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Sat December 28, 2013
Around the Nation

Injured Veteran Keeps Up His Fight, Deciding To Live

Originally published on Sat December 28, 2013 5:54 pm

A spinal injury left Iraq War veteran Tomas Young paralyzed below the waist in 2004. Further medical complications a few years later made him quadriplegic.

Although Young had enlisted two days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he became an outspoken anti-war activist.

KCUR's Frank Morris spoke with him in April, after Young announced he would refuse medication and his feeding tube until he died.

"I decided that I was no longer going to watch myself deteriorate," Young said at the time.

But somewhere along the way, he had a change of heart.

"I just came to the conclusion that I wanted some more time with my wife," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. "And I decided that I really don't have the chutzpah to go ahead and do away with myself."

Claudia Cuellar has been "an amazing wife," he says. "Everything a man could ask for in a partner, I have found in a 5-foot-2-and-a-half-inch Colombian woman that is just a spitfire and incredible."

But Cuellar says she's the lucky one.

"Even though I'm technically his caregiver, he's really the one that's carried me. He's been so — as a partner — so patient with me," she says. "I'm kind of, a little bit on the crazy side. He's just given me the space to be myself. So we definitely feel like it's a joint partnership, like we're here to support each other as human beings."

The couple now lives in Portland, Ore. On New Year's Eve, they are going to a party at the Portland Art Museum.

"We're really excited about dressing up and just rolling over one block to the museum and, you know, having a good time and looking forward to whatever time we can be together," Cuellar says.

Young says he wants those who are following his story to know he's "hanging in there."

"If you're in life and you start to think things are a little too rough to handle," he says, "just think of me and what I go through, and you realize that hey, I don't have it so bad."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Now, another check in on a story we brought you back in April. We met Tomas Young, an Iraq War veteran whose spinal injury left him paralyzed below the waist. Further medical complications made him a quadriplegic. This is how KCUR's Frank Morris told the story.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The documentary "Body of War" follows Young's activism and physical struggles. In this scene, his mom, Cathy Smith, tries to attach a urine catheter in the back of a car.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BODY OF WAR")

TOMAS YOUNG: Hey, mom. Mom. We generally tend to watch what goes on up there.

CATHY SMITH: I'm trying to move it so it doesn't just go everywhere.

YOUNG: Good plan.

I'm glad that it came out, and people saw the reality of war.

MORRIS: Young now spends most of his time here, lying flat on his back smoking in his dimly lit bedroom in Kansas City.

YOUNG: But now, I can't even watch it because it serves as a reminder of what I used to be able to do.

RATH: So facing that grim circumstance, Tomas Young chose to give up. He said he would refuse medication and his feeding tube until he died. That's how our story ended in April. But we've since learned that somewhere along the way, Tomas Young had a change of heart. He's now living in Portland, Oregon, and that's where we reached him.

YOUNG: Well, I just came to the conclusion that I wanted some more time with my wife. And I decided that I really don't have the chutzpah to go ahead and do away with myself.

RATH: If you're having trouble understanding him, he said he didn't have the chutzpah to do away with himself, and he wanted some more time with his wife, Claudia Cuellar.

YOUNG: She has been an amazing wife. Everything a man could ask for in a partner, I have found in a five-foot, two-and-a-half inch Colombian woman that is just a spitfire and incredible.

CLAUDIA CUELLAR: Even though I'm technically his caregiver, he's really the one that's carried me. You know, he's been so - as a partner, so patient with me. You know, I'm kind of a little bit on the crazy side. And so he's just given me the space to be myself. So we definitely feel like it's a joint partnership, like we're here to support each other as human beings.

RATH: And what are your feelings looking forward to, you know, as we're about to start a new year?

CUELLAR: Well, we're excited to be in Portland. And we're looking forward - the Portland Art Museum is doing a big New Year's event. We're going to the party, and we're really excited about dressing up and just rolling over one block to the museum and, you know, having a good time and looking forward to, you know, whatever time we can be together.

RATH: And after all we've heard about what you guys have been through, it's so nice to think about the two of you going to a party.

CUELLAR: Yeah. Yeah. I was thinking maybe he should wear like a tuxedo T-shirt and like velour blazer with a fedora. So we're going to go to the haberdasher later. And then I'm trying to decide my outfit.

RATH: Nice.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: (Unintelligible) she just sounds like it.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: Tomas, before I let you go, is there anything else that you would like to say to all of us who have been following you and your story?

YOUNG: Well, I would say I'm hanging in there. And if you're in life and you start to think things are a little too rough to handle, just think of me and what I go through, and you realize that, hey, I don't have it so bad.

RATH: Tomas and Claudia, thank you so much for speaking with us.

YOUNG: Thank you.

CUELLAR: OK. Thank you. Happy New Year.

RATH: Happy New Year. Best of luck to both of you in 2014. Thank you.

YOUNG: Bye. Bye.

CUELLAR: OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.