Seated in the darkened movie theater Saturday afternoon, the people who loved Tomas Young watched the Hollywood depiction of the brutal moment that turned the young man from Kansas City into one of the most powerful voices for America’s wounded soldiers.
The sniper sets Young in his sights. A bullet from the AK-47 slams under Young’s left collarbone, right where the Kevlar jacket ends. You see him fall backward, the bullets from his gun clattering onto the open bed of the 2.5-ton LMTV truck where he was squeezed in with other soldiers. The men were easy targets in Sadr City, Iraq.
In that instant, Tomas Young became a paraplegic. He’d been in Iraq five days and had never fired his weapon.
Later, his mother would tell the actor who plays her son how grateful she was that the movie moment felt “gentle” to her. It’s effective, but not gratuitous.
Episode six of “The Long Road Home” portrays the infamous Black Sunday attack in a sepia haze of sorts. Moments of the ambush are filmed almost in slow motion, nearly soundless, which is eerily appropriate for the gravity of Young’s injury.
On Tuesday, people in 171 countries listening in 45 languages will be able to watch, too. (9 p.m. on the National Geographic channel).
“The Long Road Home” is a miniseries based on the best-seller by ABC News Chief Global Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz.
Young, who was raised in Kansas City, was among the more than 60 soldiers wounded that day. Eight died, including Spc. Casey Sheehan, son of Cindy Sheehan, who would join with Young in questioning Congress’ decision to invade Iraq in the first place.
The episode telling Young’s story is the only one that flashes forward, said executive producer Mikko Alanne, who attended the screening for family and friends at the Alamo Drafthouse, along with the cast.
Alanne wanted to capture the cost of war, and who pays the price. That’s Young’s story. He lived 10 years before dying in his sleep in November 2014.
Young was the focus of the 2007 award-winning documentary “Body of War,” co-directed by Phil Donahue. It’s a raw look, showing Young struggling with depression, with huge doses of medication, with what was left of his bodily functions. A young man, newly married, he tried to find remedies so that he could have sex.
As his condition deteriorated, a pulmonary embolism turned him into a near-quadriplegic. At one point, he wanted to stop his feeding tube and take enough morphine to end his life.
Even at that low, Young was a magnetic personality. He pressed lawmakers in Congress to face the consequences of their votes to send troops to Iraq, despite the lack of proof that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. He was not a pacifist. He signed up to go to Afghanistan two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, but he was sent to Iraq.
He advocated for better treatment of PTSD, for awareness of the 22 veterans who commit suicide every single day.
All that any Gold Star mother wants is for her son to be remembered.
But the role takes on additional meaning for Young’s mother, Cathy Smith of Kansas City. It’s why she cooperated with the film, to continue amplifying his voice.
Hundreds of emails and phone calls were exchanged between cast and crew. Noel Fisher, who played Young, visited her in Kansas City.
Her grief has subsided into mostly happy memories of her son. She’s adamant and to the point: “Bring our troops home, and take care of them when they get here.”
“The Long Road Home” was intended to be a feature film. But the financing never materialized. “The Body of War,” lacking a distributor, never saw wide release. Perhaps gatekeepers believe the public only wants to hear about war in ways that are more comfortable than the hard truths that Young brought to light.
So his story must be retold until more people will listen.