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Truthdigger of the Week: Tomas Young

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Posted on Mar 23, 2013
Copyright Eugene Richards, from War Is Personal

Young at his home in Kansas City, Mo., in 2006.

By Alexander Reed Kelly

If you hadn’t heard of Iraq War veteran Tomas Young before this month, chances are you have now. Two weeks ago, Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges wrote about Young’s decision to escape the unbearable pain of his war injuries by starving himself to death. This week Truthdig published Young’s “Last Letter,” a message to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in which he damned those men for leading Americans, Iraqis and many others into hell via the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The piece—a paragon example of contemporary whistle-blowing—has attracted more than 600,000 views on Truthdig and the story reached millions as it appeared in major news venues worldwide. Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer called Young’s letter “the defining obituary on the Iraq War.”

Look below any of the articles that featured Young this week and you’ll find an audience that was saddened and angered by what it had read. Deeply upset by the deadly attacks of 9/11, Young answered the call to defend his country. As with so many like him, his patriotism was exploited to deliver money and power into the hands of American businessmen and politicians. Crippled by an ambush in Sadr City, Iraq, on April 4, 2004, Young faced a decade of paralysis, exhaustion, bedsores, exposed bones, difficulty breathing, an inability to eat, the eventual loss of his voice and removal of his colon and erectile problems, stuck in a body that would become the site of an increasingly pernicious chemistry experiment as he attempted to manage increasing discomfort with painkillers. At the conclusion of that period, he resolved to end his agony and total helplessness by fasting until death brings deliverance.

Young became a national figure with the award-winning 2007 documentary “Body of War.” The movie was the product of independent filmmaker Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue, a former MSNBC host driven from the network for his passionate commitment to liberal values. The movie follows Young’s struggle to live with his injuries, and his successful effort to become a prominent member of the U.S. anti-war movement. He was encouraged to speak out by the example of another activist, Cindy Sheehan. Sheehan’s son Casey was killed in Iraq on the same day an AK-47 bullet pierced Young’s spinal column. For a few years, Young numbered among a chorus of veterans and people of conscience loudly opposing the war.

But in time his voice was hushed. In 2008, four years after his injury, Young suffered an anoxic brain injury after he was prematurely released from a Veterans Affairs hospital. He lost considerable control over his fingers and much of the strength in his upper body. His voice was so distorted that when he talked, people assumed he was mentally disabled. The injury left him even more dependent on others, chiefly his second wife, Claudia Cuellar.

Celebrated New York-based photographer Eugene Richards knew Young before his second injury. He took photos of the veteran for a series published by The Nation called “War Is Personal” in 2006, while Young was doing “Body of War” with Donahue. Young was leery of the media, Richards recalls. Apparently owing to Young’s exhaustion, it took a few stops at his home in Kansas City, Mo., before Richards was able to meet him. When he did, he found the 26-year-old completely out of sorts. Young had a tough time keeping his head above his body, which was covered with burns from the cigarettes he could not always keep in his hand. He said he had taken a double dose of his medication by accident.

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The photos confirm Young’s condition. Richards says he hesitated to publish them. “Tomas,” he recalls saying to Young over the phone, “I’ve got to tell you, you look like shit in my photographs.” The ex-soldier didn’t care. “They’re true, aren’t they?” he asked. “Yes, they’re true,” Richards responded. “That’s what counts,” Young said.

Richards recalled the story for Truthdig by telephone. “It’s quite impressive, because he wasn’t shy about his situation and didn’t want to hide the realities of what was going on with him and other people,” he said.

As the years went by, the two kept in touch, speaking every couple of months. Not long ago Richards returned to take photographs of Young and Cuellar. The change brought about by the brain injury was dramatic. The handsome man who previously sported close-cropped hair now wore a long beard. His voice was distorted, and worked only under considerable labor. He smoked more.


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