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Iraq War Veteran Tomas Young Signs Off With 'Last Letter'

Nearly two million active duty U.S. servicemen and women are due back home by the end of this year. Many have struggled to reintegrate, but few more profoundly, or more publicly, than Tomas Young of Kansas City.   Young now says he’s ready to take his own life, but not before making one more stand against the war that wrecked his body. 

9/11 touched off a chain of events that transformed Tomas Young from an athletic, rambunctious 22-year-old, into a man at the very end of his rope. 

Young enlisted two days after the attacks, moved, he says, by President Bush’s vow to punish the Taliban. Young wanted revenge in Afghanistan, but was deployed instead to Iraq, a country that he believed had nothing to do with 9/11. After just days there, a sniper’s bullet left him paralyzed from the chest down, impotent and angry. His terse, powerful way with words propelled him to the forefront of the anti-war movement. The documentary “Body of War” follows Young’s activism and physical struggles.

In one scene his mom, Cathy Smith, tries to attach a urine catheter in the back of a car.

“I’m glad that it came out, and people saw the reality of war," said Young, lying as he does every day now, flat on his back in his dimly lit bedroom. “Now, I can’t even watch it, because it serves as a reminder of what I used to be able to do,” said Young.

Because tough as life was for Young six years ago, it’s worse now. A blood clot lodged in his lungs months after the film came out. That damaged his brain, twisted his hands and left his speech impaired. His mom, Cathy Smith, says it’s been a long, hard fight.

“To be a paraplegic, deal with that. And then wake up and you’re a quadriplegic … and you can’t use your voice, which is what you were learning to use. So many people wanted him to speak, and he couldn’t speak anymore,” said Smith.

Young spent months in rehab, and last April 20th, he married a woman named Claudia Cuellar, a Buddhist with a sunny disposition. Young is a pretty devout Atheist, but they both love music and literature, and share a keen understanding of the hardships of war. 

“He is, of course, my number one hero,” said Cuellar. “Along with all Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, you know, all veterans.”

Cueller cares for Young full-time, fetching and lighting his cigarettes, bringing his water and crushing his pills.   She’s hung her spiritual artwork alongside Young’s edgier images -- posters of Hunter S. Thompson and rock bands.    

They had hoped to spend a few good years together, but last summer a horrible new chronic pain hit Young.    Doctors cut out his colon, hoping to ease his suffering. And that worked, for a while, but the pain came back.

“And I decided that I was no longer going to watch myself deteriorate,” said Young.  

In February Young announced he was going to remove his feeding tube and stop taking the nearly 100 pills a day. Cuellar understands.

“I feel like it’s a kind of, you know, his body’s been mutilated,”  she said. “I mean he had the injury, but then all the surgery on top of that. It feels dehumanizing.”

Cathy Smith respects her son’s decision as well. And in the nine years since he was shot, she’s had a lot of time to contemplate losing him.

“I’ve mourned the son that I sent to war, that didn’t come home. I’ve mourned grandchildren that I’ll never have. The worst part about all of this for me is that none of this had to happen,” said Smith.

Hearing of Young’s plight, activist Ralph Nader suggested he write an open letter to former president George Bush and Dick Cheney -- one final broadside against the war and its chief proponents.

“And so, went along with that, and wrote my letter… and I guess that thing’s taken off like wild fire too,” said Young.

Young’s “Last Letter” lays blame for the Iraq War’s incalculable cost in human suffering -- the Iraqi people’s, his, other veterans' and their families' -- squarely at the feet of Bush and Cheney. But he insists that, while the letter is political, his impending death is entirely personal.

“There are people who want to frame it as a political decision, or a political issue. That’s their prerogative. Yea for them. But I myself don’t see it that way,” said Young. 

Young sees it as a release from intractable suffering. Kim Ruocco, who lost her husband, an Iraq War veteran, to suicide, fears others will see the same.

“I do worry about the veterans hearing this story and thinking, you know what, he’s giving up, I should give up,” said Ruocco. “There are so many veterans out there who are really suffering, and are looking to see how other people handle it,” she said.

Ruocco is with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, a group that helps families of military suicides.  

“And all along he has been a really good example of somebody who, despite physical and emotional injuries, has been able to stay alive, and been able to find a cause and find some meaning in his life, and that provided a lot of hope for other veterans,” said Roucco.

But the women in Tomas’ life, his wife and his mother, think he’s acting with complete honor and dignity.

“It’s not a suicide,” said Smith. “He’s not killing himself, he’s just stopping.”   

Young says he’ll stop talking to the media next month, on his wedding anniversary, and likely end his life a month or two thereafter.

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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