Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 17, 2014

Tomas Young, Army Veteran, Dies at 34; Critic of Iraq War in Film

Filed under: antiwar,Iraq,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:23 pm


Tomas Young, who was paralyzed in the Iraq War, with his wife, Claudia Cuellar, in March 2013. Credit: Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star, via Associated Press

Paralyzed from the chest down, the Iraq War veteran is seen in a 2007 documentary film taking dozens of pills for spasms, pain and depression. He speaks agonizingly about his sexual problems. Viewers watch him marry and, eight months later, divorce.

In the film, “Body of War,” Tomas Young is the body. Co-directed and underwritten by the television personality Phil Donahue, the film sought to show, through Mr. Young, the devastating human cost of a war that the filmmakers argued should have never been fought.

Mr. Young died at 34 on Nov. 10 at his home in Seattle. When asked the cause, his mother, Cathy Smith, said, “His body just wore out.”

“Body of War” received the National Board of Review award for best documentary. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave it strong consideration for an Oscar nomination. Reviews were mixed, but almost all said it was hard hitting. Mr. Young spoke of his ordeal on “60 Minutes,” “Nightline” and “Bill Moyers Journal.”

But the film, though applauded at film festivals, was not released theatrically; its producers could not find a distributor. (It can be found, however, on Internet streaming services.) In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Donahue suggested one possible reason distributors shied from it. “It’s not a take-your-girl-to-the-movies movie,” he said.

Another reason may have been its polemic tone. Images of Mr. Young’s agony are interspersed with shots of the congressional debate over the resolution giving President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq in March 2003. The film shows Mr. Young in the forefront of demonstrations against the war by veterans and lobbying members of Congress to stop it.

Six years after the film came out, Mr. Young drew news media coverage when he announced that pain and depression had pushed him to decide to commit suicide. He wrote an open letter to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on behalf of “the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.”

The movie had its roots in Mr. Donahue’s antiwar commentary on his MSNBC talk show in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. In February 2003, the channel canceled his show, citing low ratings, particularly compared with its direct competitor on Fox News, “The O’Reilly Factor,” whose host, Bill O’Reilly, was a strong supporter of the war.

The seeds of “Body of War” were planted in the spring of 2004 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where Mr. Young had been taken after sniper fire severed his spine on his fifth day in Iraq. By her account, Ms. Smith asked her son, who had long been interested in politics, inspired by her liberal views, if there was anybody he wanted to meet in Washington. “Ralph Nader,” he said.

She called Mr. Nader’s office, and he agreed to meet Mr. Young. He asked Mr. Donahue to accompany him. The two had met on Mr. Nader’s presidential campaign bus in 2000. Mr. Donahue said he was “blown away” by Mr. Young’s wounds and came to see the young man as a potential vehicle for showing the sacrifices the troops were making in Iraq, which he thought had been deliberately hidden from the public.

Mr. Donahue said he had considered writing a book but was persuaded that a movie would be better. He teamed with Ellen Spiro, an experienced filmmaker, who shared producing and directing duties with him. Another veteran of Mr. Nader’s presidential races, Eddie Vedder of the rock group Pearl Jam, volunteered to write and perform two songs for the film.

In the movie, Mr. Young recalls enthusiastically enlisting in the Army after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But he became disillusioned, he says, beginning when he was sent to Iraq rather than Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden had masterminded the attacks.

“If I had been shot and hurt in Afghanistan, I’d have been upset about what I have to go through, but there would be no ‘Body of War’ film,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2008. “I’d take my government check and sit home. I would not have felt my wounds were received in an invalid war.”

Tomas Vincent Young was born in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 30, 1979, and grew up in Kansas City, Mo. His mother and father, Thomas Young, divorced when he was a boy. Tomas enlisted in the Army at 17 but was discharged because of a shoulder problem. Returning to Kansas City, he took a succession of minimum-wage jobs. Then came Sept. 11.

“I called my recruiter after hearing Bush say he was going to smoke the evildoers out of their caves,” he told the Kansas newspaper The Topeka Capital-Journal in 2007. His shoulder passed muster in February 2002, and after basic training he landed at Fort Hood, Tex., as a private in the First Cavalry Division.

He was shot in Baghdad on April 4, 2004, while lying in an open truck as it rolled through the Sadr City neighborhood. He had emergency surgery in Germany before being flown to Walter Reed.

The documentary shows Mr. Young at one point saying goodbye to his younger brother, Nathan, as his brother deploys for the first of two combat tours in Iraq. It shows him marrying his high school sweetheart, Brie Townsend, who says she can handle the challenges they will face. And it shows them divorcing eight months later.

While Mr. Young was in a rehab center in Chicago, he met Claudia Cuellar, who had volunteered to visit hospitalized veterans to cheer them up. Though his condition had deteriorated, they wed on April 20, 2012. He decided against suicide.

The couple moved to Portland, Ore., because medical marijuana was available there. They then moved to Seattle, partly because Mr. Young had come to regard Mr. Vedder, who lives there, as a friend.

Besides his mother, Mr. Young is survived by his wife, his father and his brother Nathan; his sister, Lisa Harper; another brother, Tim Weaver; and two grandmothers.


  1. Terrible, heart wrenching story. Truly devastating.

    Yet Nader was probably not the best guy to reach out to in light of his new push to merge with the war mongering radical right in his never ending drive for a “third party”.

    How about the veterans against war groups? They’re usually tied to tired Stalinist groups like the PSL but they should have at least been able to offer financial and other help one would hope.

    Comment by Salpuris Dexter — November 18, 2014 @ 3:06 am

  2. A profoundly sad story. My condolences to his wife and his family.

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 18, 2014 @ 5:20 pm

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