Phil Donahue on the Life and Death of Tomas Young

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This post first appeared at The Nation.

Tomas Young (photo: Eugene Richards)

Tomas Young (Photo: Eugene Richards)

I first met Tomas Young at Walter Reed Army Medical Center shortly after he arrived there in 2004 from Sadr City via the US Medical Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. He was thin and semi-conscious on morphine. His mother explained his injury.

Tomas sustained a T-4 spinal injury, the spot between the shoulder blades. His paralysis, from the nipples down, was total. Tomas would never walk again. In a flash from the rooftop of a sniper’s rifle Tomas lost his ability to walk and lost bowel and bladder control. Tomas would never again be able to cough and — not so insignificant for a 24-year-old — he lost his sex life. This is what is quaintly referred to as the harm in “harm’s way.”

Tomas sustained this catastrophic injury while fighting for America in the most sanitized war of my lifetime. The press was admonished not to take pictures of flag-draped coffins, and the press said, “Okay.” It is shameful enough that only 5 percent of us made any personal sacrifice, worse that those sacrifices are unseen. The story of Tomas’s life after returning home is told in the film I made with Ellen Spiro, Body of War, available on Netflix. It is a close-up family drama, one that is playing itself out in thousands of other American homes occupied by severely wounded veterans whose physical and mental burdens have turned their whole house upside down. To the American populace, they are not there.

Tomas Young’s story is the somber movie behind the heroic parade music accompanying the Veteran’s Day flag waving on Main Street America. Tomas has lived through 10 of these holidays. I have often wondered if he could hear that music outside his bedroom window. Did he watch all those stories on TV that celebrated the grit and spirit of the paraplegic skiers, blade runners and wheel chair basketball players? Was he happy for those fellow wounded soldiers? Was he jealous? Angry? I never asked him. And now it’s too late.

Tomas died this weekend. His blindingly monotonous life has finally come to an end but America’s gingoism rolls on.

“The brave troops of the last remaining superpower, God bless the troops, the greatest troops from the greatest nation on earth!”

The deified troops come home to “the nation that is the only hope for peace,” and the VA doesn’t call them back. The pretense is choking. Does the exalting of our soldiers bespeak a deep guilt abiding in the American soul? A guilt we feel for having sent them into an unnecessary, under-armed, under planned, unconstitutional war — a war that is and always was unfair to them?

As Tomas’s widow, Claudia, accepts a folded flag on behalf “of a grateful nation” — war drums will be heard again. And the laptop bombers on the cable TV shout shows will be urging the “leader of the free world” to send his county’s young adult children into “harms way.” The nation’s heavy breathing will return, and — as in April of 2003 — all the major metropolitan newspapers will get behind the commander in chief and thousands of Tomas Young’s and sister soldiers will don the Army boots of our “exceptional” warrior nation. When our soldiers get bogged down, John McCain will call for more troops. When the casualty toll rises, Lindsey Graham and Sean Hannity will blame President Obama.

And when these “brave, courageous” troops come home, the VA won’t call them back.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Phil Donahue
Phil Donahue changed the face of daytime television, pioneering the audience-participation talk format as the host of the Donahue show, a 29-year run which stands as the longest of its kind in US television history. His TV journalism earned him 20 Emmy Awards — 9 as host and 11 for the show — as well as the George Foster Peabody Award and many more. He is the author of the best-selling memoir, Donahue: My Own Story; and The Human Animal.
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