Body of War: The Powerful Film that Salutes a War Survivor

April 17th, 2008 - by admin

Phil Donahue / Body of – 2008-04-17 22:52:38

Tomas Young:
Soldier, Survivor, Anti-war Activist

Phil Donahue

(New York City) — 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. Body of War is a film provoked by my own questions as I stood on my functional legs at his bedside:

Who is this young man? Why him, not me?

I had accompanied my friend Ralph Nader who had been invited by the patient’s mother. “She is caring for her son who was seriously wounded in Iraq. Wanna go?” A week later the two of us entered America’s most famous military hospital.

The closer you get to Tomas Young, the more reality sets in. T-4 is the spot on the spine that is severed. Anatomists know what this means: Not only can’t Tomas walk – he can’t cough, his bodily functions are paralyzed, his bladder must be manually drained several times daily.

And no small issue for a male, just married. Twenty-six-year-old Tomas Young can’t — in the language of the locker room — get it up.

This film, Body of War, is our effort to spread news that is not good — news that is hidden behind the doors of homes all over this country. Dwellings occupied by the mere five per cent of our population actually sacrificing for this war.

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. 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”.

Our film also revisits one of the most tragic errors of judgment ever made by a United States Congress. After engaging in a superficial dialogue, robotic Senators and House members are seen voting to approve the Iraq War Resolution in October, 2002. Members take the floor, one by one, reading talking points of the White House Iraq Group, the assembly of advertising agency warriors whose job was to sell the war. It was WHIG who gave the nation a litany of untruths:

Saddam has “unmanned aerial vehicles” to deliver toxins “over wide territories” and scary doomsday scenarios, “The smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud”.

As the War Resolution is debated, our cameras watch as Tomas deals with the very personal consequences of this historic and unprecedented vote for pre-emptive war. It was this vote that put him in a wheel chair. Our film watches him coping with his body, his drugs, his anger, his marriage and his future. Who is Tomas Young? He’s a young man who enlisted knowing he might be killed. He thought he might come home dead –

He never dreamed of coming home like this.

His is a true story of war; here is the un-sanitized harm in “harm’s way.” It is a story of a heartland kid who suddenly went from a social life of single bars and courtship to a daily routine of catheters, puke pans and erectile dysfunction.

I discovered a great American in Tomas Young, a warrior turned anti-warrior, a voice of courage rising above the war drums, a voice to “be heard behind the White House gate” in the words of the song Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder wrote for this film.

To all the main-streamers in the press who supported the invasion of Iraq, to the pundits who continue to talk tough while other people’s kids die, to all the merry warriors who recruited Jesus to assist them in this massive foreign policy blunder –

I have a soldier for you.

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, laptop bombers take a moment to meet the First Cavalry’s Honorably Discharged United States Army Specialist — Tomas Young.

Body of War: The Stories behind the Movie

Body of War is an intimate feature documentary about the truth of war today. Meet Tomas Young, 25 years old, paralyzed from a bullet to his spine – wounded after serving in Iraq for less than a week. Body of War is his coming home story as he evolves into a new person, dealing with his disability and finding his own unique and passionate voice against the war. Body of War is a nakedly honest portrayal of what it’s like inside the body, heart and soul of this young man. The film is produced and directed by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro and features two original songs written and performed by Eddie Vedder.

When Tomas Young saw President Bush on television speaking from the ruins of the Twin Towers, his life changed. Just two days after 9-11, he responded to the call to defend his country by enlisting in the Army. He was 22 years old and lived in Kansas City.

As his basic training began at Ft. Hood, he assumed that he would be shipped off to Afghanistan where the terrorist camps were based, routing out Al Qaeda and Taliban warriors. But soon, Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq and everything changed. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld all declared that the enemy was now in Iraq, and that Saddam Hussein, with his huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, was an imminent threat to the American way of life.

Tomas arrived in Iraq in March, 2004, almost exactly one year after the war officially began and ten months after Bush had declared, “Mission Accomplished.” On April 4, he was sent on his first mission to Sadr City. While riding with fellow soldiers in an unarmored Humvee with no canvas covering, he was shot just above his left collarbone. He later described it as “shooting ducks in a barrel.” He was instantly paralyzed. In his very brief tour of duty, he had not fired a single shot.

Paralyzed and unconscious, Tomas was first evacuated to Kuwait, then Germany and finally moved to Walter Reed Army Medical Center near Washington, D.C. for more long-term treatment. Tomas’ mother, Cathy Smith, cared for him while he was at Walter Reed. This was a long hard process. As he slowly came back to consciousness and a new life paralyzed from the chest down, he began to question the entire premise of the Iraq war.

As he lay in his hospital bed watching the constant TV reports of more and more Americans and Iraqis being killed and wounded, the war didn’t make any sense to him. What did Iraq have to do with the attacks of 9-11 or Islamic terrorists? If there were no weapons of mass destruction, what was the US still doing in Iraq? He knew that everyday young men just like him were dying and being severely wounded — Iraqis and Americans. For what purpose?

Cathy asked Tomas if there was a leader in Washington, DC that Tomas wanted to meet. Since he was a wounded war hero, she felt she could arrange a visit. Tomas immediately said that he wanted to see Ralph Nader. To Tomas, Ralph was the only national leader speaking out about getting the troops back from Iraq.

So Cathy did some research and tracked down the phone number for Ralph’s DC office. Ralph agreed to visit Tomas in the hospital, arriving with his long-time friend Phil Donahue. It was this connection that led to the making of Body of War.

Phil Donahue is best known as the father of the modern television talk show. For nearly three decades, he interviewed everyone — every sitting President, world leaders, rock stars, top authors — the famous and the infamous — from Nelson Mandela to Alice Cooper to Henry Kissinger. Every day, he presented issues and controversial topics to the American public — from war and peace to abortion and gay rights. A frequent guest was consumer advocate Ralph Nader. TV Guide named “Donahue” one of the 50 greatest television programs of all time. Phil retired from his television show in 1996

During the 2000 presidential election, Phil actively supported Ralph Nader’s candidacy. But in the 2004 election, Phil did not lend his assistance, but they nonetheless remained good friends. Phil just happened to be visiting Ralph when he asked Phil to accompany him to Walter Reed Hospital.

Phil was deeply moved when he met Tomas for the first time. This was a remarkable and heroic young man. Phil stayed in contact with Tomas as he returned home to Kansas City. As he talked with Tomas about the challenges of creating a new life in a wheelchair, his impeding marriage, and his growing political activism against the war, Phil felt that Tomas’ story should be told. Phil decided to make a documentary film about this unfolding journey. Although he had decades of media experience, Phil had never produced a film. He soon enlisted the partnership of veteran filmmakers Ellen Spiro and Karen Bernstein, both based in Austin, Texas; and film editor Bernadine Colish.

For two decades, Ellen Spiro has created award-winning documentaries including Diana’s Hair Ego, Greetings from out Here, Roam Sweet Home, Atomic Ed & the Black Hole, Are the Kids Alright? and TROOP 15OO. She built her reputation doing small-scale unobtrusive productions — often as a one-woman crew. She is noted for her ability to bring a sense of humor and warm humanism to her social-justice themes. She is a film professor at the University of Texas at Austin and continues to be a prolific filmmaker.

Karen Bernstein has experience working with many prestigious producer/ directors in the documentary field, including Susan Lacy (PBS American Masters), Charlotte Zwerin (PBS American Masters), and Henry Hampton (Blackside). Bernadine Colish is an accomplished editor of documentaries for both feature length films and PBS specials. Phil, Ellen, Karen and Bernadine became the team bringing Body of War to the screen.

Body of War unfolds on two parallel tracks. On the one hand, we see Tomas evolving into a powerful voice against the war as he struggles to deal with the complexities of a paralyzed body. And on the other hand, we see the historic debate unfolding in the Congress about going to war in Iraq.

The film opens as Tomas and his fiancé Brie prepare for their wedding. However, because of his disability, we see how the simple everyday activities for Tomas are involved and challenging. War is personal and the film takes us into the skin and bones of what it means to have no control over basic bodily functions.

In many remarkable scenes, we directly experience how vulnerable and open Tomas is as he interacts with his wife, family, and friends.

For their honeymoon, Tomas and Brie journey to Camp Casey, the anti-war encampment in Crawford, Texas, down the road from Bush’s Texas ranch. It was here that Cindy Sheehan galvanized the world’s media, jumpstarting a new anti-war movement. Cindy’s son Casey and Tomas were both shot on the same day in Iraq.

Tomas speaks publicly, gives interviews, finding his new voice and role. We witness Tomas’ evolution into a powerful leader, finding fresh abilities out of his disability and expressing his new form of patriotism. He is interviewed by Mike Wallace for “60 Minutes” and featured in a photo essay in The Nation magazine.

On a parallel track, Body of War follows the historic deliberations in the Congress to grant President Bush authority to invade Iraq. During the fall of 2002, both Houses debated the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Forces against Iraq (H. J. Res 114). The House of Representatives adopted the resolution on October 10, by a vote of 296-133.

The next day, the Senate passed it by a vote of 77-23. In the film, scenes of Tomas speaking out against the war are interspersed with the packaged debate in both houses of Congress, and the vote by vote tally in the Senate. (The vote on this resolution remains controversial fiver years later. In the current presidential campaign, this vote comes up again and again.)

The foremost voice of restraint in Congress was Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, the longest serving senator in US history, first elected in 1958. His eloquent opposition to this resolution is vividly captured in Body of War:

“This is a real blotch on the Congress and the Chief Executive of the United States forever, for having cast a political vote to send our men and women to war and to possible death in a country that never attacked us, a country that never invaded us, a country that did not, I say. did not then, and does not now, constitute a threat to my country.

” I stood and 22 other senators stood with me. No, we will not turn over this power to declare war which the Constitution says Congress shall have – the power to declare war. Article One, Section Eight. So that was no problem to me. I stood by the Constitution, I’m proud of it. And there were 23 of us — the immortal 23.”

In the final riveting scene, the two streams of the film merge, as Tomas visits Byrd in his office on Capitol Hill. Together, they review the historic Senate vote and read aloud the names of the “Immortal 23” who stood against the war.

Eddie Vedder, of Pearl Jam, contributes two original songs to Body of War. He talked to Tomas at length as he composed the songs, “No More,” and “Long Nights.” As the end credits roll, we hear Eddie’s tribute anthem to Tomas:

I speak for a man who gave for this land
took a bullet in the back for his pay
spilled his blood in the dirt and the dust
and he’s come back to say
That what he has seen is hard to believe
and it does no good to just pray
he asks of us to stand, and we must
end this war today

And in the song’s final verse, Eddie sings:

No more innocents dying
No more terrorizing
No more eulogizing
No more evangelizing
No more Presidents lying
No more War