The Billboard Q&A: Tomas Young

The story of Tomas Young, an American soldier paralyzed in Iraq, has drawn the attention of such superstar acts as Pearl Jam, Ben Harper and Tom Morello, as well as the filmmakers of "Body of War." No

The story of Tomas Young, an American soldier paralyzed during combat in Iraq, has drawn the attention of such superstar acts as Pearl Jam, Ben Harper and Tom Morello, not to mention Phil Donahue, who helped direct and produce a documentary about Young's experiences. That film, "Body of War," screened March 13 at Austin's Paramount Theater as part of South by Southwest. Immediately afterward, Harper, Morello and Serj Tankian lead the bill for a "Body of War" showcase at Stubb's Bar-B-Q. With the film opening nationwide this spring, Young chatted with Billboard about choosing the material for Sire's "Body of War: Songs That Inspired an Iraq War Veteran" (March 18) and what he hopes to accomplish by sharing his struggle.

Young is now also brings his perspective to Billboard as the new special contributor to our political blog, Audiocracy '08.

How did you pick the songs for the "Body of War" album?

I wanted them to be diverse and appeal to fans of any kind of music. Maybe you pick it up because you like Lupe Fiasco or Public Enemy, and then you get some Ben Harper accidentally thrown into your ear hole that maybe makes you think a little more about a different subject. I had all this unanswered rage channeling through my body, and music is a real outlet for it. Like most people, for most of my life, I've found solace through music.

How many of the songs are featured in the documentary?

Only two, because the idea for the CD came well after the film had been completed—Eddie [Vedder's] solo version of "No More" and "Light Up Your Lighter" by Michael Franti, which appears in a scene where I'm putting my Purple Heart and my complimentary American flag gift from the United States government up in my closet.

How did you meet the film's co-director, Phil Donahue?

I've always been kind of a political junkie. So when I was laid up in Walter Reed Hospital, my mom was there and she said, "You've finally made it to Washington. Is there anybody you want to meet?" At the time, the only presidential candidate serious about pulling the troops out of Iraq was Ralph Nader, and possibly because I was on morphine most of the time, I said I wanted to meet him. He had called up his friend Phil Donahue and told him he was going to visit a mother and son at Walter Reed and would he like to come with? And Phil spent more time, personally talking to my mother and I, and I guess I left an impression on him. I don't understand how I did that under morphine, which is not too bad a way to live if you're in horrible pain.

What was it like to have your life shown so raw onscreen?

In the film you see me being catheterized by my mother, and that's pretty intense. But I managed to crack jokes during the whole thing so I hope people get my sort of gallows humor. At first I was a little hesitant to show too much but I eventually came to the realization that the more I show, the more people will know the ramifications of what's going on.

Why did you join the military?

Right after 9-11, I saw the president talking about how we were going to smoke the evildoers out of their cave and bring them to justice. I guess I've watched too many "Law & Order" episodes. I thought you followed the evidence, went [to war] and took out the guilty. When we were attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor we didn't go after the Chinese because they looked sort of similar.

You want to know why I became an atheist? Well, I became very depressed and despondent over the idea that we were going to Iraq instead of Afghanistan. So I went to the local battalion doctor to see if they could give me something to help make the voices in my head to shut the fuck up. And he told me it was standard army procedure before they diagnosed anybody with psychiatric illness or prescribed them any medication for them to go see the chaplain.

I've always been agnostic, and I went, but I thought, "I have to do what I have to do to get the pills." The chaplain looked me square in face and said, "I think you'll feel better when you get over to Iraq and start killing people." So I stood up and said, "Thank you, sir, for confirming everything I thought about religion. I'm gonna go get my Prozac." And that's what I did.

What do you hope to get accomplished though your activism?

I want there to be a sharp decline in military enlistments. I don't want to see another American or Iraqi son or daughter in a situation like I am, or worse. I want veterans to receive the proper attention and care because many of them don't have the means or the opportunity to go outside of the [Department of Veterans Affairs] system to seek the health care they so desperately need.