In 2004, Phil Donahue stopped to visit his old friend Ralph Nader on a visit to Washington, D.C. Nader asked the talk show legend to come along on a visit to a wounded soldier in Walter Reed Hospital. So moved was Donahue by his meeting with Tomas Young, he decided to film a documentary about the young man’s journey from warrior to paralyzed veteran to spokesman and activist against America’s presence in Iraq.
Four years later, the film, “Body of War,” is debuting to reviews that make liberal use of such adjectives as “powerful,” “riveting,” “unforgettable” and “wrenching.” Richard Corliss of Time magazine called it, “A superb documentary ... almost unbearably moving.”
“The first time I saw him will be with me forever — paralyzed from the chest down — he had that morphine look, droopy eyed, sallow, sunken, lifeless,” Donahue writes in the director’s notes to his movie. “Body of War is a film provoked by my own questions as I stood on my functional legs at his bedside.”
The film premieres April 9 at the IFC Center in New York.
Young, the subject of the movie, was 22 years old when terrorists attacked and destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Two days later, while watching President Bush deliver an address from the smoldering ruins of the twin towers, Young resolved to enlist in the Army to, as he put it, “exact retribution” from al-Qaida in its Afghanistan hideouts.
Before he could be sent to Afghanistan, Congress authorized the invasion of Iraq, a war that the young soldier thought was wrong. But in 2004, that’s where he was sent. Four days into his deployment, while on a rescue mission in an overcrowded truck with no armor, he was shot by a sniper in Sadr City. The bullet shattered his spine at chest level, leaving him paralyzed for life. He never had a chance to even fire back in self defense.
While recuperating in Walter Reed, Young, who is from Kansas City, further questioned the war, asking himself why his country was in Iraq if there were no weapons of mass destruction and what Iraq had to do with 9/11 and al-Qaida. He knew others were being killed and sent home with shattered bodies and wondered why.
Young talked to his mother, Cathy Smith, about what he was thinking. She, hoping to boost his depressed spirits, suggested that many public figures would probably accept an invitation to visit a wounded war hero. Nader, who was running for President on a third-party ticket against Bush and John Kerry, struck Young as the only national figure who was talking about getting the troops out as soon as possible.
Smith contacted Nader, who agreed to talk with the young man. And since Donahue was in town on a visit, the candidate asked his socially conscious friend to come along. The two had become friends decades earlier when Nader was making a name as a consumer activist and Donahue had him as a frequent guest on his show.
Donahue was 68 at the time and eight years removed from the final edition of “The Phil Donahue Show.” Initially, he thought Young’s story would make a great book. Then he met documentary film maker Ellen Spiro, who helped convince him that it would be better as a movie. With Spiro signed on as his director, and then Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder signed to write and sing the film’s original songs, Donahue sold the idea to Young, who agreed to allow cameras to film every aspect of his life as a wheelchair-bound veteran.
There are thousands of soldiers like Young, confined to wheelchairs, dependent on catheters, unable to have normal conjugal relationships with their spouses, depending on heavy doses of painkillers and antidepressants to make it through their days. As intrusive as the process would be, Young agreed to do it; he thought the project was important enough to expose himself utterly.
“This film’s story mirrors the stories of thousands of young soldiers who, like Tomas Young, have sustained life-altering injuries in a war mission that was ‘unnecessary,’ as Tomas tells Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes,” Donahue wrote. “This foreign policy decision was not only unnecessary, it was ill-considered and misguided from the start — a mission that has never been — and in Tomas’ opinion — never will be ‘accomplished.’ ”
During his rehabilitation, Young married Brie, whom he had met before shipping out. And he became a staunch opponent of the Iraq war and a vocal activist among the Iraq Veterans Against the War demonstrating and lobbying to bring the troops home.
As “Body of War” follows young’s struggles, it cuts back to the Congressional debate that authorized the invasion of Iraq, an action that Donahue calls “one of the most tragic errors of judgment ever made by a United States Congress.”
“I discovered a great American in Tomas Young, a warrior turned anti-warrior, a voice of courage rising above the war drums,” Donahue writes. “Before the next president swaggers to the cameras challenging the enemy to ‘Bring it on,’ before the next Congress votes another War Resolution, my hope is that all these heavy breathing, lap top bombers take a moment to meet the First Cavalry’s Honorably Discharged United States Army Specialist — Tomas Young.”