A soldier, Young was just 21 when the September 11 attacks on the U.S. hit. He was inspired to enlist in the Army by George W. Bush to, as Young put it, “exact some form of retribution” on those responsible for the attacks. He enlisted on September 13. After training, he was sent to fight in Iraq — which country had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. On his fifth day there, while patrolling in an open, unarmored Humvee, he was shot in an ambush, and left paralyzed from his mid-chest down. While in the hospital stateside, one of the people he met was former talk show host Phil Donahue. “Tomas was paralyzed from the nipples down; that meant he would never walk again,” Donahue says. “He couldn’t cough. You use your abdominal muscles to cough. There’s no power over anything from his chest down. Twenty-four years old. Prime-of-life male. Impotent. The first thing you think is why him and not me,” Donahue said. “I thought people should see this. I believe that if you’re sending young men and women to war, you should show the pain. So I decided to make this film.” The film was Body of War, a 2007 documentary about Young’s short military career, and its aftermath, produced and directed by Donahue and Ellen Spiro.
Once out of the hospital, Young became one of the earliest Iraq war veterans to publicly protest the war, and to talk other young people out of enlisting in the military. He also fought the Department of Veterans Affairs, demanding better care for injured veterans long before the recent Veteran’s Hospital scandal. In early 2013, he gave up his will to live, and checked into hospice care. He dictated a “Last Letter” to former President Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking for Iraq veterans — who he called “the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.” But he didn’t die: he changed his mind, because “I want to spend as much time as possible with my wife, and no decent son wants his obituary to read that he was survived by his mother.” But he did die anyway, on November 10, from the long-term consequences of his wounds. He was 34. He was survived by his mother. “He always said if we saved one 18-year-old from joining the military, that’s enough,” she said. “And he did.”