A sniper's bullets in Baghdad critically wounded Tomas Young in 2004
Young was left paralyzed and became a vocal opponent of war
On the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, he intended to go off his feeding tube
He said he stayed alive for his wife but died Monday, the day before Veterans Day
Shortly after the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, paralyzed veteran Tomas Young spoke with me about why he intended to end his life.
He didn’t know what people would say about him after he was gone. All he wanted, really, was to be remembered as a nice guy.
He spoke with me by phone as a pump at his side helped him inject painkillers. His speech was so distorted that I had difficulty understanding him. He sent me photos showing how long and thick his hair and beard had grown. He said he seldom left his bed and that he popped a dizzying assortment of more than 30 different pills every day.
Young’s ordeal began in 2004 when two rounds from a sniper’s AK-47 severed his spinal cord.
Tired of suffering, Young penned a scathing letter in 2013 to former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney. He laid out the painful circumstances of his life and blamed the former administration for the many casualties of that war. He said he would refuse his feeding tube and allow himself to die.
He was the subject of the 2007 documentary, “Body of War,” and had become a vocal anti-war activist. He again made headlines when his death wish became public.
But he didn’t die then.
He said he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Claudia Cuellar. Former television host Phil Donahue, co-director and executive producer of “Body of War,” said Wednesday that Tomas and Claudia made a remarkable love story.
“Theirs was a true love like I have never witnessed before,” Donahue said. “Tomas made it clear she was the reason he was alive.”
On Monday, Young died at home in Seattle. The cause of death was not immediately clear, according to media reports.
Donahue said he had been waiting almost 10 years to hear what he heard on the phone Monday.
“This was a catastrophic injury,” Donahue said. “Tomas was imprisoned in bed. He couldn’t even cough.”
Young had moved with his wife to Portland, Oregon, where, as he stated in his Twitter profile, he was a “happily married man who’s happy to live in a medical maryjane state.” He was referring to legalized medical marijuana.
I learned of his passing on Veterans Day. Appropriate, I thought, for as controversial as Young had been, I believed he remained true to his convictions.
When we spoke last year, he asked me about my experiences covering the war in Iraq. We talked about the soldiers I met who lost their lives or returned home with serious injuries, both physical and psychological.
Cuellar told me then she was frightened at the prospect of losing her husband, but that she always returned to thinking about how difficult it was for him every single day.
“There will be time to mourn when he dies,” Cuellar told me. “Until that day, I will love and cherish and celebrate him and try to make each day as loving and happy and comfortable as possible for him.”
And she did.
In a video posted on YouTube Tuesday, Young’s sister-in-law, Amanda Young, captured his 34 years of life – from a baby who put a gleam in his mother’s eye to a companion for his brother Nathan; from a young man who felt compelled to serve his nation after the terror attacks of 9/11 to a wounded veteran who became a poster child for those who opposed the U.S. role in Iraq.
Young returned home from war a broken man. He is now free from his pain.
In an online memorial, people thanked him for his service.
Young was a self-avowed atheist, but somehow I could feel him smiling down at his friends, glad that they were remembering him as a nice guy.