First as a paraplegic, then a near-quadriplegic, Young’s deteriorating condition raised points about the quality of medical treatment available to veterans.
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He spoke candidly of his struggles with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, teaching people about the suicide rates of veterans. He pointedly questioned the mindset of politicians who would callously send other people’s children to war without ever serving themselves.
He pressed the idea of a just war, counseling against striking with military force without proper reflection and cause.
And he raised issues for the media, causing introspection about pressures to seek a quick sound bite, an easy quote, in place of deep analysis.
Young died unexpectedly in his sleep at his Seattle home, said his mother, Cathy Smith of Kansas City. Her son was a few weeks shy of his 35th birthday.
“He touched so many people’s lives and he did everything that he could,” Smith said. “How could a mother be prouder than to look at his legacy?”
No official cause of death has been determined, his mother said. Young will be cremated. The family, which includes Young’s two brothers and a sister, is planning a memorial service in Kansas City sometime next week.
Young’s wife, Claudia Cuellar, said recent months had been difficult, as Young struggled with pain and medication.
“All we wanted was to be home and pain-free,” she said. “I think he just got so tired of being in pain that he didn’t wake up.”
It was a death that at one point Young had planned to hasten. Last year, he drew international attention by announcing that he would soon cut off his feeding tube and possibly use morphine to help end his life.
Many people witnessed Young’s extreme suffering, as his story was told in the acclaimed 2007 documentary “Body of War” produced by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro. A Kansas City Star story about his decision to die elicited an outpouring of public empathy.
But Young soon rethought the death wish. In later interviews, he said he had decided that he wanted more time with his new wife, whom he had met while receiving medical treatment in Chicago. At the time, Young lived in Kansas City in a house in the Northland. His wife was his constant helpmate.
“I think about that as a measure of how much love he had,” his wife said. “That he endured so much just to be alive.”
But the public fascination was overwhelming.
“The media attention surrounding everything was too much,” his mother said.
Last year, the couple moved to Portland, Ore., and stepped back from granting interviews. They had recently relocated to Seattle.
Young’s spirits were good the last time mother and son spoke, although he was still in great physical pain. He had talked with his grandmother about organizing a family gathering after the new year, his mother said.
Young signed up for the Army days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Like so many others, he wanted to avenge the deaths at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and those on the plane that was hijacked and then crashed in Pennsylvania.
But Young was sent to Iraq, not Afghanistan.
“From the beginning, he told his commanding officer that he didn’t want to go to Iraq,” Smith said. “He didn’t feel it was right.”
Young was not a pacifist. Had he gone to Afghanistan, he insisted that he would have had no qualms about that war or the devastating injuries he suffered.
But he didn’t feel that invading Iraq was justified. As he said in an interview with journalist Chris Hedges: “When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we didn’t invade China just because they looked the same.”
Young’s story resonated with many people, in part, because he could have been anyone’s child.
He wanted to serve his country. He wanted to be a soldier. And the military seemed a good option for him, a young man who didn’t feel like he had too many other opportunities.
At 22, he was working several menial labor jobs. Like so many other enlistees, he had envisioned a promising future for himself via the GI Bill, for schooling.
“I don’t know why,” his mother said, “but there was just something about Tomas that people were moved by and touched by.”
Maybe it is because as a nation, we do want to learn from war. The horrific public anger that assaulted returning Vietnam veterans has largely been put in its rightful place as a national shame. The challenge of today is a struggle with a less decisive war than those fought by our so-called greatest generations. We’ll face the ongoing threats of terrorism and enemies not so easily defined by borders and countries.
Young’s mother said her son discussed last year how he wanted to be remembered. He wanted it to be known that he had fought hard so that other young soldiers would not be sent to Iraq.
Young completed his mission. He’ll forever be a reminder for politicians tempted to turn podiums into personal pulpits of patriotism, for those who are too eager to gobble up profits from military contracts, for those who do not fully grasp the civilian and soldier casualties of war.
Regardless of his body’s physical condition, Tomas Young stood brave. He stood tall for what valiant soldiers willingly sacrifice and for what they should never be asked to do for their country.
His is a fitting message as the nation moves forward from marking another Veterans Day.