Follow the story of Tomas Young, a paralyzed veteran of the Iraq war, as he battles with his injuries and works to find himself back home in the United States.
In Tomas Young’s War (Haymarket Books, 2016), by Mark Wilkerson, the reader is put alongside Young as he struggles with life as a paralyzed veteran, suffering frustration and humiliation as he attempts to reenter society and resume as normal an existence as possible. It shows his fight to balance his precarious health with his drive to speak out for veterans care and against the war, and the impact his catastrophic injuries had on his family and his relationships.
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One of the first things Tomas Young did when he returned to Kansas City was to call Sergeant First Class Powell, the NCO who had ordered him to grab his stuff and climb aboard the LMTV on Black Sunday. “I didn’t get hold of him, I had to leave him a message,” Tomas recalled. He left an abrupt, “Hey, Sergeant Powell — it’s Private Young. I’d just like you to know that if I could, I’d like to shit down your throat. Bye.”
A particularly striking scene in Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone’s cinematic rendition of Ron Kovic’s memoir, is when Kovic returns home in his wheelchair and is greeted by friends and family for the first time. It’s a searing, awkward moment; unmentioned truths flash over people’s faces as they are confronted with the jarring reality of seeing their loved one in an unfamiliar position of weakness and vulnerability.
Tomas remembered this scene from his own life — the varied reactions of close friends and family upon seeing him at home for the first time, paralyzed. “The adult ones, or at least the ones that were decent poker players, they acted like it didn’t bother them,” he said, “which was the way I wanted people to react. And then some… mostly women in the family, would bawl over me and tell me it was God’s plan. And I got sick and tired of hearing that.”
He didn’t just hear it from family members. Not long after he’d returned home, Tomas remembers “these Baptist kids walking down the street in front of my house, and they were talking to my brother and sister and her friends. And they were trying to tell them about the wonderful life that you’d have if you accept Jesus into your heart, and I rolled out there and I said, ‘So, people have been telling me that this is part of God’s plan. If you guys seem to have such a direct line to the old man, tell him what plan am I supposed to ascertain from this? What am I supposed to do now? What’s the next part of the plan?’”
For the first few months back home, Tomas lived with his mother in Liberty, a few miles northeast of Kansas City. Because Cathy was living in a split-level home, her son could only access a small portion of the floor space using his wheelchair. “My mom had built him a little area there in the living room and put up a divider,” Nathan recalled. “She tried to make it as comfortable as she could for him.”
“I stayed in a hospital bed right behind the couch so I could look at the TV,” Tomas said, adding that he watched a lot of baseball games that summer. “I got special permission to smoke cigarettes and marijuana in the house, which I took full use of. Because Mike, her husband at the time, made her smoke outside.” But the cramped quarters provided a harsh introduction to the new reality Tomas faced. “He couldn’t go upstairs, he couldn’t go downstairs, he couldn’t go anywhere,” Roy McHugh recalled. “He had access to the living room, the kitchen, and that was it.”
“I just kind of went into a shell and just shut up,” said Tomas.
Brie soon moved in with Tomas and his family, with mixed results. It proved beneficial to the budding couple, since she was learning to become a caregiver, but it was also stressful. “I didn’t want to do it,” Young recalled, “because she would come home and say things like, ‘Got all my bills paid today! Happy day!’ and here’s my mom and we’re having trouble trying to pay the bills in this house, so she’d tell her to shut the fuck up.”
In those early days, whenever Tomas and Brie ventured out, they went in Brie’s car. “She would have to load me into the car and then take the chair and fold it and put it in the trunk,” Tomas recalled. The process of transferring him from chair to car was awkward and difficult for anyone, let alone a small young woman like Brie. But the physical difficulties paled in comparison to the heavy emotional toll Tomas suffered when venturing out into society. “We were at the gas station right up there on the corner of Barry,” he said, “and there was a guy parked behind us getting gas, and she was getting gas, and he saw me... and the window was up so I never heard him when he said, ‘Honey, if I was your boyfriend, you wouldn’t have to pump your own gas.’ And she didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t hear him, and she didn’t tell me about it right away. I was away from the situation or I would have said something.”
Tomas’s friend Roy McHugh also recalled getting out with him that summer, trying to break Young out of his shell. “I can remember going out with him places and stuff like that, and we used to like to drink beer a lot, and then he got to not wanting to drink beer, be- cause he couldn’t control when he had to pee. He had a leg bag on, and I’d help him into the bathroom and we’d prop his leg up on the toilet and then drain the bag, but then he’d have an accident and he couldn’t control it and didn’t want to do things that could provoke an accident. He was conscious about it and everything else. It’s a hard thing to live with — like, remember when you were twenty-four? I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life when I was twenty-four, but you had endless possibilities.”
Young’s reaction was to spend more time at home. “It made me more hesitant to go out in public,” he said. “But I would still go out. Some nights I’d be fine, and we’d go out and wouldn’t have any problems at all. Some nights, you can’t win for losing. So it was a touch-and-go situation, and I didn’t like going out much.”
In addition to his new physical constraints, Tomas faced constant pain and leaned awkwardly in his chair to compensate. While he could sit up, he found it painful to maintain an upright position. “It hurts in my neck and it radiates to my shoulders and upper back,” he said at the time. “It stops about chest level, where I’m paralyzed from.”
Along with the time I spent at Tomas’s bedside and speaking with those close to him, the book Wheeling and Dealing: Living with Spinal Cord Injury has been an indispensable resource in my quest to learn the nuances and complexities surrounding life with spinal cord injuries. In it, author Esther Isabelle Wilder cites chronic pain as “one of the most serious complications associated with SCI.” She continues: “Many individuals with SCI have an unmet need for pain management. Individuals who sustained gunshot wounds are especially likely to experience chronic pain.” Tomas’s case, therefore, was not atypical.
At this early stage in his recovery, Tomas was taking carbamazepine, gabapentin, and morphine for pain, and was already having to increase his morphine dose in order for it to remain effective. This was in addition to his taking tizanidine anti-spasm medication, omeprazole for morning nausea, and the antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin). He was also taking the blood thinner warfarin to prevent blood clots, in addition to the vena cava filter surgically implanted into his abdomen. Side effects from this daily cocktail included general grogginess, nausea, and constipation.
In addition to the prescription medications, Tomas also regularly smoked marijuana, which also helped lessen the muscle spasms and spasticity (tightness) Tomas experienced. “I used to have really bad problems with stomach spasms and leg spasms,” he told me in 2013. “I would sleep at night and have my legs kick everywhere. Basically [Brie] had to sleep in a different bedroom.”
Being paralyzed from the chest down also severely impaired his body’s ability to control its own temperature through shivering or sweating in the paralyzed area. Another significant health issue Tomas faced was autonomic dysreflexia, or dangerously high blood pressure. Relatively common among patients with SCI similar to Tomas’s, symptoms of autonomic dysreflexia can include sudden and excruciating headaches and blurred vision. This alarming spike in blood pressure is caused by painful stimuli emanating from below the level of the spinal cord injury — thus the patient does not feel the pain itself. Common causes are bladder distension, an impacted bowel, or other stimuli which would typically cause pain for an able-bodied individual. If not quickly addressed, this affliction can constitute a medical emergency.
In late 2005, Tomas suffered such an emergency and was rushed to the ER. “They put him on clonidine and that didn’t do any good, so they put him on nitroglycerin gel,” said Cathy. The gel is applied directly to the chest. “The scary thing about it with the spinal cord injury,” she continued, “is that your blood pressure’s so low anyway normally that his blood pressure will shoot up to like 200 over 140, and then if he takes clonidine or uses the nitroglycerin, it can bot- tom out at like 70 over 36. Just like that.”
Yet another issue common to individuals with SCI is weight loss, due in large part to muscle atrophy. The loss of muscle be- tween skin and bone can in turn lead to the skin breaking down over pressure points, causing pressure sores, which are “the single health problem that most often accompanies SCI,” according to Wheeling and Dealing. As many as 85 percent of all individuals with SCI battle pressure sores. These sores, which occur almost exclusively over bony prominences such as the hip bones, are caused by sustained pressure on a small area of soft tissue — most often from lying or sitting in one position for too long.
When I saw a photo by Eugene Richards of a shirtless Tomas from a 2006 article in the Nation, I noticed a dressing on Tomas’s right hip. I asked him if it was a pressure sore. No, he explained — it was a cigarette burn. “That was because back then I had a very bad habit of smoking a cigarette and falling asleep, and the cigarette would invariably land somewhere on my body where I couldn’t feel it,” he said. “So it burned me.”
Because of the pain, the physical limitations, and the psychological hardship of life after his injury, Tomas found himself gravitating toward the safe, simple pastime of watching baseball on TV. As the 2004 Major League Baseball regular season wound down that fall and the playoffs began, he rediscovered a love he’d developed as a child for the sport. “I didn’t really play it a whole lot, but I gravitated toward it in the eighties because of Bo Jackson, George Brett, and whatnot,” he recalled. Watching from the confines of his hospital bed behind his mother’s couch, he witnessed the Boston Red Sox’s fairytale ride to a World Series win. “While I’m laying here recovering from the gunshot wound,” he said, “the Red Sox, after not having won a World Series in eighty-six years, after not beating the Yankees in the playoffs in so long, they came back from being down three-zero to finally beat the Yankees, and then they swept the Cardinals that year. And I became a fan of the Boston Red Sox.”
There were visitors, too. Nathan visited whenever his Army schedule allowed it. “Every chance I could get a pass, I’d drive home, or… maybe on leave, I’d get to see him, but I didn’t really get to see him much,” he said. “I barely saw him, pretty much the whole time I was in the Army.”
By Halloween 2004, within days of the conclusion of the Red Sox’s unlikely ride to the World Series title, Tomas and Brie moved out of Cathy’s house and into their own, a three-bedroom ranch in northern Kansas City. The home was built by local high-school students as part of a votech program. Tomas paid for the home in part using a lump-sum financial award from the VA. By this time, he was also receiving monthly financial compensation from the VA as a retired soldier. He soon was provided with a handicapped-accessible van, which was replaced with a new model every couple of years. “I mean, he’s not hurting for money,” McHugh commented, putting things in perspective, “but you know, even if they were giving him a million dollars a month, it’s still not enough money for what happened to him.”
The new home afforded Tomas a new sense of freedom and independence following his experience the past few months in the cramped quarters of his mom’s duplex. He could roll up the wheelchair ramp onto the front porch, through the front door, and throughout the house on the hardwood floors.
Despite this increased physical freedom, though, something was still missing. “When Tomas came home from rehab he was obviously focused on gaining as much independence as he could, but that doesn’t give your life purpose,” Brie said at the time. “And so he felt pretty useless for a long time. He didn’t get out of bed, he played PlayStation, watched movies, listened to music, read magazines, and he would watch the news, listen to Bush and Rumsfeld and everyone and get so upset about all the lies that they were telling.”
Or, as McHugh put it, “He didn’t feel like doing anything.” And the occasions when he did try something often ended in disappointment. “It’s not like he was just lying in bed, depressed, but he would try things and it would set him back,” McHugh recalled in 2013. “He called me up — and to this day I still try to say yes to everything he asks me to do — he called me up [in 2005] and was like, ‘Hey man, the Warped Tour is coming to town, you wanna go?’ And I’m like, ‘Sure,’ so we bought tickets and I drove all the way out to pick him up, and we were driving out to the Warped Tour, we were there for — it was summer, too, so it was really hot — we were there less than an hour and had to leave. Really discouraging, you know, ’cause stuff ’s hard enough, and he can’t even just do something as simple as sit at a concert. That stuff would get him down.”
Tomas was adrift, lost in a life which he felt no longer had any meaning. He was caught in what Viktor Frankl, in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning, called the “existential vacuum.” “Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds a meaning,” Frankl wrote. “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” Wheeling and Dealing offers a similar sentiment in expressing the importance of having a goal or mission in the process of coming to terms with paralysis: “Sense of purpose is a powerful predictor of adjustment to SCI.”
Tomas’s Army buddy Riley Soden became a frequent visitor to the new home in early 2005, having moved back to Kansas City after his discharge from the military in February. He had attempted to contact Tomas earlier, but the Army told him that his friend was in a coma and denied him any of Tomas’s family’s contact information. “It was two or three days after I was back in Kansas City that I went out there and saw him for the first time,” Soden recalled. He told local paper Pitch Weekly that that first visit “was really awkward. Not awkward in the sense of our friendship. I just hadn’t seen him in the wheelchair or seen him with a disability. It really kind of hurt... To help him move, it really gets to me sometimes. It breaks my heart to see him [injured] because he is such a good friend.”
Soden visited Tomas’s house on April 4, 2005, the first anniversary of Black Sunday. Tomas marked the occasion by burning his blood-soaked flak vest in a metal garbage can in his driveway, watching from his wheelchair alongside Soden as a cloud of thick black smoke wafted over the neighborhood. “It took a lot of lighter fluid,” Tomas recalled. Exactly how he got the jacket back had been lost in the haze of his memory. Soden presented the most likely scenario — “I think somebody did inventory at Walter Reed or something and realized there was a bag with his name on it and had it sent to him.”
“It had like a pin-sized hole, like a needle sized hole right here,” Tomas said, pointing to his left collarbone, “and then there was nothing in the back of the vest, no hole. ’Cause by the time it had gone through me it had lost its oomph and just… stopped. I remember there were slits down the side of it, and apparently that was the result of US Army investigators looking for the round.”
Burning the vest was a cathartic gesture. But the pain remained, the wheelchair remained, and an uncertain future loomed.
Reprinted with permission from Tomas Young’s War by Mark Wilkerson and published by Haymarket Books, 2016.