A screening of the documentary Body of War at the Ridgefield Playhouse came to a startling conclusion Friday night, when the film’s star told a stunned audience that he was going to end his life.
Tomas Young, the paralyzed Iraq War vet whose life was showcased in the film, announced via Skype that in April he intends to stop taking all nourishment and life-extending medications. “It’s time,” he said. “When I go I want be alert and aware.”
The announcement came during a question and answer session at the playhouse between Morton Dean who was hosting the Q&A and Phil Donahue, Body of War’s producer and co-director.
Mr. Donahue said Tomas Young and his wife Claudia would be joining them via Skype, and that significant changes had occurred with Mr. Young since the film was made in 2007.
Series of unfortunate events
Mr. Young’s travails began three days after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The 22-year-old from Kansas City, Mo., was watching a speech on TV by President Bush who was atop the rubble at the World Trade Center. The president issued a rallying cry, saying, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon.”
Motivated to help his country, Mr. Young enlisted in the Army and was sent to Iraq. After just five days, he was shot by a sniper while riding in an unarmored, open truck. A bullet tore through his spine and he was left permanently paralyzed from the chest down.
Body of War follows Mr. Young’s life after he returns home. Facing struggles with basic bodily functions and neglectful VA medical care that provided him with bottles of pills and limited rehabilitation services, he joined Iraq Veterans Against the War, and became a nationally recognized anti-war activist.
With his fresh-faced good looks and upbeat humor, Mr. Young attracted a large following at protests and peace rallies, where Gold Star mothers who lost their sons in combat were comforted just to touch him.
Before introducing Mr. Young on Skype, Mr. Donahue said he has remained in close contact with him since the film was released in 2007. But since then, he said, Mr. Young had suffered a number of serious medical setbacks. He had also grown a long beard.
“The other day I told Tomas he looked like Stonewall Jackson, and that made him laugh,” Mr. Donahue said.
In one of those medical setbacks, Mr. Young’s arm puffed up from a blood clot. He was rushed to the hospital, given oxycontin, and sent home. That night, he lapsed into a coma due to a pulmonary embolism. Although he recovered from the coma, he was left with limited mobility in his arm.
More recently, Mr. Young had intense pain in his bowels and was advised to have a colostomy. There were complications, and the pain where his bowels used to be became much worse.
Appearing with his wife Claudia via Skype on a large projection screen, Mr. Young spoke slowly and at times with difficulty.
He said on April 20, the date of the couple’s first wedding anniversary, he intends to wean himself off food, stop taking life-extending medications, “and one day go away.” He said he will continue to take medication for pain only.
It was important, Mr. Young said, for him to be alert and aware when he died. “It’s time,” he said.
His wife said she supported his decision because he “goes through the gauntlet” every day. “We have talked about where he is at and he’s exhausted,” she said.
The audience was transfixed by Mr. Young’s announcement. Wilton actor Charles Grodin and others called Mr. Young “courageous” and “brave.” Mr. Young was commended for taking control over the only part of his life he still had any control over.
Others condemned the VA medical system for taking such poor care of returning soldiers, and the politicians who appeared to “rubber stamp” the Iraq War.
After the Skype session, Mr. Donahue spent an hour discussing Mr. Young, inadequate medical care for veterans, and the lessons he hoped people had learned from the Iraq invasion. He warned about entering a war based on “the politics of fear” and “false intelligence.”
“If you scare people, you can lead them anywhere and this must never happen again,” he said.
He noted that people who criticized the war when it first started were called “unpatriotic,” and were marginalized. He himself was fired from MSNBC in 2003 because of his anti-war stance.
He said he intends to keep in touch with Mr. Young as things progress.
Although it was close to 11 p.m. when the event finally ended, audience members gathered around Mr. Donahue, comforting each other, still wanting to talk about what had transpired and the issues that were raised.
Larry Rehr of Weston called Mr. Young’s announcement “emotional, jarring, and disturbing.”
“Most tragic was that this man was shot in Iraq but killed here in America by the system. This one man represents thousands of war veterans whose bodies have been mangled and their lives destroyed,” he said.
His wife, Debbie Rehr, praised Mr. Young for putting up a valiant fight. “I understand why he wants to let himself go. I don’t think I could have lasted one year, let alone eight. It’s such a sad statement that the medical treatment he received was so insufficient,” she said.
Joseph Consentino, founder of the Ridgefield Playhouse Film Society, said after Mr. Donahue told him about Mr. Young’s intentions, he made the decision to communicate with Mr. Young via Skype. “Phil called me the other day right after Tomas told him about his decision. I could tell how affected Phil was by this news. He thinks of Tomas like a son, so I wanted to give Tomas the opportunity to announce his decision if he wanted to, and he did,” Mr. Consentino said.
It was risky exposing an audience to this kind of message, and Mr. Consentino wasn’t sure at first how people would handle it. “I could quickly tell the audience understood,” he said. “They could see where Tomas was coming from. The quality of his life was way beyond tolerable. Tomas is a courageous man.”
Mr. Consentino praised Mr. Donahue for making Body of War, which was short-listed for an Oscar nomination and named the Best Documentary of 2007 by the National Board of Review. “Doing documentaries, you have to have a vision and keep your mind open. This was Phil’s first film and he had great sensitivity and insight into the human condition that few people have,” he said.
Mr. Young’s announcement falls on the heels of published reports last month about an alarming increase in the number of U.S. military suicides among active and non-active military personnel.
Body of War is available on Amazon.com and Netflix.