May 5, 2016, at Wooden Shoe Books in Philadelphia, we had all come to remember a veteran who died in 2014, 10 years after a bullet pierced his brain in Sadr City, Iraq. We came because of a new book about that vet, “Tomas Young’s War.”
May 5, 2016, was a sunny, if chilly, day in South Philly, and Wooden Shoe Books in Philadelphia was still full of light as the small but passionate crowd trickled in. Most were veterans of one of America’s recent wars; I knew quite a few of them. We had all come to remember another veteran, who died in 2014, 10 years after a bullet pierced his brain in Sadr City, Iraq. We came because of a new book about that vet, “Tomas Young’s War.”
The book’s author, Mark Wilkerson, is also an Army veteran, having served for eight years in the early 1990s as a AH-1 Cobra & UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crew chief. Those years included three months in Somalia with the 101st Airborne, which ended a few days before the atrocities depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down.”
Wilkerson told me that he learned a lot about the fragility of human lives like his own: “One minute you’re looking at a [peaceful-looking] market through a scope of a helicopter, and, flying back, there’s a hole the size of a beer can in the roof of the helicopter. Then, the guys who follow you are dead, and their bodies dragged through the streets. Those guys were crew chiefs, same job as mine: It really could have been me.”
Wilkerson went home to Kentucky, got a job as an aircraft mechanic for a big airline, and started “writing for therapy.” A blog and decades of research into musician Pete Townsend eventually became “Who Are You: The Life of Pete Townshend” (Omnibus Books, 2008), with a foreward by Eddie Vedder of the band Pearl Jam. “And it was Eddie Vedder who first made me aware of Tomas Young,” Wilkerson said
Wilkerson told the group at Wooden Shoe Books that he had read to over 100 people the nght before in New York City, accompanied by Phil Donahue and Eddie Vedder. “And I couldn’t finish — I just choked up,” he said. Then Wilkerson began to tell the story of Tomas Young — starting with the part that first made the young soldier famous.
The son of a single mother and grandson and great-grandson of Army veterans, Young enlisted after the terrorist attacks of Sept., 11, 2001. He spent that morning with two close friends watching the twin towers fall, and three days later he saw President George W. Bush at Ground Zero, and called an Army recruiter. “I’m normally not that type of guy,” he told Wilkerson, “but I’m sure there are a lot of people who weren’t ‘that type of guy’ in December of 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.” Afterward, Young’s friends told Wilkerson, Young “saw himself as a GI Joe-type character.” Sure that he was going to Afghanistan to fight those who’d attacked the United States, Young enlisted in the infantry, becoming part of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment (2-5 Cav).
Wilkerson then described Young’s disappointment in 2002, after he arrived at Fort Hood for infantry training and seemed to be training for a very different war — in Iraq. Enraged, Young got out of the infantry, securing a transfer to a communications post.
“I thought I had a plan that would keep me safe,” Young said later. “It was a horrible plan.” The 2-5 Cav arrived in Iraq just as the insurgency was beginning.
Wilkerson described in detail April 4, 2004, also known as “Black Sunday.” Young was riding in an open truck, that day, “not a Humvee or [a mine-resistant, ambush-protected truck).” When the platoon was ambushed, he was hit by AK47 “from above and to the left. The bullet had entered below [Young’s] left collarbone, tearing through his lung and spinal cord …. He had been in Iraq for five days and had never discharged his weapon.”
Young returned to the U.S. paralyzed “from the nipples down,” and had to re-learn how to eat and speak. While he was still recovering at Walter Reed Hospital, Young met TV producer Phil Donahue, who was so struck by his condition that he decided to make a movie about it. “Body of War,” released in 2007, follows Young in his daily physical struggles — and as he joins Iraq Veterans Against War, becoming a nationally known spokesman for the group. The film, with a soundtrack including Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen, was screened nationwide.
That was the Tomas Young most familiar to the audience at Wooden Shoe that day. We knew about the movie and Young’s activist days. Vietnam War veteran Bill Perry said, “Did you see the picture of me and him at the  Veterans for Peace conference in Seattle? I was pushing his wheelchair, and I’ll tell you, he was pumped. He wore me out — he wanted to go everywhere!”
Wilkerson said, “I became aware of Tomas Young when that film was being completed .I felt a little reassured by the film’s ending — he seemed to have it all figured out.” With his mother, Cathy Smith, by his side, Young felt like he’d found his life’s calling, and started looking into how he could finally go to college on the GI Bill.
But in 2007, Young’s condition worsened, though he had trouble getting help from the Veterans Administration. “He never saw an actual doctor, always an emergency doctor,” said Wilkerson. “His mom told me, ‘There’s never been a medication review, of all the pills he takes.'”
“When he went to the doc with a swelling in his forearm, they told him it was carpal tunnel. He went back, and they gave him Coumadin [a blood thinner],” Wilkerson said. Then, on May 30, 2008, a blood clot burst in his brain — turning Young from a paraplegic to a quadriplegic, and nearly silencing his speech. “In medical terms he had an embolism, resulting in anoxic brain injury,” Wilkerson said.
After that, nothing — not even meeting and marrying his second wife, Claudia Cuellar — could mitigate the constant pain and humiliation Young was experiencing. And in 2013, Young decided he would refuse all life support — but first he wrote a “last letter” to the architects of the war that had taken him.
“I was blown away by that letter to Bush and Cheney,” Wilkerson told the crowd at Wooden Shoe. “I looked at pix of Tomas two years after, he looked 20 years older. That’s when I realized — “Body of War” was Act One. This book is Act Two.” Wilkerson contacted Young in Kansas City, and learned that he had wanted to write a book. “But now he couldn’t use voice-to-text software, he couldn’t use his hands to write. I said ‘I’ll tell your story. And he agreed.”
Wilkinson began meeting with Young, driving to Kansas City for hours of interviews. “I wanted to know more — about how he got here, the coma, the bed sores. That first day he asked, “Do you want to see me eat?”
The resulting narrative unflinchingly describes some of the oft-hidden realities of a patient with anoxic brain injury: the pain pump that shoots scores of medications; the feeding tube that provides nutrition; the catheter and colostomy bag needed for all his excretions, the latter process taking hours of work by his caretaker.
Wilkerson includes these details because they’re part of the realities of war, less glamorous than combat but just as devastating. “I don’t think anyone would join the army if they thought, ‘My mom might have to handle my poop for the rest of my life!'” said Young’s mother to me this week.
Wilkerson talked long enough to Young that he was able to watch him change. “I soon became quite sure Tomas did not want to die,” he said. “Finally, after one long conversation, I asked why he changed his mind. ‘I bought a new PlayStation. A shame to waste it,’ he said. That was Tomas — funny and sweet to the last.”
After he chose not to end his life, Young moved to the Northwest, where he could access medical marijuana and be closer to Eddie Vedder, now a close friend. “He was excited about the book project, and planned to write some essays for it,” Wilkerson said. He was therefore shocked to get a call, not long after Veterans Day 2014, with the news that Young was dead. “That combination of meds that got him through — it was just too toxic, and his body gave out.”
After he finished at the Wooden Shoe, Wilkerson folded the pages and smiled: He hadn’t cried that night.
In the after-show discussions, some of the veterans in the room then offered their own memories of Young. “The first time I met Tomas there was a transit strike in NYC,” said Perry. “And the church we saw him in was cold, cold, cold, ’cause he couldn’t take the heat.”
“I remember seeing Tomas at Camp Casey,” said peace activist Carol Ezell, meaning the gathering that had confronted President Bush in Texas in 2006. The “Body of War” filmmakers had followed Young there, interviewing hundreds including actor Martin Sheen. “Once you went there you were transformed,” Ezell added.
“So many people had connections to Tomas,” Wilkerson said. “At Camp Casey, he met so many like-minded people. Before the embolism, he also loved going to high schools, to speak before they meet with military recruiters.”
A young Marine Corps veteran spoke softly. “I joined in high school, but at boot camp they couldn’t make me want to kill Afghans,” he said. “So I got out.” He said he liked the statement from Phil Donahue in his foreword to Wilkerson’s book: “Before another commander in chief swaggers before the news cameras and declares ‘Bring it on,’ I want him to read this book.”
The reading was long before Memorial Day, but the day was certainly on Wilkerson’s mind. “Tomas’ family has a great big hole in them now,” he said. “Will people pay attention to this book? Before we send anybody’s children overseas?”
Chris Lombardi lives and writes in Philadelphia. Her book, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Soldiers Who Dissent, from the French and Indian War to the Forever War,” will be published by The New Press in 2017. Until then, you can find her work at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Guernica Magazine, Women’s Voices for Change, and her book’s working WordPress site.