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2013-03-21

Exclusive: Dying Iraq War Veteran Tomas Young Explains Decision to End His Life

Topics

Guests

Tomas Young, Iraq War veteran and the main subject of the documentary, Body of War. On April 4, 2004, his fifth day in Iraq, Young’s unit came under fire in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. Young was left paralyzed, never to walk again. Released from medical care three months later, Young returned home to become an active member in Iraq Veterans Against the War. He recently announced that he will stop his nourishment, which comes in the form of liquid through a feeding tube — a decision which will hasten his death.

Phil Donahue, one of the best-known talk show hosts in U.S. television history, his show was on the air for more than 29 years. In 2002, he returned to the airwaves, but he was fired in 2003 on the eve of the war by MSNBC because he was allowing antiwar voices on the air. Along with Ellen Spiro, he directed the documentary, Body of War, which tells the story of Tomas Young, an Iraq War veteran paralyzed from a bullet to the spine. Now, at the age of 33, Tomas has decided to end his life.

Claudia Cuellar, the wife and primary caregiver of Tomas Young.

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In the week marking the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we spend the hour looking at the remarkable life and imminent death of Iraq War veteran Tomas Young. Citing his overwhelming physical pain from wounds that left him paralyzed in Iraq, Young recently announced he has decided to end his life by discontinuing his medicine and nourishment, which comes in the form of liquid through a feeding tube. Young joins to explain his decision from his home in Kansas City, along with his wife Claudia Cuellar. We’re also joined by Phil Donahue, the legendary TV talk show host, whose 2007 documentary, "Body of War," follows Tomas’ rehabilitation and his political awakening to become one of the most prominent antiwar U.S. veterans speaking out against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. "I am, on one hand, sick and tired of being sick and tired," Young says. "And on the other, I don’t want to watch my body waste away." Donahue calls Tomas’ announcement "a very unusual act of moral courage. He wants people to see this, because he came home from the most sanitized war of my lifetime. We don’t see this. But less than 5 percent of us, maybe 1 percent ... have made a personal sacrifice for this war. And Tomas is one of them." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Today, in a Democracy Now! special on this week’s 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we spend the hour looking at the remarkable life and imminent death of one Iraq veteran: 33-year-old Tomas Young. He recently announced he’s decided to end his life by discontinuing his nourishment, which comes in the form of liquid through a feeding tube.

Tomas Young’s tragedy goes back to 2001. Just two days after the 9/11 attacks, he signed off—he signed up for the military after hearing President Bush’s Ground Zero pledge to go after those responsible. He wanted to deploy to Afghanistan, but instead he was sent to Iraq. On the fifth day into his deployment in Iraq, on April 4th, 2004, Tomas’s unit came under fire in Sadr City. He was left paralyzed, never to walk again. Released from medical care, he returned home to become an active member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

AMY GOODMAN: He was wounded on the same day that Cindy Sheehan’s son, Casey Sheehan, was killed, April 4th, 2004. Tomas Young’s story was the subject of the award-winning documentary Body of War, made by the legendary talk show host Phil Donahue and the filmmaker Ellen Spiro. The 2007 film follows Tomas’s rehabilitation, his struggles with his injuries, his political awakening to become one of the most prominent antiwar U.S. veterans of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The film includes a speech Tomas made in 2005 at the Lafayette Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York, about President George W. Bush and the Iraq War. His physical troubles were evident even then, as he repeatedly paused to put his head between his knees in his wheelchair.

TOMAS YOUNG: You’ll have to excuse me for a little bit. I get a little lightheaded every now and again, so hold on. I’d also like to—that during this speech, I may say the word "uh" a lot and stammer a little bit, so forgive me for sounding a bit presidential.

I called my recruiter on around September 13, 2001, when, if you all can remember, the president stood on the rubble with a bullhorn and said we were going to get the evil-doers that did this. And, oh, man, hold on a second; I’m starting to—thank you. Alright, let’s hope that’s a little better. But—and he led the rah-rah around the country and got everybody really excited, and I was excited. And I wanted to go to Afghanistan and get the people that did this to us. But after I joined the Army, it became clearer and clearer to me that we weren’t going to go to Afghanistan, that we were going to go to Iraq.

And more and more, it began to feel—with statements like George Bush saying that he sought the approval of a higher father than his own and things like that, it really concerned me that President Bush was trying to use Jesus Christ as an advocate for the war, but I always remembered, at least from the Bible that I read, Jesus Christ was always about peaceful things and love and "whatsoever you do unto the least, my brother, you do unto me." And it just shocks me that a man who tries to live his life by such devout Christian philosophies seems to skew so much on this one issue.

I don’t really—I have to—excuse me, again. Sorry, it’s a little hard to regulate my body temperature, and it is hot up here.

But I heard somebody once say that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. So just everybody keep together and stay strong, and one day we’ll get what we need to get done. And thank you all for waiting, and I hope I didn’t disappoint.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Tomas Young speaking in December 2005, captured in the film Body of War, a documentary by Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue.

Well, in early February of this year, Tomas stunned an audience gathered to watch the film when he joined them via Skype and made this announcement. You’ll need to listen closely.

TOMAS YOUNG: In July of last year, I began to experience sharp pains in my abdomen. And I went to the VA, and they treated me like I was a second-class citizen, a junkie looking for pain medicines just to get high, even though I was genuinely in pain. I went to a private hospital, was treated much better. They suggested a colostomy, where they would remove my colon. I thought that would reduce the pain. It did for a few days, but the pain came rocketing back. And I decided to go on hospice care, where I have a pump that provides the same IV medications the hospital provided. And after my one-year anniversary with my wife, I will begin to wean myself off of food and one day go away.

AMY GOODMAN: "And one day go away." Iraq War veteran Tomas Young. At the age of 33, he has said he has decided to end his life.

This week he published his letter titled "The Last Letter: A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran." In it, Tomas writes, quote, "You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole," he wrote.

Well, for more, we’re going right now to Kansas City, where Tomas Young joins us from his home along with his wife Claudia Cuellar. Here in New York, we’re joined by Phil Donahue, longtime friend of Tomas. He’s co-director of Body of War, that documentary that came out in 2007. Phil Donahue is one of the best-known talk show hosts in U.S. television history, his show on the air for more than 29 years. In 2002, he returned to the airwaves, but he was fired in 2003 on the eve of the war by MSNBC because, well, coming out in a secret memo from NBC later, it said there were too many antiwar voices on the air.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Tomas, we thank you so much for being with us. We know this is very difficult for you. But if you could tell our audience why you have come to this decision to end your life, what has the journey been, most recently, with you and your wife Claudia?

TOMAS YOUNG: Well, since about two thousand—or, July of last year, I started experiencing sharp pain in my stomach. And we would go to the VA, and the problem would get fixed, in their eyes, and everything was fine, and they’d send me home. And one time I was there for two weeks, and they gave me what’s called a gastric lavage, which goes through your nose and down your throat into your stomach. And this alone dries your mouth out very fast. The point of this regime is to suck up any bad things in the stomach, but it also sucks up anything you drink while the tube is in there. And so, I would drink, because I had an extremely dry mouth, and the feel of something cold going down your throat is just refreshing.

And so, the next day, a doctor came in, and I asked, "The doctor from last night said I could get it taken out this morning." And they looked at the cup where the suction goes to and saw that it was pretty full, because I had drank a lot of fluid that night. And so, the doctor said, "Oh, no, we have keep it in until tomorrow night." And so, that was when I called my wife and said, "I’m going AMA, against medical advice, so come and get me." So we left the hospital.

Two days later, I experienced some chest pains, like a gas bubble in my chest. And I went to the local private hospital here, St. Luke’s North, and they not only fixed the pain in my chest problem, they also immediately found out what was going on in my stomach. And they took out my colon and gave me a colostomy bag, and I figured, great, the pain will go way now, because—but—and for a few days, that was the case. But pretty soon, it came back with a vengeance, and I had to go to the hospital again. And nobody could figure out why I was in pain. And so, I went into hospice care, and they gave me a pain pump, which delivers the IV medication to me directly. And that was about two months ago. And that, in itself, has been a good thing.

But—and back to your original question, the reason I decided to do this now is I am, on one hand, sick and tired of being sick and tired, and on the other hand, I don’t want to watch my body waste away.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Phil Donahue, the—his story is like many, many veterans who were severely injured, come back from the war, and yet our country still has not even dealt with the reality of the responsibility of those who took us to war. You’ve been a friend of Tomas now for years, since making the film. Your reaction to his decision and to the lack of accountability still in our country for what happened in Iraq?

PHIL DONAHUE: I understand his decision. So does Claudia. The people closest to him understand his position. Tomas told me—this is a couple years ago, after the embolism, which, by the way, he presented at the emergency room with a swollen arm, and it hurt, and they gave him pain pills, and the next morning he was found in a coma in bed. And now, he’s not only a paraplegic, he can’t hold silverware. Tomas has to be fed. When he and Claudia were able to go out, they would go to a restaurant, and they’d find—she would find a corner where she could feed him without being stared at.

What you see in this story is a drama that is playing itself out behind the closed doors of literally thousands of homes in this country, homes occupied by young men and women who have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan with heinous injuries. We’ve had faces blown off. And as you know, modern medicine, triage, more and more of these people are surviving. And sadly, Tomas is not alone in his decision to end his life.

What’s remarkable about Tomas is that he wants—he wants his life to be a statement. He wants to make a point. And I admire him so much for—this is a very unusual act of moral courage. He wants people to see this, because he came home from the most sanitized war of my lifetime. We don’t see this. But less than 5 percent of us, maybe 1 percent—I should know—have made a personal sacrifice for this war. And Tomas is one of them. And his colleagues, who are similarly situated, are hidden. They are not seen. And we couldn’t take pictures of the coffins. And what this means is that it’s going to be easier to go into another war.

AMY GOODMAN: Claudia Cuellar, you married Tomas last year. You’ve been together for five years. You’ve been at his side. Your feelings right now about Tomas’s decision?

CLAUDIA CUELLAR: It’s really emotional, and it’s overwhelming. But it is so—it is so hard to describe in words how difficult it is to watch the person you most love in the world suffer immeasurably all day, every day. During the time we were together the first, you know, three, three-and-a-half years, we lived with a certain amount of suffering that we accepted. But last year when the medical problem started beginning and we had to be in the hospital the whole time, then we kind of crossed a threshold where he was suffering so much more than he was able to live or enjoy anything about his life, so we gave the ostomy surgery a shot. We considered hospice last fall. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Where is the VA in all of this?

CLAUDIA CUELLAR: —we thought the surgery would fix it.

TOMAS YOUNG: The VA, when I went to them and I had to have the colon removed, the GI team at the Kansas City VA, which is one of the more highly regarded in the country, said they will only—they’ve only done colon removal on cancer patients, never a spinal cord injury patient. So they transferred me to St. Louis, which is the spinal cord-based hospital. It’s the nearest spinal cord facility run by the VA. We called them. They said they couldn’t get us in for a while, right?

CLAUDIA CUELLAR: Yeah, there weren’t beds available. And since Tomas had taken himself out of the VA against medical advice because of the way he was treated, they knew him as someone that was going to leave, and they—they just were reluctant to offer a bed, quite frankly.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to a break, and then we’re going to come back and also talk about the letter you have written, Tomas, the letter that you’ve written to, well, former President Bush and Vice President Cheney. We’re speaking with Tomas Young. He says he has decided to end his life in May or early June, end the nourishment he’s taking through a tube and his medications. Claudia Cuellar is at his side, as she has been for the last five years. They’re at their home in Kansas City. And in studio with us is legendary talk show host Phil Donahue, who did a film about Tomas, oh, six years ago called Body of War, when he returned from Iraq. He was shot five days after coming to Iraq in Sadr City. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Eddie Vedder singing "No More," which he wrote for Tomas and for the film Body of War about Tomas Young. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The 2007 documentary Body of War, directed by Phil Donahue, who is here with us today, and the filmmaker Ellen Spiro, tells the story of Tomas Young, beginning with a shot of Tomas going about the daily ordeal of dressing himself, made extremely difficult by his paralysis caused by a gunshot to the spine in Sadr City, Iraq, April 4th, 2004. Interposed are the voices of the lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, who voted for the Iraq War in October 2002, including Senators Schumer and McCain, Ensign and Hillary Clinton. They’re followed by one of the few congressional dissenters who stood up to the Bush White House: the late Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. But the film opens with the opening bars of the song "No More" by the musician Eddie Vedder, a song he wrote for Tomas Young.

EDDIE VEDDER: [singing “No More”]
I speak for a man who gave for this land,
took a bullet in the back for his pay,
spilled his blood in the dirt and the dust,
and he’s come back to say
that what he has seen is hard to believe,
and it does no good to just pray.
He asks of us to stand,
and we must end this war today.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: Now, Mr. President, today we’re faced with the most solemn decision a lawmaker can make: whether or not to authorize the use of military force.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Voting for a course of action that will send young Americans off to fight and die for their country is the most solemn responsibility every member of this Congress will undertake.

SEN. JOHN ENSIGN: We need to approach this issue as if we are sending our very own children to war.

REP. DICK ARMEY: When he puts on that uniform, he’s my baby, and I have fear.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: This is probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.

REP. TOM LANTOS: The great debate we begin today represents the opening act of a drama that promises to define the 21st century.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: My hands tremble, but my heart still throbs. I read this quote: "Naturally, the common people don’t want war. But after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament or a communist dictatorship. The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country." Hermann Goering, president of Reichstag, Nazi Parliament, 1934.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was a clip from Body of War, the late West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd. Several years ago, Tomas Young met Byrd of West Virginia, one of the lone voices in the U.S. Senate who took a stand against the decision to invade Iraq. This is a clip of Robert Byrd during that meeting. It’s from the same film, Body of War.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: This will be a blot on the Congress and the chief executive of the United States forever, for having cast a political vote to send our men and women to war and to possible death in a country that never attacked us, a country that never invaded us, a country that did not—I say did not—then and does not now constitute a threat to my country.

TOMAS YOUNG: Absolutely.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: I’ve been in this Senate now—I’m in my 48th year. I have cast over 17,000 roll call votes—

TOMAS YOUNG: Wow!

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: —in this 48 years. And that was the most important vote I have ever cast. I stood, and 22 other senators stood with me: no, we will not turn this power to declare war, which the Constitution says Congress shall have the power to declare war, Article I—

TOMAS YOUNG: Absolutely.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: —Section 8. So that was no problem to me. I stood by the Constitution. I’m proud of it. And there were 23 of us. The immortal 23, I often refer to it in that way.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Robert Byrd went on to read the names of the 23 senators who voted against the war, with the help of Tomas Young.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: I’m going to read you the names of these—

TOMAS YOUNG: The immortal 23?

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: The immortal 23. Alright, here we are. H.J. Res. 114, that’s the resolution.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Senators voting in the negative.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Here are the 23: Akaka.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Akaka, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Bingaman.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Bingaman, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Boxer.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mrs. Boxer, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Byrd. B-Y-R-D, right there.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Byrd, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Chafee, Republican.

TOMAS YOUNG: He’s a good man.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Chafee, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: He stood with us. Conrad.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Conrad, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: What’s that one?

TOMAS YOUNG: Look like Jon Corzine.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Corzine, yeah.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Corzine, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: I don’t have my glasses on. What’s that one there?

TOMAS YOUNG: Dayton.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Dayton, yeah. God bless him. He’s leaving us after this year.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Dayton, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Who’s that?

TOMAS YOUNG: That’s Senator Durbin.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Durbin. This one?

TOMAS YOUNG: Senator Feingold.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Feingold.

TOMAS YOUNG: That would be Bob Graham from Florida, I think, Senator.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Yes, it would be.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Durbin, no. Mr. Feingold, no. Mr. Graham of Florida, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: And we go all the way down here to Daniel Inouye.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Inouye—

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: There’s a man who has really sacrificed. He gave his arm.

TOMAS YOUNG: From Hawaii, yeah.

SENATE ROLL CALL: No.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Yes, sir. He’s a real hero.

TOMAS YOUNG: Here’s another one of my heroes.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Jim Jeffords.

TOMAS YOUNG: Senator Jeffords, the one that switched sides of the aisle.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: He’s one of my heroes, too.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Jeffords, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Kennedy, Leahy and Levin.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Leahy, Mr. Levin, no, no, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Mikulski.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Ms. Mikulski, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Murray.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mrs. Murray—

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Patty Murray.

SENATE ROLL CALL: No.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Reed from Rhode Island, Sarbanes.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Reed of Rhode Island, no. Mr. Sarbanes, no.

TOMAS YOUNG: Stabenow.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Yeah, Debbie Stabenow.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Ms. Stabenow, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Wellstone, that’s the man who gave his life shortly thereafter.

TOMAS YOUNG: And then Wyden.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: And Wyden. He’s still here.

SENATE ROLL CALL: Mr. Wellstone, no. Mr. Wyden, no.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Twenty-three. Seventy-seven to 23. The immortal 23. Our founders would be so proud. Thank you for your service. Man, you’ve made a great sacrifice. You served your country well.

TOMAS YOUNG: As have you, sir.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: The late West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd meeting with Tomas Young, as they read the list, as they said, of the immortal 23. Tomas, as you look at this film, Body of War, about you, your body of war, talk about that meeting with Senator Byrd and what it meant to you.

TOMAS YOUNG: Well, the meeting with Senator Byrd, I was quite excited about, because I had known he was the rock star on C-SPAN to speak up, downplaying all the threats that Iraq posed and saying it was a dangerous thing to give congressional powers over to this one man. And I admired him. And when I rolled into his office, he treated me like I was some sort of long-lost grandchild. And we went and sat next to his desk, and we talked for a few minutes. And then he had the copy of the bill framed. And that was when we started reading off the names. And then, the final scene of him and I is, we’re walking down the hall of—I think it was the Rayburn Building, and I say—he’s on a cane, and I say, "Well, it looks like we both got some mobility issues." And it was just truly a great experience.

And I was very sad to see him go, because we, as Democrats, lost not only Ted Kennedy, but Robert Byrd, two of the fiercest antiwar senators around. And, I mean, it was just—first of all, being a kid that was born into a level just above poverty and to being sitting in the office of a U.S. senator was mind-blowing. If you had told me when I was eight years old that some day I would be meeting a sitting senator, I wouldn’t have believed you. So it was just—it was surreal and real at the same time.

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