Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro produced a documentary film, Body of War, released in 2007, about the life of paralyzed US Army Iraqi- War veteran Tomas Young. The film cuts back and forth between painful scenes of the recovery process for Young and the debate and vote in the Senate, in October 2002, over the Iraq War Resolution that authorized military action against Iraq as requested by President Bush. The film received critical acclaim and won several awards at film festivals including the prestigious People’s Choice Award at Toronto International Film Festival. Unfortunately, the documentary did not do well at the box office, and it soon disappeared from circulation. People were not interested in watching a film about a war veteran who was severely wounded on his fifth day of deployment in Iraq, as described by Chris Hedges:
On April 4, 2004, Young [24 years old] was crammed into the back of a two-and-a-half-ton Army truck with 20 other soldiers in Sadr City, Iraq. Insurgents opened fire on the truck from above. “It was like shooting ducks in a barrel,” he said. A bullet from an AK-47 severed his spinal column. A second bullet shattered his knee. At first he did not know he had been shot. He felt woozy. He tried to pick up his M16. He couldn’t lift his rifle from the truck bed. That was when he knew something was terribly wrong. . . “I tried to say ‘I’m going to be paralyzed, someone shoot me right now,’ but there was only a hoarse whisper that came out because my lungs had collapsed,” he said. “I knew the damage. I wanted to be taken out of my misery.”
There are many haunting scenes in the film. One that stands out is a meeting between Young and Bobby Muller, founder of Vietnam Veterans of America. Muller’s injury, the severance of his spinal cord, is similar to Young’s, but he spent one year in rehabilitation and nine months as an out-patient. Young received barely three months in rehab and it is evident watching the two together that Muller is in much better condition. Muller states outright that Young was short-changed.
In early October The Real News Network posted the entire film online along with a series of three interviews with Phil Donahue. The film is heartbreaking to watch but to see the film now when the present Congress refused to return from a pre-election recess of 60 days to debate whether to give President Obama legal authorization for a war he has started against ISIS, presents another layer of dismay for the viewer. Besides the indomitable Young, who was one of the first war veterans to publically oppose the Iraqi war, the film pays tribute to the feisty, irascible Senator Robert Byrd and his valiant fight to rally votes against the 2003 war in Iraq. Only twenty-three senators voted “nay” to the war and Senator Byrd would later refer to them as, “the immortal twenty-three”. After President Bush declared war in March 2003, Senator Byrd gave a speech, Why I weep for my country, Byrd said, in part,
[T]oday, I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.
There is an unforgettable scene at the end of the film when Young goes to the Capitol to meet Senator Byrd in his office for an intimate conversation about their shared battle to end the war.
—Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Zeteo Associate
The Chris Hedges essay, The Crucifixion of Tomas Young, was written in March 2013 after Young suffered a pulmonary embolism that resulted in the loss of movement in his upper-body, short-term memory and the inability to speak clearly in 2008. Four years later in 2013, Young put himself under hospice care, the time of Hedges’ piece. Because of the amazing support of his (second) wife, Young made a decision to keep on living and they are now moving from Portland to Seattle to be closer to better health care for Vets.
Phil Donahue hosted the highest rated cable show on MSNBC in 2003. The show was canceled in February of that year after he invited anti-war guests to appear. MSNBC (now owned by Comcast) was owned by GE, a major defense contractor for the government. In his interview on The Real News Network, Donahue decries the control of the media by five international media corporations that he says are “ruining our democracy”. Since making the film, Donahue continues to keep in touch and visit Young. He regularly sends updates about Young to everyone involved in the film’s production.
Eddie Vedder wrote the theme song for the film, No More, after he met Young and became his friend. He also remains a presence in his life.
A special thanks to my friend Bernadine Colish, editor of Body of War, for keeping me informed.