Paralyzed man soldiers on in anti-war documentary

TORONTO (Reuters) - Sign up for the army, but know you could come home in a wheelchair. That was the hard lesson for Iraq war veteran Tomas Young, whose experience is detailed in new film “Body of War.”

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Young, then 22, enlisted in the U.S. Army two days after the World Trade Center collapsed in 2001, intending to go to Afghanistan and defend his country by rooting out Al Qaeda.

Instead, the Kansas City soldier arrived in Iraq in 2004. He was heading home within a week, paralyzed from his chest down after a gunshot wound. He retains the use of his arms.

“I just want kids to realize that at this point, voluntary enlistment in the military is something you could wait until after we get a new president to do,” Young told Reuters in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival after the film held its world premiere to a standing ovation on an appropriate September 11.

“Body of War” is a film about the Iraq war, but without footage of explosions and gun battles. It tells what happens to the many wounded veterans who return home with injuries they will nurse for life.

“If there was ever a need to see the pain, don’t sanitize this war. If you’re going to get on your high horse and say ‘bring it on’, before you do, I want you to meet Tomas Young,” said talk show host Phil Donahue, who directed the film with Ellen Spiro.

The filmmakers said they sought to capture a seldom explored fact of the Iraq war. Medical advancements are saving lives, but also causing large numbers of veterans to return wounded for life.

More than 3,700 U.S. troops have been killed since the war began in March 2003, and almost 28,000 have been wounded, according to U.S. Department of Defense figures.


The documentary takes on an anti-war tone. The directors show debates in the U.S. Congress granting President George W. Bush authority to invade Iraq. They flash the names of U.S. lawmakers and how they voted in 2002.

Eddie Vedder, lead singer for the rock band Pearl Jam, wrote two songs for the documentary, which he performed live at the screening. One, “Long Nights” is a tribute to his new friend Young, who grew up idolizing Vedder.

And then there are the frank, honest shots of painful rehabilitation, showing Young getting a catheter inserted to drain his urine.

He also speaks about the cocktail of drugs he must take to help with nausea and pain, his inability to control basic bodily functions and his divorce from a wife who had pledged to devote her life in taking care of him.

He grows frustrated while learning about his paralyzed body. But he also retains a sense of humor, insisting that neither he nor the directors wanted the movie to be overly depressing.

“If you try to make them smile at the same time you’re making them think, maybe it sinks in a little better,” Young said.

For blogs about the Toronto Film Festival, please see: here