I recently finished reading Tomas Young’s War by Mark Wilkerson. It’s the story of a veteran of the 2nd US war in Iraq who came home paralyzed from the chest down. It’s about his adjustment to living with his paralysis, his activism against the war, his treatment at VA hospitals, his friendships with musicians like Eddie Vedder and Tom Morello, and the other things that life threw at him.
One of the first things that struck me about his story is that he originally enlisted in order to earn money to go to college because he didn’t feel that he could manage the massive debt that comes with a college degree. I connected with that logic due to my own experiences with finances and working with students who also struggle through dealing with the immense expense of attending college. But what stuck out to me is that enlisting in the military felt like the only option for Tomas to pursue higher education and that option (after a false start and reenlistment after 9/11) led to his paralysis. Which reinforces my thoughts about the ways in which we push working class and poor folks into the military with financial incentives so they can fight wars which were declared by people who would never have to make that decision.
Tomas’ was a bit of a troublemaker while in the Army and didn’t understand why he was being deployed in Iraq when Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan. That streak of questioning authority continued right up until his death in 2014 and is on full display in this book. He found a voice in organizing against the war which was documented in the film Body of War. Tomas was active in the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War. He made appearances at public events and even held a position in the leadership of the organization.
We see a glimpse of the strain that returning from war with a life changing injury has on not only the survivor of the injury, but loved ones and family members. Tomas’ journey throughout the book is full of personal struggles and pain as one would expect, but the book explores a little about the anguish that families go through with a family member’s injury. Tomas’ mother received several mixed messages from the Army about the severity of the injury and did not find out where he was being treated until a week after he had been being treated.
Just as Tomas was living on his own and understanding how to best live with his paralysis as paraplegic he has an incident with his VA issued manual wheelchair as he was getting into a van. As he leaned forward to get into the van, he had a spasm in his abdomen which pushed him backward on the ramp and flipped his chair. Through that injury he becomes quadriplegic and has to relearn how to do everything.
The story’s emphasis on Tomas’ confrontations with the Veteran’s Administration gives us a brief glimpse into the poor treatment our veterans receive once they return from war. Which should light a fire under any of us to push our representatives to increase funding and improve the conditions of care our veterans receive. Or at the very least push us to consider which of our candidates available to us on the ballots this election cycle have supported veterans’ care in the past. In addition to the VA, the lack of reintegration that Tomas received even as a severely wounded veteran was shocking makes one rethink how much we money and energy we put into turning civilians into soldiers and how much more we could do to assist our soldiers as they transition back to civilian life.
This book is extremely compelling and draws you into the story of Tomas in his early days. When Tomas is on the page it feels as though you’re hearing directly from him. The author focuses on Tomas’ story and even when we’re hearing from Tomas’ friends and family it is all focused on Tomas and who he is personally and what he means to those close to him. The story represents Tomas’ voice and his opinions. It serves beautifully as a biography of his life and the impact that he’s had on the world and then extends that impact because more people will hear about Tomas through the book. For that impact I applaud the author and highly recommend this book for all of us to understand the full costs of the wars outside of the tremendous financial expense. Because it’s not just the final dollar amount spent on the budget (which has had it’s own impact on all of us) but it’s the ways in which our veterans aren’t fully treated for their ailments whether it’s PTSD or a physical injury. It’s the ways in which our veterans aren’t reintegrated in ways that they could be.
The book doesn’t specifically mention a lot of this and there is no specific call to action but the way in which the story is told should inspire movement in the name of Tomas Young’s work.