A Tale of Two Soldiers

 

Pfc. Tomas Young sat cross-legged in the back of the truck as it raced through the Baghdad ghetto of Sadr City. A Kansas City native, Young was one of 25 soldiers jostling like bowling pins in a truck made to hold 18. Only a waist-high metal guard — like what you might see on a cattle truck — stood between them and snipers lurking on rooftops.

His truck was part of a convoy rushing back to Camp War Eagle. They had just saved two soldiers from an ambush.
Insurgents had blocked their path, clogging the streets with burning tires that filled the sky with acrid smoke. To avoid the roadblocks, Young’s convoy banged through a maze of potholed side streets. They slogged through puddles of sewage in alleys. Finally they found an opening, a main drag that would take them to base.

As the trucks turned onto the boulevard, snipers opened fire from above. The truck that Young was riding in took a hail of bullets. Young could hear screaming around him. His fellow soldiers were so packed together that he had no idea who had been shot. He pointed his M-16 rifle toward the street, but the mess of soldiers blocked his aim.

Young wasn’t supposed to be there. He had taken a desk job months earlier with Army’s 1st Infantry Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas. He should have been back at base, monitoring communications. But this was April 4, 2004, the day insurgents followed Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s command to “terrorize your enemy.” Militiamen wearing coordinated green headbands and brandishing machine guns overpowered Iraqi-run police stations. They burned tires and blockaded their own streets to keep U.S. troops at bay. Then they scattered themselves on rooftops to fire grenades and bullets at passing American soldiers.

Young’s regiment had been in Iraq only five days, but when American patrols started getting overrun, commanding officers ordered every available gun into the field. To Young, the whole mission felt botched. His truck wasn’t supposed to leave base. Everybody knew it would overheat. The vehicle had no armor. It lacked even a fabric canopy, giving snipers a clear line of fire.

Before Young could squeeze off a shot, a round slammed into the front of his left shoulder. The bullet found a spot unprotected by the flak jacket that shielded his chest and back. The high-powered blast sliced diagonally through his torso and blasted out the opposite side of his back. It lodged in the back plate of his kevlar vest. Young’s body went numb. He saw himself drop his M-16. He reached for the weapon, but his arms wouldn’t move. He tried again. Nothing happened.

Across town, one of Young’s best friends, Pvt. Riley Soden, also from Kansas City, was about to be outmatched in a firefight of his own.

Soden had just finished escorting a general through downtown Baghdad. He was at chow when he heard an emergency call over the radio. “Contact. Contact,” the dispatcher shouted. “We have people that are wounded.” His truck was the fifth transport in a phalanx of Hummers and Bradley Fighting Vehicles dispatched to restore order. Soden took his place behind a machine gun mounted on the flatbed of a modified Humvee.

Outside the base, Sadr City felt like a ghost town. Up and down each block, insurgents hid inside buildings, on rooftops and around street corners. Soden was heading into an ambush.

All at once, the insurgents opened fire. Bullets buzzed past Soden like a swarm of angry bees. Nearby, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded. He fed a belt of pencil-sized ammo into his weapon. Grabbing both handles, he unloaded.

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Like Young’s truck, Soden’s vehicle was supposed to have protection. The truck bed should have been lined with sandbags held up by plywood railings. But sandbags slowed the truck down too much, so they had been replaced with bottled water and packages of MREs. Bullets splintered the wood railings, showering Soden with water and debris. In minutes, the tires had been blown. The driver retreated back to base, rolling on rims.

Soden went down an instant later. It was like someone had kicked his feet out from under him. He landed hard on his butt in the damp truck bed. He thought, Man, what the hell happened? Then the pain hit. In his left foot was a hole the size of a sink drain, clogged with shreds of boot and blood.

By sunset, eight soldiers had been killed, making this one of the deadliest days since the beginning of the war. One of the fallen included Casey Sheehan, whose death would inspire his mom, Cindy, to become the war’s most famous protester. Among the estimated 50 wounded U.S. troops that day were Young and Soden. Either could easily have bled to death in the desert.

Surviving would hold its own challenges. At times, it would seem worse than dying.

A few hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve in 2003, Young and Soden wedged themselves on a long bench seat among a handful of friends at McCoy’s Public House in Westport. Joining them were Young’s little brother, Nathan, a soldier at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, and a few high school buddies. Young, a compact redhead who wore his hair high and tight, bore a striking resemblance to actor Seth Green, and with his stocky friends surrounding him, the group looked like a Hollywood entourage.

Young was always positive and animated. The thickly built Soden was more soft-spoken. With his shaved head and tattoo-covered arms, he looked tougher than a character from Platoon. Their pre-game drinking had started hours earlier at the nearby Holiday Inn. Though they knew they would deploy soon for Iraq, no one talked about it much. Young drank heavily and smoked cigarettes to stay awake. Near midnight, Young stood up, leaving abruptly for the hotel.
“We should go after him,” one of the friends said.

“No, he’s fine,” Soden countered. “He knows what he’s doing.”

Though the men grew up in widely different social orbits, they had learned to trust each other completely, and Soden knew that his friend valued being alone. Growing up in the Northland, Young was a kid who shunned anything organized. He was in gifted programs but wasn’t studious. He played street basketball but not varsity. He was a fringe kid who read Hunter S. Thompson and the beat poets. While he was still in high school, a recruiter sold him on an adolescent fantasy of army life: free travel and foreign women. Young enrolled in the reserves while still attending Winnetonka High School. He was supposed to complete basic training in the summer of ’97, then be assigned a post after graduation the following year. But the Army expelled him from basic training because he had shoulder tendonitis. His plans ruined, he ended up in dead-end jobs at Kmart and Office Max.

Soden, meanwhile, grew up splitting time between his divorced parents, bouncing from his mom’s Valentine neighborhood to his dad’s place in Prairie Village. By the time he’d graduated from Shawnee Mission East, he’d wrestled in state tournaments, earned all-state defensive tackle in football and dominated club rugby. He also had joined the school’s theater department and earned a citizenship award for bridging social cliques. He had signed to play football at Drake University but switched to rugby when he arrived. He returned home a few years later, feeling burned out from college.

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Young and Soden didn’t know each other when the World Trade Center fell. But they both decided to enlist in the Army because of what they saw.

Young enlisted on September 13, 2001. “I joined because I wanted to exact some retribution from the people who attacked us,” he recalls. With his tendonitis long healed, Young passed the physical.

“It was an honor thing,” says Soden, who joined the following May. Both his father and grandfather had been infantry men. And the Army looked like a good way to earn college money.

At Fort Hood, in Texas, they learned why infantrymen are considered frontline fodder. Most of the other soldiers were fresh-from-high-school grunts bent on partying. Slightly older and with a few years of boozing behind them, Young and Soden stuck together.

By the end of 2003, both warriors had been disappointed to learn that instead of hunting Taliban in Afghanistan, they would be sent to Iraq. Young would later say that he felt “like a civilian who wore green.” When Young asked his superiors why his unit spent more time on janitorial duty than testing weapons, why they were training for desert ops in the central Texas woods, they disciplined him, sending him to pick up trash and sweep sidewalks.

Disillusioned with the idea of going to Iraq, Young requested a transfer to a secretarial position. “I am not ashamed to admit I wanted to put myself in the safest position possible,” Young says. “Because I didn’t want uniformed guys showing up at my mom’s house and telling her what a great service I had done for my country.”

Soden respected Young’s move, though he was wary about his buddy shifting out of his line of sight. “It was in his best interest at the time. It was a safety move for him, and it was what he wanted to do, so I was behind him on it,” he says.

Young felt even more confident in his decision after he met a woman named Brie while on leave in Kansas City. She was two years his junior, a drawing and sculpture artist who remembered him from high school. Now Young had a reason to return home.

Before deploying, Soden and other members of Alpha Company sat down together and vowed to watch one another’s backs. Fighting for a cause he didn’t entirely believe in, Soden knew success in war boiled down to what he thought he could control: keeping buddies from getting shot.

Another AK-47 shot echoed from the Sadr City rooftops. Young watched his left knee explode. He felt no pain, only rising terror. He’d considered dying in battle before but hadn’t thought about surviving to live paralyzed. He wanted to be put down.

“Somebody take me out!” he tried to scream.

His words came out in a whisper. The blood pouring from the hole in his back was collecting in his flak jacket, so nobody noticed how seriously he was injured. Soldiers tended to other men visibly bleeding or spitting blood.

Young faded in and out of consciousness. The truck overheated and died. A soldier jumped out and commandeered an Iraqi bus, dragging Young and the other injured men aboard. At Camp War Eagle, Young was airlifted to a hospital in Kuwait for emergency surgery.

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Young awoke from a medically induced coma weeks later at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. When he saw his mother, Cathy Smith, he cried. His knee had swollen to three times its usual size. He had pneumonia. With a collapsed lung, he struggled to breathe. He weighed 75 pounds.

“It took a week before they told us he was permanently paralyzed,” his mother recalls. The bullet that struck his shoulder had severed his spinal cord. He was paralyzed from the chest down. “Once he found that out, he really wanted to kill himself.”

Smith told her son that he was a war hero and that she could arrange for him to meet anyone in Washington. He asked to see one of his political role models, Ralph Nader, who arrived with a friend, former talk-show host Phil Donahue. He was medicated during their visit, so he struggles now to recall the details. The two war critics listened to Young’s mother explain that her son had been riding in a truck with no armor that should never have left base.
After Soden was shot, he lay in the bed of the truck as it raced back to camp. When he got there, combat medics put him on a stretcher in the sand in front of an aid station. A growing pile of wounded men arranged by the severity of their injury surrounded him. He watched as a doctor in a smock mounted a friend who’d been shot in the chest and started CPR. When the man died, soldiers removed the corpse from triage.

“Who else got hurt?” he asked the men.

“Young,” someone replied. Soden assumed it was another infantryman named Young. He never imagined that it was his supposedly desk-bound friend.

Soden was airlifted first to Germany and then back to Fort Hood for surgery. The bullet had fractured his heel bone and clipped his Achilles tendon. Soden was angry, but not because he’d been shot. He fumed that he had been evacuated as his buddies continued to fight.

On Easter Sunday 2004 , President Bush arrived at Soden’s hospital ward to award the Purple Heart to a few soldiers. Decked in a navy-blue pinstripe suit with a sharp blue tie, Bush leaned across Soden’s bed to hand Soden the medal. Soden’s dad stood beside him, posing for a photo. At the time, Soden was still mad about being evacuated. In Iraq, he’d listened to Young spout off that the war was about oil. Now, facing the commander in chief, he lobbed an unexpected question:

“Mr. President, did I go to war so we can have cheaper gas prices?”

Soden, who says he was high on pain medication, is not sure whether the president responded.

Going back to Texas marked the start of Young’s personal war. On August 28, 2005, two months after he had been medically discharged from the Army, he rolled his wheelchair across the grounds of Camp Casey, a headquarters for protesters surrounding Bush’s ranch in Crawford.

Roughly 1,000 protesters had gathered to support Cindy Sheehan, who was demanding a meeting with the president. Ditches were lined by rows of white crosses honoring fallen soldiers. The scene resembled a political trade show, with various booths hawking bumper stickers for every possible cause. Young was there as a new recruit for the Iraq Veterans Against the War, a protest group he’d found on the Internet.
The field at Camp Casey was rocky and bumpy, and dirt gripped Young’s wheels. When Young couldn’t push his chair anymore, Brie took over.

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While Young was at a spinal-care unit in St. Louis, she had agreed to marry him. “There was no proposal. It was more of a command,” he jokes. Brie would later quit her waitress job to help nurse him.

This was their honeymoon.
Young donned a star-spangled bandanna around his neck. He wore a jacket stuffed with ice packs to prevent overheating. He carried a sign that an artist had made for him. It bore his unit’s coat of arms — a yellow shield with a black horse emblem — and a message. He’d just come from Fort Hood, where he had demanded an apology or an explanation for his near-suicide mission. The officers who agreed to meet with him offered him neither. At Camp Casey, he hoped the president would meet with him. His sign read: “Mr. Bush, Why Won’t You Meet With Me?”

Trailing the couple that day was an independent film crew, taping them as they maneuvered the wheelchair through the rugged field. Since his injury, Young had made some powerful allies. Young’s hospital meeting with Phil Donahue had left an impression on the former talk-show host. Not long after Young returned to Kansas City in July 2004, Donahue visited him to pitch the idea of making a documentary about life after his injury. Donahue found the political coloring of Young’s family situation compelling. His mom was blue; his stepdad red. His army-green brother still believed in the war and was awaiting deployment to Iraq.

Donahue promised to put up his own money for the project. All proceeds would go to the Youngs. Donahue says the nearly completed documentary will definitely be political. “Take a look, America. This is what happens when we stand there silently allowing one man to swagger us into an unaffordable, unnecessary unwinable, immoral war,” Donahue tells the Pitch. “And for all those gung-ho warriors — we want them to meet Tomas Young.”

At Crawford, Young sat under a large canvas tent as bands played patriotic songs. He’d come to give testament to his story, hoping that a few blog entries about him and maybe some local media reports could generate larger interest.

Sheehan met Young and listened to him tell his story. Moved, she put $300 in Brie’s hand and invited Young and 20 other members of Iraq Veterans Against the War to stand with her in the dirt in front of the memorial crosses — an image that was picked up by CNN.

This was the tipping point. Backed by Donahue’s film crew and some media coverage, Young began touring as a veteran turned war protester. In October, he spoke at a Jackson County Democrats meeting in Independence. When the U.S. body count in Iraq reached 2,000, he gathered at a peace vigil at Barney Allis Plaza. A month later, Young, his new wife and his mom marched with throngs of protesters in front of the White House. In December, he attended a Vets4Vets conference in Miami. He spoke at the Lafayette Avenue Baptist church in Brooklyn, New York. On February 12, he landed on 60 Minutes. Young was surprised to see that he was the only dissident in a show about five veterans coping with their war injuries. He was also surprised when the network edited out his complaints about poor leadership. “It felt like a Trident chewing gum commercial,” he says later. “It was like, ‘Four out of five vets support war over peace.'”

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Of his travels, perhaps the most important was in early November. That’s when Young went to Kentucky to support his brother as he shipped out to Iraq.

On a recent Saturday night, Soden sauntered up to a pair of men threatening each other with pool cues in the back room of the Granfalloon sports bar on the Plaza. He wore a fleece jacket and a backward ball cap. His hair had grown long, and he’d sprouted an unruly red beard. As the club’s hired muscle, he dressed more casually than the crowd of manicured men and primped party girls. “Easy,” Soden barked at the would-be fighters. “Nobody wants any trouble.”

Both pool players were tanked on Red Bull and vodka. They reluctantly agreed to go back to their game. Soden stuck his hand in his pockets and watched them. Suddenly, one of them surged toward his opponent. Soden stepped forward and put his hand on the man, blocking his way and pushing him backward toward a row of Golden Tee arcade games.

Calmly, Soden explained the situation: “You’re being overly aggressive. That’s why you are being kicked out.” He pushed the guy through the bar and out to the street.

For Soden, the hardest part about recovery is having been sidelined from the action. At Fort Hood, he had spent nearly a year in a barracks filled with the injured. They were kept separate to keep the healthy troops from getting spooked. Unable to do physical training, he played video games, watched TV and gained 20 pounds.

After surgery, Soden spent three months in a wheelchair and on crutches, and another three months in physical therapy. He says his mobility is now just below average. The Army gave him a medical discharge in February 2005, and Soden moved into a loft apartment above his parents’ garage in Kansas City. He hung an American flag and a picture of himself shaking hands with the president. He put his medals in a display case and put Purple Heart plates on his SUV.

He realized soon after returning that the Army had taught him skills considered worthless by corporate America. “Can assemble mounted machine gun blindfolded” and “Won’t flinch in a firefight” aren’t exactly résumé builders. At night, he worked shifts bouncing at clubs around the metro. During the day, he loafed.

He had trouble sleeping, sometimes flashing back to a real panic situation, sometimes imagining an attack — returning to the trigger in the back of the Humvee or struggling to put on night-vision goggles while under fire, searching endlessly for a weapon that goes unfound.
He battled guilt and depression about not being as badly injured as Young and other friends. “I came out reasonably well for the situation I was in, compared to a lot of guys,” Soden says. “I know the guys that didn’t get hurt at all feel real bad, but I feel worse because I was sitting there and I had seen all the people who had been really badly hurt.”

In early summer, he visited Young at his new home, which was equipped with long wheelchair ramps. “It was really awkward. Not awkward in the sense of our friendship. I just hadn’t seen him in the wheelchair or seen him with a disability. It really kind of hurt.” He stood as a groomsman in the Youngs’ August wedding. But his friend’s injury haunted him. “To help him move, it really gets to me sometimes,” Soden says. “It breaks my heart to see him [injured] because he is such a good friend.”

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Last fall, Soden’s dad convinced him to take a career aptitude test at the Metropolitan Community College Business and Technology campus on Front Street. Afterward, Soden enrolled in construction management classes at Penn Valley. He says he’d always wanted to go back to school; he just needed a sense of direction. “After being a soldier for so long,” he says, “all you know how to do is be a soldier.”

Now he rides his bicycle to class and bounces on weekends. He has told Young that he won’t openly protest the war, but Soden agreed to enlist in Iraq Veterans Against the War. They are the only members in Kansas City. Like Young, he says he’s anti-war but supports the troops because he was a soldier. As for his direct challenge of the president, Soden says he wouldn’t do it again. “There’s still a lot of things I question, but I don’t do it the same way.”

After throwing out the Saturday-night drunk at the Granfalloon, Soden took his usual post by the door, scanning the crowd for other threats. It has become an involuntary reaction since he left the war zone.

Almost two years after he was injured, Tomas Young woke up on a Tuesday and got ready to go to the Veterans Affairs hospital. He yanked one leg and then the other over the side of his bed and pulled himself into a waterproof wheelchair. He rolled the chair into an oversized shower stall, where he sat and washed.

He moved back to bed to dry himself, then pulled on a gray T-shirt and a pair of warm-up pants. The pants were seamless to prevent sores and baggy enough to cover the catheter strapped to his leg. He tugged a pair of low-top Chuck Taylors (high-tops no longer fit) onto his feet. He moved to his regular wheelchair and secured his feet in a pair of homemade stirrups. He fastened a seatbelt loosely across his waist.
He pulled up to a dining room table with a pill organizer. Four times a day, he takes a total of three kinds of pain suppressants, two anti-spasm medications and one antidepressant. He swallowed some tablets.

He lit a cigarette.

Young takes care of most of his morning routine himself. Brie has started waiting tables again, working nights at the Majestic Theatre in Zona Rosa. Twice a week, she takes him to the VA hospital for rehabilitation.

The house has been decorated according to the couple’s own patriotic vision. There’s Dubya toilet paper in the bathroom, a Bob Marley flag in the kitchen. Living room shelves hold his Purple Heart, a folded American flag and their wedding presents to each other: for him, a framed, autographed picture and cigarette filter from Hunter S. Thompson; for her, a guitar autographed by feminist rocker Ani DiFranco.

When it was time to leave, he opened the garage door and rolled down a homemade ramp to a handicapped-accessible van. At the bottom of the ramp, one of the wheels on his chair brushed the wall. The chair pitched him forward. Tossed against the seatbelt, he nearly toppled over. After three tries, he aligned his wheels onto the van’s retractable lift and rolled inside. He heaved himself into the passenger seat. When they reached the VA, Young repeated the whole operation in reverse.

He pushed his wheels along an inclined sidewalk toward the front door. Near the entrance, his hands went numb, so Brie pushed him. The numbness may have been a side effect of the heavy lead poisoning that doctors recently found, caused by the shrapnel in his knee — more stress contributing to his recent mood swings and crying spells. In a few weeks, he may have another surgery to replace the joint.

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Young took the elevator to an office in the VA basement, where he met Rob Garmon, a stocky physical therapist. Young swung his butt from his wheelchair onto a blue stretching mat resembling a low king-sized bed. He reached down to lift one leg and then the other onto the mat. His left leg caught the bottom of the mat, making a thudding sound.

“Be careful now,” Garmon said casually.

They worked on reaching exercises to increase his mobility and then self-rescue techniques for when he falls out of the chair. Then they practiced “log rolls,” Young hooking one foot over the other and flopping onto his stomach. “That used to be a bitch,” Young said optimistically.

They moved to a weight machine, where Young pulled a bar toward him to strengthen his back. He laughed. “I’m laughing because it’s not how it used to be. I used to be able to do pushups, and now I’m doing girl weights.”

After the appointment, his spirits seemed improved. He will practice pushups at home to increase strength — a huge advancement from the smaller neck exercises he had been assigned to do weeks earlier.

Near the entrance, Young piloted his chair past a sea of older veterans. When he reached the sliding glass door, he sped up, passing larger-than-life portraits of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Every week, this part of his visit is the same. Without looking up or looking around to see who he might offend, he raises his middle finger toward the smiling faces: his personal salute.

 

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