This disabled veteran’s war is almost over

Some will say that Tomas Young agreed to die a long time ago.

The 33-year-old Iraq war veteran is lying in a bed in Kansas City under hospice care, intent on soon stopping life-sustaining drugs and nourishment.

But this is not a preordained event, one that he himself invited.

Tomas Young did agree to die for his country. Like so many other valiant Americans, he rushed to sign up for the Army after terrorists attacked the country on Sept. 11, 2001.

It seemed like a good idea. He was working a job at Kmart. He wanted to be sent to Afghanistan, to avenge those who died at the World Trade Center.

But they sent him to Iraq, where he became another toy soldier chasing nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Five days into deployment, a bullet severed his spine, paralyzing him from the chest down. Young’s war now became one with his own body.

The 2007 documentary Body of War by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro intimately detailed Young’s injuries.

It’s been death by degree. He’s since suffered a pulmonary embolism, continuing bouts of depression, complications of pain medications, coma, bed sores and a colostomy.

Young plans on dying later this year, waiting at least until after his first wedding anniversary in late April. He will remove his feeding tube, and possibly hasten the end with drugs.

The decision will alarm some, leading to important discussions about death and dying.

But long after he is physically gone, Young’s broader message will be to the nature of war. How its goal is to embed itself into a nation, attacking in ways not outwardly acknowledged.

Too often, war is seen through a distinct beginning, a surge and then an ending.

Yet returned soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan continue to end their lives in suicide.

The same week we marked the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, seven Marines died in a mortar round training exercise in Nevada. In Baghdad, secular fighting continued. Car bombs and other attacks killed at least 50 people and injured more than 200.

In interviews, Young has admitted that he wanted to die the day he was shot. If his lungs hadn’t collapsed, he might have asked other soldiers to kill him. He understood the severity of his injuries.

Eight U.S. soldiers did die during the fighting that day around the Baghdad slum of Sadr City and another 59 were wounded.

The level of care Young received at some points through the Department of Veterans Affairs are among the many important questions he raises.

He also chastises politicians who cavalierly send other people’s children to combat. And he pricks the conscious of reporters who failed to probe military decisions.

The challenge is to continue seeing Young in every returning veteran, in the families that will spend lifetimes grieving a son or daughter who died in combat, in soldiers struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Young is not a pacifist. He has said that he would have been quiet after his injuries had he been sent to Afghanistan. His brother also served in Iraq.

Young recently posted a letter online to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

“I write this letter on behalf of us all — the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief,” it reads.

The words are not the manifesto of an irrational angry young man, as some will try to discount it. They may be among the last public words of a very thoughtful man.

Among the struggles other people’s ignorance laid at Young’s feet is the problem of the disabled being invisible, or viewed as if they are less intelligent.

But Young became wiser from his injuries, from his pain and suffering. Our job is to listen and learn.

©2013 The Kansas City Star

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