Two Soldiers, Scarred by the Same Battle, Reunite 10 Years Later

Robert Miltenberger helped keep Tomas Young calm after he was shot in Iraq.

ByABC News
December 13, 2013, 12:16 PM

Dec. 13, 2013— -- One soldier saved the life of another, keeping his comrade calm after he had been shot and paralyzed during a firefight. It came during some of the worst fighting American troops had seen in the Iraq war. Almost 10 years had gone by since the two had seen each other.

Tomas Young was just 24 years old when he was paralyzed from the chest down by a sniper's bullet in 2004, less than a week after he arrived in Iraq. Robert Miltenberger, the 38-year-old staff sergeant, kept Young alive, but also calm in battle by telling him a compassionate lie.

Young was medevaced out of Iraq shortly after being wounded. Young and Miltenberger would not see each other again until ABC News recently brought them together, along with their wives, for a reunion in Portland, Ore.

Tomas' Story: Change of Heart

More than eight months ago, Tomas Young was "ready to go," as he put it.

Wounded Iraq Vet Prepares to Die

After almost 10 years of struggling with a paralyzed body, deteriorating health, a regimen of dozens of pills a day, intense abdominal pain that led to the removal of his colon -- and on top of all that, a pulmonary brain embolism in 2008 that made him even less mobile -- he decided he was done fighting. That decision, he realized, meant he could be abstaining from medicine, food and water for weeks until he died.

But then he had a change of heart.

Young says despite his continued health struggles he changed his mind, deciding he wants to "spend as much time as I can" with his wife, Claudia, who, he added, has done an "immense job."

After several surgeries over the past decade, Young's health stabilized enough for the two to move to Portland from Kansas City in September to start a new life. Not much has changed physically, but Young has decided to keep fighting.

"If it weren't for her, I would have done myself in a long time ago," Young told ABC News' chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz at his new home in Portland.

"Since she's come into my life, I'm happier than I've ever been and I want to leave her alone for as short a time as possible.... I love her and my love for her is stronger than my desire to kill myself, to end my life and so it's either going to happen naturally or it will become too much to bear and I'll end it my own way," Young said, looking at his wife with his piercing blue eyes.

"Black Sunday"

Young joined the Army just two days after Sept. 11, 2001, and assumed he would be sent to Afghanistan, but on April 4, 2004 he was in Sadr City, Iraq. Known as Black Sunday to those who fought that day and to the families back home, Young and over a dozen others loaded into an open top truck to try and rescue a platoon pinned down in Sadr City. It wasn't long before they came under withering gunfire.

PHOTO: Tomas Young is shown here in uniform in 2003.
Tomas Young is shown here in uniform in 2003.

Most of the men in the truck were wounded, but Miltenberger administered first aid and kept his hands on open wounds to try and stop the bleeding while continuing to fight the enemy. No one was killed in Miltenberger's truck, but eight men would die that day and dozens were wounded.

Miltenberger had never been in combat before and had taken only one combat life-saving course. He was awarded a silver star for his bravery.

The bullet that hit the 24-year-old Young found its way around his body armor and under his left collar bone, severing his spinal cord and paralyzing him from the chest down. Miltenberger was not shot, but is still plagued by the unseen wounds of war. He continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor's guilt all these years later.

She sat down with Miltenberger several times since the battle and in 2005 he told Raddatz that he thought about Young and others often, telling her the memories were "haunting."

End of Iraq War Bittersweet for Soldiers, Vets

In 2004, three months after the battle, Raddatz first interviewed Miltenberger and he told her the compassionate lie he told Young that day was the hardest part.

"I had one soldier he kept saying, 'I'm paralyzed, I'm paralyzed.' I said, 'No you're not, everybody's just laying on you.' There was nobody laying on him," Miltenberger recounted, his voice quaking.

That lie told in the middle of combat to try and calm a severely wounded soldier still haunts Miltenberger. He and his wife, Belinda, traveled across the country from their home in Cameron, La., to try and find some peace for that survivor's guilt all these years later.

A Reunion

On the morning of the reunion, the Youngs are watching television in their new apartment that Claudia has made so full and fun with movie and music posters, life-size superheroes adorning the walls, and mementos of their life together. Although Young does go out in his wheelchair at times, today he lies in his bed, his wife by his side.

A photograph of Pearl Jam on stage is propped up by the bed. Eddie Vedder wrote the music for the 2007 Phil Donahue documentary about Young titled "Body of War," which showed Young dealing with the excruciating physical effects of his injury and PTSD, as well as his work against the Iraq war. Young met his wife, Claudia, after she saw the documentary and began visiting him when he was in rehabilitation in Chicago after the embolism.

When the Miltenbergers arrive, Robert sits in a chair next to the bed and the meeting starts slowly and awkwardly at first, but Young breaks the silence first.

"I bared no grudge against you," Young tells Miltenberger.

"Well, I lied to you," Miltenberger answers.

"You were just trying to help me," Young says.

"I was feeling guilty because I didn't get shot," Miltenberger says.

It is then Miltenberger reveals just how deep this pain goes.

When asked by Raddatz if he really thought Young would blame him, he gives a shocking answer.

"No, pull a gun from under the thing and shoot me," Miltenberger says.

Miltenberger explains with his voice cracking, "I just think the worst, every time, any situation."

"I would never shoot anybody, much less you," Young says.

Both wives watch anxiously by their husbands' sides. Belinda has been married to her husband for 23 years and she cries throughout the reunion, overcome with emotion, knowing how much he has struggled over the past few years.

Both wives tend to jump in when needed. In Young's case his speech is slurred since the embolism. For Miltenberger, his wife explains her husband's emotions when he cannot.

Belinda Miltenberger says the pain comes because "Tomas got shot and he didn't."

"He feels like he should have protected them from getting shot. He couldn't stop them so he feels like he deserves to get shot himself," Belinda says. "He doesn't bring it up. He doesn't speak about it."

Robert Miltenberger adds, "It brings up emotions that you don't want to feel anymore."