Every July 4th I think of Ron Kovic, the Marine sergeant who was wounded and paralyzed in Vietnam on January 20, 1968. Kovic is best known as the author of the memoir Born on the Fourth of July, which became an Academy Award-winning film directed by Oliver Stone. I find both the book and the film to be among the most powerful statements about war, patriotism, and courage.
The warrior Ron Kovic celebrates his 70th birthday this July 4, 2016. His lifelong dedication for veterans and peace are now legendary. Speaking at the 40th anniversary of having been shot and paralyzed in the Vietnam War (2008), Kovic 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."
Of course, Ron Kovic is one of the most celebrated American anti-war activists and proponents for improved conditions at Veterans Affairs hospitals. He has written a new book titled Hurricane Street that chronicles his sobering reflections on the past treatment of America’s injured war veterans.
Kovic began to discuss his situation with other patients and soon realized that the poor treatment he had witnessed was a universal problem that demanded reform. In the spring of 1973, he organized a group called the Patients’/Workers’ Rights Committee, which was a success among young Vietnam veterans but became the anathema of older vets and hospital administrators.
Kovic and his fellow veterans succeeded in making the changes they sought, but the group fell apart after Kovic went home to New York. Then, it received new life after he returned to Southern California that fall.
At that time, Kovic, was an outpatient who was living on Hurricane Street in Marina del Rey at the time. He was tormented by nightmares and a sense of injustice. In his opinion, those who had made great sacrifices were shabbily treated and cared for. This led to the author creating the American Veterans Movement and beginning to look for ways to publicize the plight of wounded veterans at the national level.
Kovic's search led him to the idea of occupying California senator Alan Cranston’s office with other AVM members. The sit-in quickly developed into a 17-day hunger strike in which veterans demanded a meeting with Donald Johnson, the head of the Veterans Administration. The men refused to leave until Cranston and VA officials answered their call for better healthcare at the Long Beach Veterans Administration Hospital’s spinal cord injury unit and other hospitals in the U.S.
(Kirkus review of Hurricane Street by Ron Kovic. April 11, 2016.)
Ron Kovic has never been a man to mince words. In Hurricane Street, he speaks with candor about a short-lived but important movement and the men who made it happen. The books is a raw expose on the cost of war.
Speaking of the sit-in at Cranston's office, Kovic writes that the senator’s office was like a MASH unit, mattresses everywhere. A supportive friend tended to the men’s needs, even as the physically injured and psychically wounded vets bickered over who was in charge and how best to make their case. They were riven with pain, depression, guilt, anger, paranoia and fear of enduring lifelong disabilities.
Kovic relates ...
“Bottles of saline solution dangle from IV poles as Sharon scurries around the room emptying bags filled with urine...We have literally transformed Senator Cranston’s office into a make shift VA hospital ward. All the medical supplies that Eddie got are now lined up perfectly along the office windowsill: twenty-four irrigation-solution bottles, eleven boxes of latex rubber gloves, sixty tubes of lubricant for cleaning out our rear ends, six dozen plastic bags to put the crap in…
“Twenty-six catheter-change kits used to insert the catheters into our penises and inflate the little plastic bulbs inside our bladders, enabling us to urinate without wetting our pants. Several boxes of government diapers have been added for those who are incontinent.”
The story of Hurricane Street has been burning inside Kovic for years. He’d begun writing it, moved to other topics, then circled back again but still couldn’t see it through. The breakthrough came one morning several years ago.
“He told me the story,” says Kovic's girlfriend TerriAnn Ferren , to whom Kovic dedicated his new book. “He just started talking and I thought quite frankly that he was making up a story as he went along...He said, ‘No, it’s all true.’
“I just couldn’t believe it and I said, ‘You have to write this down. Honey, this is history.’”
And the Fourth of July, being Kovic's birthday, comes alive once more in Hurricane Street as he speaks of being at his AVM protest at Meridian Hill Park.
Kovic writes ...
"As night comes over our makeshift campsite, I transfer out of my wheelchair and onto my rubber mattress, and sometime around nine p.m. we all watch the great fireworks display above the Mall—rockets bursting in air, strings of firecrackers exploding, Roman candles popping, children with their sparklers turning night into day, reminding me of so many other Fourth of Julys when I was a boy growing up in Massapequa. Hundreds of thousands of people have traveled to Washington today to celebrate America’s 198th birthday, but few if any know we are here.
"After coming home from the war, the Fourth of July has always been a frightening day for me. It is no longer the celebration it once was. The terrible sounds and fury of the night’s fireworks display now remind me of Vietnam—bullets cracking all around me, men being shot, men dying, my own wounding, the exploding sound next to my ear of the bullet that was to paralyze me for life. Independence Day has now become for me a night to simply endure, to take cover, to get into the house, shut all the windows and doors, turn up the TV really loud, place my fingers in my ears, and try to survive.
"I snap back to the present as the explosions become less frequent, until finally it is quiet and another Fourth of July has ended."
(Ron Kovic. Hurricane Street. 2016.)
Make no mistake, Ron Kovic is unflinching in his anti-war stand. He opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he steadfastly delares, “We need to be more thoughtful before we send another young American service person off to be involved in wars that need not be fought.”
Kovic continues to speak honestly about the story of Vietnam veterans who felt betrayed, defeated and divided, but came together “and ultimately triumphed.”
And, although he views veteran care as better now than in the 1970s, Kovic says more improvements and a greater commitment are needed, especially given delays in treatment and the unacceptably high rates of suicide among veterans. He still has plans and goals to meet for the struggle.
In his undying integrity, Kovic writes that he no longer feels sorry for himself and no longer grieves as he did 48 years ago. Still, when he makes his regular hospital visits for treatment, he aches to leave quickly and return to the life he has made for himself.
“A man needs his dignity no matter how much he has lost,” he writes. “I am so grateful to be alive.
(Steve Lopez. “The Vietnam warrior who wrote 'Born on the Fourth of July' recounts another fight.” The Los Angeles Times. June 26, 2016.)
And H.L. Mencken and Ernie Pyle award-winning reporter Steve Lopez says of the stoic Kovic …
“His shoulders are worn out after nearly a half a century of hoisting himself in and out of the chair.
“And yet, to hear him tell it, he leads a relatively normal life. He writes, drives a specially equipped van, visits friends, goes to favorite restaurants. He got dreamy-eyed when he talked about girlfriend TerriAnn Ferren (celebrating their 9th anniversary together this year), who works at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center and writes a weekly column for the Torrance Tribune.”
May you stay forever young, Ron Kovic. Keep fighting the good fight and dreaming those wonderful dreams.