Tomas Young's body has been deteriorating since a sniper's bullet in Iraq severed his spine
He announced his intention to die and wrote a scathing letter to Bush and Cheney
A 2007 film portrayed Young's struggles with his injuries and his anger over the war
He wants to live through one last baseball season, then remove himself from his feeding tube
Tomas Young’s life nearly ended nine years ago when he was riding in the back of a water truck in Baghdad’s Sadr City. Two rounds from a sniper’s AK-47 hit him; the first severed his spinal cord and the second shattered his left knee.
Modern-day medicine saved him. A critically acclaimed 2007 documentary, “Body of War,” made his injuries – and objections to the Iraq war – widely known.
Now, he lies again on the verge of death.
This time, he is not in a bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center but on a futon in his home in Kansas City, Missouri. This time, no one is trying desperately to keep him alive. Young wants to die.
He is tired of nine years of suffering. Of sitting paralyzed from the chest down in a wheelchair, of losing dexterity in his hands, of slurred speech, skin ulcers, nausea, urinary tract infections and, most of all, the constant pain. He cannot eat on his own, and a while ago he decided he would reject his medications and feeding tube and allow himself to waste away.
Young, 33, might have died quietly in the privacy of his home, with his wife of one year, Claudia Cuellar, and his mother, Cathy Smith, by his bedside. Except that in February, he announced his intention to end his life.
He appeared via Skype before a Connecticut crowd gathered for a screening of “Body of War” and told them of his decision.
It was a night that Joseph Consentino will never forget. As founder of the Ridgefield Playhouse Film Society, Consentino, himself a documentarian, had arranged for Young to answer questions after the film was shown. Former talk show host and “Body of War” co-director Phil Donahue was also on hand.
The audience was stunned, Consentino recalled Friday. “But the amazing part was everyone seemed to understand why he was doing this.”
His intention became more widely known about a month later, on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, when Young penned a scathing letter to former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Written at the behest of the progressive online news website Truthdig, Young’s letter laid out the circumstances of his life and blamed Bush and Cheney for all the casualties of the war.
“My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on Earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.”
The letter went viral. Young’s life was again out there for millions to see. If they had not known of the wounded-vet-turned-activist before, they knew his story now.
He was 22 when he watched Bush stand at ground zero and pledge to avenge the killing of Americans in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Young called a recruiter, and two days later he was enlisted into the Army. He stood ready to fight in Afghanistan and hunt down Osama bin Laden, but instead, in spring 2004, he found himself with the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq. He had not been in Sadr City five days before he was ambushed.
“I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States,” Young wrote in his letter.
“On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure,” Young wrote. “And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.”
“Body of War” captured his anger about Iraq. It also showed how difficult his life had become. In one scene, Young’s mother struggles to insert a catheter while they are in a car. They turn it into a moment of dark humor. It was Young’s verve for life portrayed in that film that struck viewers. They were left perplexed when Young announced he’d had enough of watching his body deteriorate.
Since the movie was made, the quality of Young’s life has spiraled downward. In 2008, a blood clot traveled to his lung and affected his brain. Then last year, doctors removed his colon in hopes of relieving pain in his abdomen.
These days, he can hardly move. A pump at his side helps him inject painkillers. His speech is so slurred that it’s difficult to understand him. His hair and beard are thick. He seldom leaves his bed; his bedsores eat at his flesh. He takes a dizzying assortment of more than 30 different pills every day.
Sometimes, Cuellar, 43, sees a vacant stare when she looks into her husband’s eyes.
“He was catatonic, exhausted after all that treatment,” she said.
He hoped to reach his first wedding anniversary on April 20. After that, he planned to begin to die.
He said Thursday that he now wants to live through one last baseball season – he loves the game and is excited that his hometown Kansas City Royals are in first place in the AL Central. He also wants to see the Jackie Robinson biopic, “42,” which opened in theaters Friday.
Really, said Cuellar, the family just needs more time together, away from the spotlight.
John Carney, executive director of the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, has been following Young’s case and said it is not uncommon for people who make such a serious decision to delay it.
Young doesn’t want to implicate anyone else in his death, so his plan is to stop nourishing his body.
The law gives him that right. The Patient Self-Determination Act of 1990 says that a competent adult can refuse medical or surgical treatment.
“I think it is unfair, in his case, to characterize it as he is killing himself,” Carney said. “He has made the decision to stop treating himself. It’s a quality of life decision that is within his right.”
Young has never described his plans as suicide, but some are concerned that his actions might send the wrong signal to other struggling veterans.
“I do worry that it will send a message that you can give up,” said Kim Ruocco, director of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
“Part of what I am hearing him say is he no longer has his voice or his purpose, which was talking about the war and his injuries,” she said.
In that role, he found meaning in his life, which Ruocco hopes will inspire veterans.
“I am hoping that they can see he has been able to do a lot,” she said.
Jason Hansman, head of health programs of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, described Young’s case as exceptional.
“I think his story altogether is unique, from the time he entered Iraq to coming home,” Hansman said. “It is very much about the circumstances and the severity of the situation.”
Young’s story is unique also in that it has been deeply personal, political and public all at once.
Cuellar said not a single day has passed without outside intrusion since the publication of her husband’s letter. There has been a flurry of media interviews. Some people call or show up because they want to show their support. Some want to dissuade him from what they say is suicide. Still others think he’s a bit crazy or staging a publicity stunt.
“He is dying and wants to blame someone else for his decisions,” wrote a commenter on an online forum.
Another said Young “should have faded away in another dark alley instead of going drama queen in his last moments.”
In Cuellar’s mind, no one has the right to criticize her husband’s actions except maybe another disabled veteran.
“We’ve been shocked by anyone who would question Tomas,” Cuellar said. “It’s disrespectful to a war veteran.”
Young can understand why some people might be critical, but he said they don’t understand his pain.
“I know I might seem to some people like a whining baby,” Young said from his home Thursday. “There are some good things in my life, but they are small in number compared to the bad things I go through.”
The woman who gave birth to Young has come to terms with her son’s decision.
“A lot of what Tomas was and who Tomas was is gone now anyway,” said Cathy Smith. “I have already mourned that. So I will just pick up the pieces.”
Phil Donahue, who first met Young at Walter Reed and decided to make “Body of War,” said Young gave him a front-row seat to catastrophic injury. He understood when Young called him in February and told of his wish to die.
“He’s been trapped in his body for nine years,” Donahue said. “He wanted to live. He rallied from everything that hit him.”
Young, Donahue understood, had reached his limit.
Donahue plans to visit Young in Kansas City later this month. He knows it could very well be their last time together.
Young and Cuellar said they just want to fit in quality time with close friends and family before Young dies.
“This is a roller-coaster. This is an impossible journey,” Cuellar said. “Much harder for him than it is for me, but I have to simply bear witness, which is very hard.”
When the time comes, she will be prepared to let her husband go.
“It’s a privilege to be around someone who is dying,” she said.
Ultimately, she believes Young will die vindicated for speaking out against a war that more and more Americans have come to oppose.
“My husband’s story is of many people who will come home this way. It’s not going to be singular,” she said.
Young said he didn’t really know what people might say about him after he is gone. He just wants to be remembered as a guy who was nice to be around.