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Tomas Young, Wounded Iraq War Vet And Antiwar Activist, Dies

Frank Morris

Tomas Young, an Iraq War veteran from Kansas City, Mo., who became a symbol of the anti-war movement, died peacefully in his sleep early Monday morning. He was 34.

Young joined the Army right after 9/11, wanting to take revenge on the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was shipped instead to Iraq, and within a week of landing there, he was shot in the spine and paralyzed below the chest. 

Young was 24 years old at the time, and he came home angry. He believed he’d been sent to war on counterfeit grounds. While he was recovering, Young met Phil Donahue. Donahue made him the subject of a brutal anti-war documentary called “Body of War," and Young became a star of the anti-war movement.

But, in 2008, Young suffered a stroke that slurred his speech and cost him most of the use of his arms. As his health deteriorated, Young maintained a rebellious stance. His home was decorated with Hunter S. Thompson posters, and he regularly exhorted those around him to seize their opportunities.

"Live every day as if it’s your last. Do what makes you happy," Young advised me from his bed at home in the Northland last year. "Be true to yourself.  Life is too short to not follow your heart." 

Last year, after years of pain and humiliation, Young announced plans to end his life. He sent a “last letter from a dying vet” to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, laying the blame for the Iraq War and all its aftermath squarely at their feet. He changed his mind about suicide, though and instead moved with his wife Claudia Cuellar to Portland, Ore. for the legal marijuana and the more liberal “death with dignity” laws.

Young died in his sleep early Monday morning, according to Cuellar. She says the couple had been fighting with the VA over Tomas’ care. She says doctors weren’t giving him enough pain medication to keep him comfortable, leaving them to ration pain pills, and use sleeping pills to help Young “sleep off” pain in the day time. The couple had moved to Seattle, Wash., chasing better palliative care, and were waiting for an appointment with the VA there. 

Cuellar says she’ll bring Young’s ashes back to his mother in Kansas City later this month.  She envisions a memorial concert in the summer.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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