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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Ron Kovic: Considering "Memorial Day on Wheels"

"I am the living death
the memorial day on wheels
I am your Yankee Doodle Dandy
your John Wayne come home
your fourth of July firecracker
exploding in the grave"

-Ron Kovic

I have read Ron Kovic's best-selling autobiography Born of the Fourth of July and watched the movie of the same name many times. Kovic was a gung-ho patriot who was eager to answer his  country's call to arms. He served two tours of duty as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. In combat on January 20, 1968, he suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

When he came back home, he was still a patriot, yet very hurt and offended by the hostility he experienced from the anti-war movement. Before long, his attitude about patriotism and the Vietnam War changed, and Kovic became a leading anti-war activist.

"Maybe instead of anybody getting up in Congress
and apologizing for the Vietnam War,
 they could simply hold a screening of this movie
on Capitol Hill and call it a day.

-Roger Ebert in his review of Born of the Fourth of July   

Kovic and My Feelings

Ron Kovic's life has made such an impression on me, a person who was drafted a low number 104 in 1969 and who entered college with a II-S deferment.

Later, in 1971, the government reclassified me I-A because I attended college part time. After passing the physical and readying myself to go to basic, I received yet another classification, and due to Nixon's policy of increased Vietnamization, I didn't have to report for duty.

Reading and viewing the life of Kovic, I feel the entire range of sentiment present during the Vietnam War, and I find myself reliving my own young life in that time when an unpopular war so divided an entire country.

Since I had many classmates and friends serve, I have always felt a hole concerning my lack of participation. That is to say, I feel guilty for not serving with other American youth my age during Vietnam.

What was my stance on the war as a young man? As far as politics, I did not really know how I felt about the war then because the conflict to me seemed pretty distant: I was busy with college classes, chasing girls, and working. Until I was classified I-A, I was just "flowing with" the simple plan of my life, and I kept very busy living the "college life" on the home front. When I received my greetings from the President, I actually felt both relief and nervous anticipation.

Information about Vietnam filtered into my small hometown through the nightly news, the college press, and talks with my friends who returned from the conflict. At Ohio University a huge anti-war movement was in full swing, so I was surrounded by talk of moratoriums and burning draft cards.   Of course, many of my friends had already been drafted and had served. After returning home, most wouldn't talk about their experiences in the war although I was shocked when one of my closest friends, a high school fullback and combat veteran, came home addicted to heroin and was forced to spend time in rehab.

My father and seven of my uncles had served in World War II.  And, my only brother and another uncle had served shortly after the close of that war. In fact, I was raised to be respectful of the military -- my family, church, cub scouts, and boy scouts had all reinforced that attitude. Yet, learning of my low draft number, my own father told me he did not want me to go to Vietnam. I did not really understand my allegiance to family or to my country then.

Ron Kovic's book brought many issues of my own life together. Unlike Kovic, I did not serve my country in Vietnam. But, like him, I found some values and "John Wayne hero" mentality challenged and severely shaken.

I saw people in my own community come home from the war in unrecognizable states. I remember watching Walter Cronkite tell the American people in his February 1968 news telecast: "It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." And I heard that President Lyndon Johnson was reputed to have said when he saw Cronkite give that report, "I've lost middle America." Indeed, Johnson did not seek re-election.

"We have been too often disappointed by the optimism
of the American leaders both in Vietnam and Washington
to have faith any longer in the silver linings
 they find in the darkest clouds."

-Walter Cronkite

But, Kovic does not editorialize in Born on the Fourth of July. He relives his young American life: the innocence and the cruel reality are on full display. Through his autobiography, he puts the reader into the all-too-familiar situation of growing up with strong patriotic and family beliefs, giving service to those convictions he holds most dear, and then finding corruption and deceit in the governmental system endangering those it is meant to protect. Kovic is forced to question and face sacred, programmed concepts of heroism, patriotism, and the immorality of killing in war.

 Ron Kovic's Life

In Born on the Fourth of July, the reader gets to know Kovic as a child with patriotic dreams that blossom early in his mind and heart -- dreams that lead him to join the U.S. Marine Corps and then to the jungles, rice fields and beaches of Vietnam. Ron Kovic retells his childhood, high school years as a competitive wrestler, his dreams and hopes of becoming a great Marine.

Inspired by President John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" speech, Kovic joins the United States Marine Corps after high school in September 1964.

Kovic volunteers for his first tour of duty and is deployed to Vietnam in December 1965 as a member of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines H&S Company. He returns home on January 15, 1967 after a 13 month tour of duty, and was assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point, North Carolina. Several months later he volunteers to return to Vietnam a second time.

In October 1967, Kovic accidentally shoots and kills one of his Marines when a NVA unit ambushed him and his men near a village along the Cua Viet River. Kovic claims it was an accident and no one has ever disputed his claim.

On January 20, 1968, while leading an attack on a village just north of the Cua Viet River in the Demilitarized Zone, he is shot while leading his squad across an open area. He is shot first in the right foot, which blew out the back of his heel, then again through the right shoulder, suffering a collapsed lung and a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down. The first Marine that tried to save him is shot through the heart and killed, then a second Marine carries Kovic to safety through heavy enemy fire (Kovic learns years later that this second Marine was killed later that afternoon).

In a military hospital in the U.S., Kovac enters a military care system that is hopelessly overburdened. At one point, Kovic screams out for a suction pump that would drain a wound that might cost him his leg. Although he knew he would never have feeling in the leg, he wants to keep it all the same. Then, a distracted doctor absent-mindedly explains about equipment shortages and "budget cutbacks" in care for the wounded vets.

Kovic recalls the VA hospitals:

"The walls are almost as dirty as the floors and I cannot even see out of the window... I push the call button again and again. No one comes. I am lying in my own excrement and no one comes. I begin shouting and screaming..I have been screaming for almost an hour when one of the aides walks by."

Kovic recalls the American Legion:

"They (Kovic and another disabled vet named Ed) sat together watching the big crowd and listening to one speaker after another, including the town dignitaries; each one spoke very beautiful words about sacrifice and patriotism and God...but he kept thinking of all the things that had happened to him and now he wondered why he and Eddie hadn't even been given the chance to speak."

It took a couple of years for the damage of the war to spread to Kovic's mind and spirit. Back in civilian life, he is the hero of a Fourth of July parade, but there are peaceniks on the sidewalks, some of them giving him the finger. He feels more rage. But then his emotional tide turns one night in the backyard of his parents' home, when he gets drunk with a fellow veteran, and he finds they can talk about things nobody else really understands.

Kovic's life becomes a series of confusions: bar brawls, self-pity and angry confrontations with women he will never be able to make love with in the ordinary way. His parents love him but are frightened by his rage. Eventually it is suggested that he leave home.

Kovic travels to Mexico, where other crippled veterans have sought escape in booze and drugs and Mexican whorehouses. By the time Kovic hits bottom, he is a demoralized, spiteful man.

Afterward, the book shifts, first to Kovic's purifying confession of his sins to the parents of the boy he killed, and then to his transformation into an anti-war activist. This metamorphosis culminates in his speech before the 1980 Democratic National Convention.

Ron Kovic became one of the best known peace activists among the veterans of the war. He has been arrested for political protest twelve times.

On January 20, 2008, Kovic observed his 40th anniversary of having been shot and paralyzed in the Vietnam War.

Kovic, in March 2005, said:

"The scar will always be there, a living reminder of that war, but it has also become something beautiful now, something of faith and hope and love. I have been given the opportunity to move through that dark night of the soul to a new shore, to gain an understanding, a knowledge, and entirely different vision. I now believe I have suffered for a reason and in many ways I have found that reason in my commitment to peace and nonviolence. My life has been a blessing in disguise, even with the pain and great difficulty that my physical disability continues to bring. It is a blessing to speak on behalf of peace, to be able to reach such a great number of people."

The Film

Born on the Fourth of July was made into a 1989 Academy Award-winning movie directed by Oliver Stone (also a veteran of Vietnam) with Tom Cruise playing Kovic.

Kovic received the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay on January 20, 1990, exactly twenty-two years to the day that he was shot and paralyzed in the Vietnam War. He was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. (Ron Kovic and Oliver Stone co-wrote the screenplay for Born on the Fourth of July).

I will never forget the life of Ron Kovik. I highly recommend the book and the movie. Even though the film has some raw, vulgar language, the history department and the English department of the high school where I taught (with the grace of parental permission slips) offered an after-school viewing during our study of history and literature related to the Vietnam War. I believe the movie made quite an impact on the students.

Each time something makes me remember the book, I think about a man's most basic and tragic physical loss and how it relates to Ron Kovic, once a strong, virile young man. Consider the loss on the observance of this Memorial Day. You may understand the line above: "I am the living death."

“I want a woman, Dad.
I want somebody to love me.
I wanna to be free again.
I wanna walk in the backyard on the grass.
 I wanna put my bare feet in the ocean.
I wanna run along the sand and feel it on my feet.
I wanna stand up in the shower with the hot water
streaming down my legs, in the morning...
I wanna explode, Dad.
I wanna get out of this fucking body I'm in.
I wanna be a man again...
I just wanna be a man again.”

Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July
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