Sunday, April 6th, 2008
Body of Evidence
” Talking to my ex-wife about my erectile issues, having my mom stick the catheter in—those are all very intense things to watch. But the more people see about my daily life the more they know: 1) not to make impetuous decisions; 2) this war has personal consequences and ramifications that aren’t shown on the nightly news. “
On April 4, 2004, just his fifth day in Sadr City, Tomas Young got called outside the wire on a security detail. Though the Missouri native had been raring to hunt down Osama Bin Laden in his Afghan cave after joining the Army in a post-9/11 rush of patriotism, Young was strongly opposed to his deployment in Iraq. “Going to Canada wasn’t as in vogue amongst dissenting soldiers at that time, so I transferred into a job in the company clerk’s position from the infantry line platoon. I thought I was going to put myself in the safest position possible,” says Young. “It was a horrible plan.”
While riding in the back of a crowded, open-top water truck through a throng of armed Iraqi protesters, Young was hit with two rounds from an AK-47—the first severed his spine; the second shattered his left knee. “The silver lining there is that it wasn’t the other way around—at least this way I lost all feeling before I got shot in the knee,” he says. After being medevac’d to Kuwait, then Germany, Young eventually ended up at Walter Reed Hospital, where he requested and received a visit from Ralph Nader. The then-presidential hopeful brought along his friend Phil Donahue, who was so impressed with the young soldier that he visited him a few months later at his home in Liberty. There the ex-talk show host asked Young if he could make a documentary about him. “We spent [the next] three years working on it,” says Donahue, who alongside co-director Ellen Spiro, took cameras into every aspect of Young’s life—from his wedding to his first foray into the anti-war movement with Iraq Veterans Against the War (during his honeymoon at Cindy Sheehan’s Camp Casey rally in Crawford, Texas) to his younger brother’s emotional send-off for his own tour in Iraq. “I guess fortunately for the film, the first two years following an injury is the most difficult transition time for a body after a new paralysis,” says Young. “Everyday there were new things and new encounters.”
The result is the overwhelming Body of War, which has torn through the festival circuit snagging awards and raves along the way. It even drew a rare round of tears from a pack of New York film critics during our screening. “If you make anyone cry, I guess you want it to be the critics,” joked Young, who sat down with SMITH for a recent interview in Manhattan, where the film will make its theatrical debut April 9, followed by a national release. “Hopefully this movie will get people involved so they will take action.”
You just came from The Today Show. Most war documentaries don’t get that kind of coverage. How do you feel about that?
I’m ecstatic—to a point. I’m happy that it’s getting all this coverage, but only if it works. If five million people see this film but none of them are moved to action, while it may be a commercial success and it may put money in peoples’ pockets, I’ll still consider it a flop. But if only five or ten people see it but if a majority of them do something to enact a change in their community—be it to stop the war or help veterans’ issues—then I’ll consider the movie a giant success.
You don’t seem like a guy moved to what you’ve called “an impetuous decision” to go to war. Were you that way when you were younger?
When I saw the President stand on top of the World Trade Center rubble and make his megaphone declaration I was moved in a way. Yeah, I’m normally not that type of guy, but I sat there like everybody else did on September 11 for that whole day watching the coverage. I’m sure there are a lot of people who weren’t that type of guy in December of 1941 when the Japanese attached Pearl Harbor, but yet they felt moved to act in that way because of events that just unfolded.
Was there any pressure within your family to join?
No, not at all. There was no pressure from my family to join or not to join. My mom was worried of course, as a mother would be, but she understood my reasoning.
Why did you want to participate in this film?
If I had been shot and paralyzed in Afghanistan there would be no Body of War. I wouldn’t be doing interviews or anything of that sort, but I was shot and paralyzed, I lost my ability to not only walk, I lost control of bowel and bladder function, I lost sexual function and all sorts of other things in a war that I considered unjust and unnecessary. There was no, as we’ve seen, connection to 9/11, no WMD. I want this film to serve as a counter recruitment tool. I want people to realize that yes, if they do plan to join the military they can wait until after January of 2009.
I also want the government to understand that they cannot engage in a prolonged occupation of Iraq and continue to keep my fellow soldiers, Marines, and sailors over there for a fifth, sixth time. That disrupts not only the military personnel themselves but also their families. In the movie I get married but I also go through a divorce. Divorce is one of the many unforeseen casualties of war. Thanks to this government you don’t see the coffins, but you see the amputees, the paraplegics that this war has created. I want them to realize that if they want to continue that occupation they’re going to have to draft soldiers because not enough people are feeling the sting and the sacrifice of this war. I don’t necessarily endorse a draft, but I do feel that’s the way you need to spurn the American populace into action to get this war ended.
We’re five years in now, did you think you’d be talking about this war in 2008?
I was only there about a week. The optimist in me had hoped that we wouldn’t, but I guess the more pragmatic or pessimistic side of my brain kept saying, “No things are gonna go on for a while out there.” You heard a lot of talk for a while about those of us in the anti-war movement emboldening the enemy with our anti-war statements, but what emboldens a country like Iraq more than seeing 160,000 troops descend on the country for reasons that end up being false? What emboldens an enemy more than hearing a song by the likes of Toby Keith reach such great heights and status that says, “We’ll stick a boot in your ass because it’s the American way”?
To make the film, cameras were there when you were sleeping, they were there in the bathroom, they were there when your mother’s inserting a catheter for you. Was there a process you had to go through to let them get that close up?
Initially, I was a bit mindful of the cameras, I wanted to watch my Ps and Qs but eventually it got to the point where it dawned on me that the more people see the day-to-day workings of my life—talking to my ex-wife about my erectile issues and my blood thinners—that’s very personal, heady stuff; having my mom stick the catheter in inside the van—these are all very intense things to watch, I’m sure, but the more people saw about my daily life the more they’d know: 1) not to make impetuous decisions; 2) this war has personal consequences and ramifications that aren’t shown on the nightly news.
In the film you had to wear ice packs and take rests because you couldn’t regulate your body temperature, are you having better success with that now?
Yeah, I am actually. I still have dizzy spells. I fell back in my wheelchair and cracked my head on the concrete a few months ago and since then I’ve had some trouble with focus and concentration and I fall asleep at inopportune times, but it’s been four years since the injury, and I’ve gotten much more adjusted to a daily cycle and things aren’t quite as tough anymore.
Your brother Nathan’s been in Iraq since the fall. How’s he doing?
He’s doing as good as can be expected. He’s on his second deployment right now. He’ll be coming home around December, he’ll be getting out of the Army shortly after that. He’s not at all interested in re-enlisting.
Really? It seems like there was a point in the film where you had two guys in the same family, in the same army, in the same war, with differing viewpoints of what is actually happening in that war? What’s that dynamic like?
That may be my brother’s first deployment. While he was on his first deployment a lot of his fellow soldiers were on their second, so their attitudes and perceptions may have become a bit more jaded. And now, on his second deployment, he understands that he’s there for self-preservation. He’s there to do what they tell him to do because that’s what he signed up for, whether he agrees with it or not. He’s to do as he’s told and come home. He’s not interested in going in and kicking in doors as much anymore. We’re finding that there are a lot of soldiers who are understanding this. The New York Times recently ran a front-page article of six soldiers with their emails back home, saying they were just there for self-preservation. They were worried about their buddy to the right and to the left of them but they were just there to get home safe.
Ralph Nader and Phil Donahue came to see you at Walter Reed. What was that like?
A bunch of doctors showed up to talk to Ralph Nader. I had trouble getting care before that, but that day I could have had cancer because there was an oncologist present, I could have been a pregnant woman because I think there was someone from obstetrics there, just to talk to Ralph Nader.
What’s been your overall experience with the VA?
Hit or miss. The VA staff is amazing. They do the best with what they can. Unfortunately, what they can do and what they get is lacking because we have veterans from Vietnam, Korea, the first Gulf War, even some from World War II that are still around and still need care, plus an influx of other soldiers. We have almost 29,000 people that are seriously injured. That doesn’t count the tens of thousands more that are kind of injured, who need psychiatric care, who are mentally injured. And that’s going to cost money. They’re estimating due to veterans costs this war will roughly cost between $3 and $4 trillion and that money needs to come from somewhere. The government will be quick to point out there has been increased VA spending but not enough, it’s still criminally under-funded. I’ll admit though right now my care at the VA has gotten pretty good. I don’t know if it’s because people are able to watch a documentary about me and my recovery or what.
Do you think that’s just the case for you personally?
I’ve been told by people in the VA that’s not the case, but I have been lied to by the VA before but as of right now they do not allow news cameras into their facilities. So my question would be if the care has gotten so substantially better across the board for all veterans and not just the ones who have documentaries coming out, why are they still unwilling to lift their veil of secrecy over the whole thing?
Do you feel there’s a vet’s candidate out there right now?
Well, it’s certainly not the current veteran candidate. I believe his voting record would show he’s the poorest in voting for veterans’ benefits. I can see where he wouldn’t understand veterans care because he’s on the Senate health plan, not going through the VA like a lot of other Vietnam vets have to do. At this point I would have to say Barack Obama is my candidate. Again, we’re going on election year promises, but he has pushed for better veterans’ care, he came through for those of us who were at Walter Reed and had to pay for our own meals and phone calls.
On the anti-war front you don’t really see a mass of people protesting like you did during Vietnam. What in your mind would or could change that?
A draft. Absolutely. Go back to World War II and we had war bonds, rations, we converted factories into places to make bombers and people felt the sting, added to the fact that we were attacked by a country and we attacked that country back. We didn’t go after China because they looked sort of similar to the Japanese so we had a great deal of patriotism. In Vietnam we had a draft because we had a very unpopular war. That draft angered people so they took to the streets, 50,000-plus American soldiers were drafted, saw what they saw and decided not to fight.
There’s no draft. We have five percent of the population serving in the armed forces, and .5 percent of the American population serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those numbers are not just bad or reprehensible they’re criminal. What you have is an overwhelming majority of American citizens opposing the war but that involves taking a phone call, going, “Oh yeah, I don’t like the war” and hanging up and that’s the end of your day. Or you see a bunch of yellow ribbon magnets that say, “Support Our Troops.” That involves a $3.99 investment at a gas station, but hey you did your part. Not enough people are feeling the sting and sacrifice to really want to get involved. This year you have three percent of the news cycle devoted to Iraq down from 15 percent in 2007, people are tuning out, and as that’s happening it can only be bad for business if the American people aren’t interested and involved.
How long will you stay on this tack?
Until I start to see some changes enacted. I do have a desire to just go back to being one of the people in the middle and just getting by living my life because being an antiwar activist in this day and age is pretty frustrating. You work so hard and don’t see any of your thoughts and ideas come to fruition; to do it with the things I go through on a daily basis—just to get out of bed and get through the day—it’s tough. So the answer to the question is: however long it takes to get something positive done.