Soldier turned antiwar activist Tomas Young has learned how to handle a standing ovation, but the one he got at Stubb's Bar-B-Q one Thursday night last month still threw him for a loop.
The South by Southwest festival showcase had just ended for Young's pet project, the music compilation "Body of War: Songs That Inspired an Iraq War Veteran." Earlier that afternoon, there had been a packed screening of the film that inspired that double CD. "Body of War," which opens Friday in L.A., documents Young's transformation from a traumatized vet to determined protester and self-described "political irritant."
At Stubb's, Tom Morello, Ben Harper, Billy Bragg and other Young favorites had offered rousing sets of protest music, culminating in a no-holds-barred rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" that had former TV talk-show host Phil Donahue, the movie's co-director, moshing in the pit. Young had sat stage right for the whole show, beaming.
But then the rock stars were gone. Young, who relies on a wheelchair since being paralyzed by a bullet in Iraq, left his spot at the lip of the stage and headed for the ramp. Suddenly, the crowd of around 2,000 concertgoers started clapping. Young realized he was the rock star now.
"It was the weirdest feeling," said Young the next day over a late breakfast of Tex-Mex food. "I'm like, OK . . . I'm just me. All I did was pick songs and make a movie. And say some things, you know."
Ellen Spiro, who co-directed "Body of War" with Donahue, describes Young as an emerging historical figure who is coming to the fore of the antiwar movement in America because of his personal resolve and charisma. He's impressed artists such as Harper, who later reflected on the Stubb's experience via e-mail from a vacation spot in Costa Rica.
"It was highly emotional, and an honor to be able to resonate a unified voice alongside someone as brave as Tomas," wrote Harper, who'd made Young's night when he gave the soldier a big hug before playing a short set.
Young draws people to himself. But the sandy-haired Missouri native is more comfortable thinking of himself as a conduit. "I don't care about my own Q rating," he said, using the term marketers use to judge the appeal of a new product, company or celebrity. He'd prefer to argue ideas than hear fans scream.
The "Body of War" film closely depicts Young's indignities and growing resolve after being wounded, and the music compilation he created, a two-disc set featuring artists as varied as Public Enemy, Kimya Dawson and Neil Young, tracks his inner life. But Young's most vivid role is as the embodiment of a war that, Spiro notes, most Americans still view as somewhat abstract -- the new Ron Kovic (of "Born on the Fourth of July" fame), if you will.
The adulation at Stubb's wasn't even the weekend's most startling moment. Young had spent the afternoon answering audience questions after the screening at Austin's Paramount Theater. The film intercuts footage of the 2002 Congressional roll-call approval of the war with disquietingly intimate footage of Young's daily, bodily struggles. One question about those efforts elicited an unexpected response.
"Somebody asked how things had changed for me physically, and when I answered that a lot of the erectile dysfunction issues had gone away, in the back right quadrant of the theater there was a large scream from the crowd. Female screams," Young said, his boyish face dimpling up. "I was not ready for that."
The exchange quickly became a fond joke in the small circle taking the film on its limited theatrical rollout, which lands April 25 at the Nu Art. But Spiro, who's joining Young and Donahue on tour, sees something more serious in Young's moments onstage.
"At the Paramount, when the film ended, Tomas wheeled out alone," she said in a phone interview after the event. "I realized that this process changed his life. And it was that powerful act of being there and someone listening to him that did it."
This is Tomas Young's post-Iraq reality: He's a chick magnet, an eloquent spokesperson for the movement against war in Iraq, and a new friend to musicians he admires -- such as Harper and Eddie Vedder, who contributed two original songs to the "Body of War" soundtrack and frequently calls Young to talk late into the night. In Austin, Young spent his days with interviewers and his evenings being feted.
One party situated Young in the fanciest suite in the Driskill Hotel, enjoying the balcony view over a reveler-filled Sixth Street as activists and music-biz schmoozers vied for the seat next to his wheelchair.
But fame was never Young's ambition. Before he enlisted, he wanted "to be one of the people in the middle," quietly living near his folks in Kansas City, not even making lots of money, just getting by. Since being wounded, he's gone through a brief marriage and painful divorce. Sometimes Young has to stop charming his audiences and clasp water bottles to his torso to regulate his body temperature. He rarely sleeps more than a few hours straight. His mother, Kathy, is his most reliable support. In what's becoming the film's most-talked-about scene, she's seen emptying his catheter.
"When I see him in these places," Spiro said, discussing Young's Austin appearances, "I can't help thinking about his 30,000 comrades [soldiers and veterans of Iraq] that nobody is hearing, still."
Even Young's activism is complicated. A former board member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, he doesn't denounce armed conflict altogether; his stepfather is a Bush supporter, and his brother Nathan is serving in Iraq right now. When Tomas signed up days after 9/11, he was eager to go to Afghanistan, and punish those responsible for taking down the Twin Towers. But he ended up in Iraq, where he was shot while riding in an unarmored Humvee on his first mission in Sadr City. In the hospital, he began to question the premise of the war itself and America's presence in Iraq.
"If I had been injured similarly in Afghanistan, there would be no 'Body of War' film," he said. "I wouldn't be the reason people are coming to a show at South by Southwest. I would have taken my government stipend and shut up, and sat back in my house."
This is one of the lines Young has rehearsed, popping up frequently in his speeches. But the truth behind his stock answers is telling. In a world teeming with would-be celebrities, Young represents an uncommon figure: a man thrust into the spotlight against his will, and adapting to serve something bigger than himself.
"I was never interested in public speaking," he said. "But people tell me I'm a natural. Maybe I should have developed in interest in it earlier." He sighed. "Maybe it would have kept me out of the military."
Whatever imperfect decisions put Young in the way of that bullet, chance put him on his current path. Donahue, a longtime activist, was visiting soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., when he met Young.
Strung out on morphine -- a habit he kicked when he began to realize that he was becoming a public figure -- Young still made an impression. He was funny, smart and politically minded. Donahue decided to help him tell his story; soon afterward, Donahue and his wife, actress Marlo Thomas, headed to Kansas City to discuss possibilities.
At first, Donahue was uncertain whether Young shared his leftist leanings. "If he'd wanted to go back to Iraq, that's the film we would have made," said the 72-year-old media man. "But as Marlo and I drove up to his house, we saw a 'Draft Republicans' bumper sticker on his van. Things became clearer then."
Young, Spiro and Donahue have become a close-knit team determined to take "Body of War" to a wide audience (it's being released in different cities through summer) -- "the idea is to keep on rolling out until there's no more war," Spiro said. The task can be grueling. But the trio's conviction goes beyond the desire for festival prizes or box-office receipts.
"After people see 'Body of War,' the emotional response is so strong," said Spiro. "They feel like they know someone. They know Tomas. They cry when he comes out on stage."
This has to be heady stuff for Young. He's thrilled to have befriended Vedder -- "Like every other 13-year-old kid, when the going got tough, I would go into my bedroom and listen to Pearl Jam," he said -- and he's not mad about the attention he gets from fans. But whatever ego trips he occasionally takes, he always comes back to the heart of his crusade: speaking for unheard veterans.