Paralyzed from the chest down, Iraq war vet Tomas Young speaks out against the war and occupation.
Pfc. Tomas Young, 25 years old, was sent to Iraq last year with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division. He joined the military for college money to further his education and, in his own words, “to exact some form of retribution” on the perpetrators of 9/11. Two and a half weeks into his tour of duty, Young was paralyzed from the chest down after being struck by an AK-47 round while sitting in an open truck bed. Since returning home, he has joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and has become an outspoken critic of the war and occupation.
Tomas Young can be reached at Tomasyoungk@aol.com. This interview is the result of a long email exchange.
Tomas, thank you very much for doing this interview. Before we get into your story more in depth and discuss your involvement in IVAW, can you tell us the basics about your service in Iraq? When were you there, where were you stationed, and what were you doing?
I deployed to the region in mid-March of last year. I spent two and a half weeks in Kuwait and went to Sadr City in the beginning of April, where I stayed until I was shot on April 4th, going out on what I thought was a simple rescue mission.
Were you critical of the war and occupation before you were sent to Iraq?
Not only was I extremely critical of the war with Iraq, I was very critical of the entire Bush administration. I mean, he was after all partly responsible for trading Sammy Sosa from the Rangers.
So you’re from Texas? Do you come from a community that is particularly pro-war?
I am actually from Kansas City, Missouri, and my community was basically on the fence about the war.
Why did you join the military?
I joined the army after 9/11 partially because I wanted to exact some form of retribution on the people that did that to us, and I also realized that neither my family nor myself could pay for college, so I joined to further my education.
Can you explain what happened to you in Iraq that left you paralyzed from the chest down?
I had been picked to go on a rescue mission to provide security for the extraction of two downed soldiers. Twenty-five of us piled into the back of a two-and-a-half-ton truck with no canvas covering the top to provide some form of concealment, no armor to speak of, which had a maximum capacity of eighteen soldiers with gear.
We got the soldiers rescued safely and we loaded back in the truck — to go back to the base. However, instead of going back the safe route to the base — the way that we had come — we decided to go through the heart of downtown Sadr City.
There we were, crammed in the back of the truck, like the sardines are in the cliché, trying to focus our weapons outside the vehicle but not having the elbow room to personally move our gun barrels very well. I also had my legs crossed Indian-style to make room. I personally did not fire a shot due to the fact that all I saw were women and children. I’m not criticizing my buddies who were shooting, and I did also see men with AK-47s falling to the ground, but I’m sure my buddies were just too scared to know the difference.
All of a sudden I went completely numb. It was like my body had fallen asleep, like legs sometimes do. I also dropped my M-16 when it happened. I tried to pick it up, but it seemed as though my hands had forgotten how to work. There were another two or three wounded soldiers in the truck, and I was considered the least critical because there was no blood visible at that point. The mission was finally scrapped, I believe. As we rushed back to base, the truck we were in overheated (as it had been doing a lot of), and it was supposed to be with the mechanics instead of out on patrol. Luckily, another soldier jumped out and commandeered an Iraqi bus to get us back to base. It was there that we got loaded into Blackhawks, and they airloaded us to Kuwait and safety.
Other soldiers have told me similar stories of neglect by the military — of being given plywood as armor for their vehicles, of having expired bullet-proof vests, and so forth. Where do you place the blame for your paralysis?
I place it in two places. First of all, I blame the Bush administration. Although I know they didn’t pull the trigger, they were the people responsible for not waiting at least until the military was fully combat-ready. I also place the blame on my commanders appointed above me for sending a vehicle that was far more poorly equipped than any other vehicle allowed to leave the FOB (Forward Operating Base).
There have been complaints about inadequate care that injured soldiers have received after returning home. How do you feel about the medical care you’ve received since you were shot? Has it been adequate?
The care I’ve gotten has been spotty — good at times, peppered with moments where I just went “what the hell is going on here?”
How would you describe the treatment of you and other soldiers by your commanders? What was their general attitude towards you?
I would say that they treated us not necessarily as equals, but they were definitely friendlier to us there than they were back here at home. I mean, they had to worry about angry soldiers throwing grenades into tents.
From your experience, what were soldiers attitudes towards the war and occupation? Did you see soldiers’ attitudes change over time?
As I was only there for a combined three weeks, I can only speak to any immediate changes from America to Iraq. There was a small cross section of guys that were extremely gung ho about deployment, and most of them had a severe attitude shift once they arrived. Now, some may have kept up the façade, but eventually they all folded and lost that false bravery rather quickly. However, the guys that approached the deployment as just another shitty job assignment, they seemed to just simply buckle down and get it done.
What is your opinion of the situation in Iraq today?
I think that even with the false veneer of hope of the ratification of their constitution, there are a lot of problems that will only be fixed with a slow and controlled exit from the region, because the insurgents are simply protecting their homes, which is the exact same thing we would do if we were similarly attacked.
Did you have much contact with Iraqis? Based on your experience, how do you see the impact of the war and occupation on the Iraqi people?
I did not have a lot of personal contact with Iraqi people, so I’m not really qualified to answer that.
You said you were initially opposed to the war and occupation, but what was it that actually made you want to take a more active stance against them? Many soldiers just want to get home and forget about what they saw.
I was watching C-Span one day (really, I was) and I saw that the House was debating a $82 billion appropriations bill to help fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Democratic congresswoman introduced an amendment to the bill that would remove just $2 billion dollars to improve VA hospitals, some of which are in quite bad shape. When it came time to vote on the amendment and the bill, every Democrat and one Republican voted in support of the $2 billion, but all the Republicans (THE PARTY THAT CLAIMS TO SUPPORT THE TROOPS THE MOST) voted it down. The bill passed, by the way, and with it was enough pork to feed Sally Struthers’ African village many times. One example is the new stadium for the Washington Nationals in 2008, which is why I want to round up some vets and protest it opening day that year.
So, are you saying that government negligence of the troops is one thing that motivated you to take a public stance against the war? Has anything else motivated you to do this?
I was also motivated by the fact that I did not want any more of my fellow soldiers be used unnecessarily.
When did you join Iraq Veterans Against the War? How did you hear about IVAW?
I joined in early September of this year. My mother told me about them.
How did she hear about them?
She was messing around on the internet and found Military Families Speak Out (MFSO).
Why did you join IVAW?
Because they were fellow Iraq vets who felt like me.
Was it a difficult decision to join?
No, it was quite easy.
Other IVAWers I’ve talked to said it was a bit harder for them, because initially they just wanted to try to forget about what they experienced and try to get back to life as usual. You didn’t have any of this hesitation? Why was the decision so easy for you?
One of the primary triggers of my PTSD symptoms is watching the things that go on as far as the government is involved, and it calms me down to do something about it, so I jumped at the opportunity to help in a big way.
Other soldiers have said similar things — that working with other vets with similar experiences to call out the war-makers is therapeutic. Why do you think this is so?
It’s cathartic when you can take the things about the war that are either screwed up generally or that conspired to screw you up personally and focus that anger into something you feel is important.
You said that you support a slow and controlled exit from Iraq. I thought that IVAW’s position was “Bring Them Home Now,” or immediate withdrawal. What do you think about this?
I would like a quick immediate removal, but I think a controlled exit is the only way to get through to the other side. I’m solutions-oriented.
What do you mean when you say “the only way to get through to the other side”?
I mean the pro-war side that says our “pull them out now” plan is shortsighted.
Do you support a reinstatement of the draft? Why or why not?
No, because I believe a young man or woman has the right to make their mind up. However, I also think that if you throw your support behind the war effort and you are able to enlist, you should enlist yourselves, or the arguments you use are flimsy at best. The only people who have the right to support the war are those that have been there and can still believe in it. However, we all have the right to oppose the war.
What do you think of the counter-recruitment movement that has arisen amongst antiwar activists and vets?
I’m totally for counter recruitment because the military recruiters will only tell you one side of the story. All we want to do is present the full truth to potential recruits before they decide.
What do you think of the civilian antiwar movement? Do you have any criticisms of it?
I appreciate the civilian antiwar movement, although I think it should stay just that. Yes, the other things are important, but I think its wrong to use the war in Iraq as a way to get your foot in the door, so to speak, to discuss other topics (like the environment, New Orleans, Palestine, and many other examples). In doing this, I believe you are helping to dilute the message we are trying to get out about ending the war.
How do you see the role of antiwar GIs and vets — people like yourself — in the antiwar movement?
In theory, I would like to see us at the forefront of the movement. I don’t mean that obnoxiously. I just think we have a more valid point of view than anyone else. However, in practice we are constantly being pushed aside by groups that have an agenda other than ending the war and bringing our soldiers back where they belong.
Have your experiences changed the way you think about war more generally?
No, I’ve always thought that war is a necessary resort as long as it’s the last feasible resort and all diplomatic resources have been completely exhausted.
When I first asked you to do this interview, you told me you’d gladly do it because you wanted to get the “truth” out to people. If you could say anything to the American people about the war and occupation, based on your own thoughts and experiences, what would it be?
I can really think of only one thing: how can you say that you support the troops if you support the false ideas they may die for?
Derek Seidman co-edits the radical youth journal Left Hook. He lives in Providence, RI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.