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"They Come Home Different"

A Shepherd Q&A with Fighting Bob Fest speaker Phil Donahue

Aug. 27, 2008
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Phil Donahue is angry.

Sure, Donahue is still the warm, witty and generous man who interviewed thousands of guests as the host of "Donahue," which revolutionized TV talk shows by including the audience in each discussion.

But Donahue is angry, too. Angry at the Bush administration's lie-laden arguments for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Angry at the members of Congress who parroted the administration's talking points and obediently voted for war. Angry at the administration and mainstream news outlets telling liberal critics of those lies to "shut up and sing," as he puts it. He's also angry that his short-lived but popular MSNBC talk show was canceled just before the invasion because he allowed too many war critics to voice their opinions.

But mostly Phil Donahue is angry at the consequences of the war, especially the physical and emotional toll it's taking on the vets and their families. Donahue was so angry he made a documentary film about the struggles of one vet, Tomas Young, who is now paralyzed, thanks to being shot in the spine during his first week in Iraq.

Donahue, who co-directed and co-produced Body of War with independent filmmaker Ellen Spiro, will speak at the Sept. 6 Fighting Bob Fest in Baraboo. On Friday, Sept. 5, the film will be screened at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, to kick off the festival.

Last week, Donahue spoke to the Shepherd about Tomas Young, the difficulties of being a liberal critic of the war, and the corporate media's coverage of the war.

Shepherd: You didn't set out to make a film about returned Iraq war vets-you met Tomas Young and decided to document his story. What was it about Tomas' story that inspired you?

Donahue: The total catastrophe of his injury. I stood at his bedside at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] and here was this 24-year-old, his cheekbones stuck out, very sallow, his eyes were dead. He was medicated wall to wall. He says he remembers. Boy, I'm shocked. I always felt that I met him but that he didn't meet me. He was on morphine; I don't know what else was going through his bloodstream. And as I stood next to his bed, his mother explained the nature of his injury to me. This is when I learned that Tomas was a T4-it's amazing, the anatomy lesson; the learning curve goes straight up when you're confronted with a real live person. This is not a casualty, whatever that means. It's not a number; it's not a statistic.

Here's a 24-year-old male, prime of life, and it is very possible that he will never walk again. And you sit there and you say, "Why him? Why not me? What random twist of fate allows this?" An innocent kid, signed up, saw the president on the pile of rubble [at the World Trade Center], heard him through the megaphone, "Get the evildoers." I think it was Sept. 13 he signs up. His is a bright light, this young man.

By the way, I knew none of this when I was standing next to his bed. I'm getting ahead of myself.

I just felt that the American people should see this. I knew that they weren't seeing this. This has been the most sanitized war of my lifetime. Less than 5% of us has sent a primary relative to this war, less than 5% of us has really sacrificed for this war. And the 5% who have sacrificed are unseen. What you see in Body of War is a drama that's taking place in thousands of homes in this country. Literally thousands of homes in this country. Homes occupied by young people who have come home from this war with injuries more heinous than we've ever seen in any other war. We have blind kids, 20-something. Blind! The IED vaporizes your eyeballs. Women have had their faces blown off. As well as their male counterparts. We have spinals, paraplegics, quads. I mean, this is awful! And it doesn't even account for the PTSD, and the head legacies that are going to rattle around this nation for the rest of this century. We have people who are going to come home from three or four deployments in a battlefield zone and, not all of them, but a lot of them, are going to get bit by alcohol, they're going to beat up their girlfriends.

You can't do this to anybody, I don't care how tough he is. They come home different. They come home different from any war, but when they're deployed three or four times to a battlefield area, they come home significantly altered. And often unstable. And that is now revealing itself in the studies now being made about people coming home from this war.

We've never been this close to this kind of injury, an injury that turns the lives of the injured upside-down, but also the family members as well. The whole family is influenced by this thing, by these life-altering injuries. So with the big black hole left by corporate media, with America now moving away from its interest in the Iraq war, we are left with the legacy of this massive foreign-policy blunder and the people who will pay are people like Tomas Young and their families. Tomas young is now 28 years old. Tomas young can't walk. He can't cough because he can't excite his abdominal muscles. Tomas throws up every morning-morning nausea. Tomas has urinary tract infections. Tomas' pain stretches across the top of his back because of the relentless life of a sedentary person in a wheelchair. Tomas has erectile dysfunction. Twenty-eight years old. Man in the prime of life. What's the sacrifice to us? And the American people aren't seeing this.

Shepherd: Why won't the media tell these stories?

Donahue: All you have to do is check out "Good Morning" this and "American Morning" that. And you'll see what draws a crowd. What's the name of the animal they're trying to figure out? The hoax? It's not Snufalufagus, or whatever it is, but it's something close. You know, we have a corporate news media which in order to survive has to draw a crowd. If you don't draw a crowd on television, you'll soon be parking cars for a living. The coin of the realm is the size of the audience. And as theater owners across America will tell you, Iraq docs are not selling popcorn. You cannot waterboard a theater owner for being somewhat skeptical about featuring Iraq documentaries because he knows they are playing to empty seats. So at least in the theater world, it's an honest decision made by the forces of economics.

In the television arena, it was a matter of politics. You couldn't oppose the war in October 2002, the time when the Senate and House passed the resolution-an unconstitutional resolution, by the way. And it's very important to remember where we were in October 2002. Everybody wanted to bomb somebody. We were so mad we couldn't spit. And this president, using the politics of fear, Saddam has this, Saddam has that, Saddam has UAVs, unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles, Saddam has schmutz that he can put on our crops and poison our children, Saddam has 6 million tons of anthrax and ricin toxin. You can feel the heartbeat of the nation accelerate as the debate takes place on the floor as they read these bumper-sticker talking points written by the White House Iraq Group-just took them and read them. "A smoking gun will become a mushroom cloud." On and on it went.

This president took the nation by the ear and led it right into the sword. And the vast majority of the American people stood mute. It's amazing. It is such a fascinating study in how difficult it is to retain and hold dear and promote the principles of the founders at a time of national-what should we say-anxiety, which was accelerated to a level of hysteria. Ted Stevens of Alaska gets up in the middle of our film on the floor of the Senate as recorded by C-SPAN and he says, "History will show that the nation who stopped Saddam Hussein saved the world!" He says this. This is what you can get a grown man to believe if you scare the people enough.

And so our film attempts to show how we got here; it focuses on one man who made the sacrifice. It focuses on one man who is a warrior turned anti-warrior, something I did not know at all. I didn't know Tomas Young when I first met him. How could I know him? He couldn't speak. Marlo [Thomas, Donahue's wife] and I went to Kansas City after he went home from Walter Reed, and that was the first time I really had a conversation with the young man. And as we spoke at his house, I met his fiance, and I noticed on the coffee table that there were a bunch of bumper stickers; he had begun his own personal political action. And I noticed one bumper sticker said "Draft Republicans." And you know, it was the first clue as to who this young man was. For all I knew he wanted to go back. And that's the movie I would have had to make. It was his truth, not mine. That was my responsibility as a filmmaker here. We talked and we talked.

He wanted to do it. He understood that people who sign up or enlist in the military, almost all of them think, "Oh boy I may come home dead." But nobody thinks about coming home like this. And he wanted them to see it. He wanted them to see it so that when the time comes, whether it's enlistment or whatever may transpire in the future regarding military service, before someone young impetuously signs up, which is what he did, he wants them to see his life right now, at home, totally dependent, working like mad to become independent.

And now as we speak he rests at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, a facility that's part of the Northwestern University hospital system. And he is recovering from a pulmonary embolism. Tomas was discovered about two months ago in a coma, in the morning, eyes open. He had sustained a pulmonary embolism. A blood clot hit his lung and we weren't sure how much oxygen deprivation had occurred and 911 rushed him to the hospital. And after a couple of weeks-really, it's a very scary time; you can imagine his mother. You can't put a bullet through somebody's spine at any level without a cascade of events that just totally whack you out. He had showed up at the hospital about a week before this incident with a totally numb arm. Not only was it numb, but it hurt. And they gave him oxycodone and sent him home.

I talked to him last night. His speech is returning. For a long time he struggled to speak. And that's part of his rehab in Chicago. I talked to him last night. His arms and hands now operate under a significant deficit. I fed him when I last visited him. He can't put the spoon to his mouth. But that is a physical rehab that everyone is optimistic can be restored through hard work. When I called him last night-he's got a thing on his pillow where he can turn his head and it clicks. And that's how he answers the phone. I think he turns it on at certain times of the day and his mother calls routinely. I don't call him every day. I think it's just exhausting for him to talk. But he was in a very good mood. He's going to see Eddie Vedder [who wrote songs for the film] tonight and a Pearl Jam concert in Chicago as Eddie's guest. He's getting a lot of visitors. He's getting a lot of mail.

So we have an ongoing story. The pulmonary embolism is not in the film. That took place after the film was wrapped. This was three and a half years of watching this. I mean, it has been totally personal. When you meet him he's the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning. So it is very difficult to get this young man out of your head. The thing that makes us somewhat feel good about the possible results of our effort here is the people who see our film-they sit there and they watch the credits and they tell us, "My god, I've got to do something."

So we think our film calls attention to the horrible, horrible results of injuries that families are dealing with, but also how easy it is to scare the people. Norman Solomon has a book War Made Easyand he makes the case that if the president wants a war he can have one. It is amazing. We have millions of people who actually believe that those who oppose a war while the president is calling for one are unpatriotic. We are bombing crowded cities at night where old people and children are sleeping. Jesus! The American people are watching it on CNN. We bombed Grenada, for god's sake. And we're standing here and you can't say, "Why do they hate us?" because then you're blaming the victim. Everywhere you turned you were told to shut up and sing. That's how easy it is for a president to go to war. We have got to change this. We have to start obeying the Constitution. We've got to stop this rootin' tootin' shootin' foreign-policy military strategy. Half a trillion dollars a year on things that go boom. A year? Five hundred billion doesn't even include the cost of the Iraq war. I mean, come on. We're giving ourselves away here. We're looking a little insecure here. How much more do you want to spend? Let's get some more aircraft carriers. We're building more aircraft carriers and 19 guys with box cutters brought this nation to its knees.

Shepherd: The film also shows clips of the debate in Congress authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Did you get a sense that any of those folks thought about the human toll of the war, say, about the Tomas Youngs who would have to fight?

Donahue: You mean the aye votes? Yes, but they say, "Dear god, I'm sorry I have to do this but to protect America because Saddam is coming, Saddam has this, Saddam has that, he's outside your bedroom window, he's under your bed."

You could feel the heartbeat of the nation accelerate as you watch our film. You can feel it. He's coming, he's here. John Warner of Virginia stands up and says, in October 2002, months before the invasion in March of 2003, "Saddam Hussein today has far more weapons of mass destruction than Hitler ever had." So this was a superficial debate in which "a gun smokes after it's fired." And then another senator says "a gun smokes after it's fired." And then a third senator, "a gun smokes..." It's unbelievable. They're reading the White House talking points. This is a debate in the United States Congress on whether to go to war and they're not even speaking for themselves. They're reading little mini-lectures. Words like "appeasement" are used. "Oh boy, those dissenters. Thank god I'm an American. Those dissenters…"

And the job of marginalizing, are you kidding me? I mean the progressive, liberal voice is just dismissed. "You pointy-headed people, you don't understand this and that. What do you want to do, sing "Kumbaya"? The dissenters of America don't love the troops and, by the way, they don't even have God." The other side has God, we don't. This is what they've done. The difficulty in dissent in this country is embarrassing. The land of the free. This is where the First Amendment, where speech should be most robust. This is where we should be pushing and pulling and back and forth and searching for a consensus through our differences of opinion. Instead, America in the beginning of the new millennium is a nation calling each other names. We don't love America-hell, we love America more than they do. We believe in the Bill of Rights. We believe that a woman's home is her castle. Nobody should be rummaging around her e-mails or her bedroom furniture. And these people believe they have the right to do that without judicial authorization. People in a cage for five years, no paper, no voice, no Red Cross, no phone call.

This is not the nation my parents raised me to pledge my allegiance to. This is awful. This is nothing less than the dismantling of the United States Constitution. By an administration that believes that all men are created equal unless we're scared. And we have to stop them. And we can never let this happen again. And by the way, if you have to shut up and sing when a president is calling for war, then you're wasting the blood of all of the young men and women who've died on battlefields in all of the previous wars to protect our way of life, at the center of which is free speech. If we're not going to use it at a time when the president thinks he wants to bomb another nation and kill their head of state, if we're not going to use it then, then stop sending people to battlefields to die in dirt somewhere in the world to protect our way of life. We're not using what they're protecting and providing for us as a tool of democracy and civic action. We'll just shut up and sing.

Shepherd: I was talking to my mom, and she was a huge fan of your original show. And we said that we miss the audience.

Donahue: Yes. That was a very big part of us. We didn't realize it at the time, but it was the audience that saved us, really. We were so dull visually. Imagine me and some talking head and Monty Hall was giving out $5,000 to a woman dressed as a chicken salad sandwich on the other channel. "Come on down!" And they were spinning wheels and there was excitement and people were jumping up and down. It was almost impossible to move past the channel. Here comes "Donahue," one on one, boring! Nobody could figure this program out. We had no desk, no couch, no band. I had inherited an audience from the show that we replaced; it was an entertainment show. So here they are, they didn't see anything entertaining. We didn't even have a piano. And here's Donahue, interviewing [atheist] Madalyn Murray O'Hair because we knew that we had to thrive on issues. And the issues better be something that would draw a crowd, hold an audience.

So when the first woman stood up-during the commercials, people were asking better questions than I was. So one day I jumped out of the chair and started running around the audience and, man, we had something that no other program on television had. We had this radical idea called democracy, that the people who owned the airwaves got a chance to use them. That was the secret ingredient of our success.

Shepherd: Your debate with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly has gotten 2.3 million hits on YouTube. What's it like to be opposite O'Reilly and have him wag his finger at you? Does he believe in what he's saying?

Donahue: Oh sure. Bill knows what's righteous and you don't. He will raise his voice and appear to be near out of control if he feels the show is sagging. We-all of us, when I was on the air-we do think of that number. What's our number? Will it be enough to be renewed? And O'Reilly thinks about that, too-he's pretty much obsessed with it. So he will say, "Nah, let's not talk about this. Nobody cares." He's only interested in what they care about. So that's why he does a lot of sex predator stuff. He obviously throws strikes at a significant percentage of our population who are just a little tired of this kind of gentleman's approach to war. "By god, war is hell and let's stop complaining, let's stop whining. We've got a job to do. Let's go kill somebody. Whatever the hell the mission is." And O'Reilly has been one of the chief supporters of this horrible, horrible happening that we are responsible for. The American people have to accept responsibility for this. And I'm not sure that they ever will, and I'm not sure the president ever will. That's the way it works. It's really a shame.

Shepherd: What is your take on the presidential campaign?

Donahue: Well, we have brought the presidential debate process into a house of Jesus. Jesus was center stage at the Warren superchurch, where both candidates were interviewed separately. Were they together at all? I mean, you know-"What is evil? Is there such a thing as evil?"

Shepherd: "Would you negotiate with evil?"

Donahue: This is your presidential campaign. "What was your most? What was your least? What was your worst? Who was your best?"

You know, America is the most religious nation on Earth. Diversely so. We have more mosques, we have more synagogues and temples and chapels and churches. We throw more holy water, burn more holy smoke than any other nation on Earth. And I say God bless us for it. But that is because of the separation of church and state. It's the brilliant vision of the framers who knew that you don't want any kind of theocracy to weave itself into your government because, if you do, messianic people with God on their side will make decisions for us because they've gotten the advice from the Lord, to whom they talk every day and the Lord talks back. So keep this separate. And stop this tripping over your robes. God bless this, that, my dog and my cat. This is false piety and it's a shameless, shameless kind of kissing a baby for political gain in the middle of the campaign. And the American people should put a stop to it right now. Your faith is something that comes from the inside, from your heart and your soul and it is personal. And we should raise an eyebrow to all of these people out there who can't wait to take Jesus to war with them. Can't wait to announce how important the Lord is to them. That is nobody's business. After all the righteous people running across the stage in front of all of those American flags to bless this and that, you know, it's about time that the American people said, "Sit down now. Sit down. Pray in your church. Talk about God with your fellow church members. Don't bring it to the campaigns. Don't do this." What is the point? Are you trying to tell us that you love Jesus more than anybody else? And by the way, do Jews go to heaven? And what is it that you believe?

Shepherd: How will the campaign play itself out?

Donahue: I don't know. This is really depressing. I really don't know. I've got to think that the hostility to this war, the impatience with this war, the Tomas Youngs from this war. We're popular now. By the way, MSNBC is now targeting its left-leaning Democratic young viewers-imagine! [laughs] Apparently the people I was speaking to, and I don't know how many of them there were, it may have been a smaller crowd, I have to give them that, and I was fired for it. They are now a target audience. Hooray. It's very interesting. There's nothing mysterious about this. If the majority of the audience thinks America should become a giant world Peace Corps, then that's what they'll do. It's what's popular that drives the broadcast agenda. Including news. Tomas tells me, Tomas Young sits at home in Kansas City watching his TV and he sees on the screen Britney [Spears] get into the limo, out of the limo, he sees the paparazzi, and all of the flashbulbs, and along the bottom of the screen, on a crawl, it says "Five Americans were killed yesterday in Iraq." That says it all here. There is the electronic graphic visual image of corporate media. That's corporate media showing you Britney Spears on the big screen because if they show you the American G.I.s killed in Iraq it's a downer; it's not something that you're going to stop your channel-switching to watch. You will stop to watch Britney. Not everybody will, but obviously the numbers are with Britney, not with the war. That is the reality of it.

What's your take?

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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