Ron Kovic

by Betty Bailey and Jeanne Meyers

Ron Kovic (The MY HERO Project)
Ron Kovic (The MY HERO Project)

Ron Kovic is a best selling author, activist and artist. A decorated Marine, he was paralyzed in combat during the Vietnam War. Today, Kovic wields wisdom and experience as a champion for peace.

Kovic was born in Ladysmith, Wisconsin on July 4, 1946 and raised in Massapequa, New York in one of the most prosperous eras in our nation's history. World War II had ended, establishing the United States of America as a powerful nation. Following WWII the United States economy experienced a boom and patriotism was at an all time high.

Kovic and his friends spent Saturday afternoons at the movies, watching larger-than-life American heroes, like John Wayne and Audie Murphy, acting out war stories on the big screen.

*I'll never forget Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back. At the end he jumps on top of a flaming tank that's just about to explode and he grabs the machine gun blasting it into the German lines. He was so brave I had chills running up and down my back, wishing it were me up there."

During the time that Kovic and his friends played war games in a local field, an international conflict was brewing. Communist nations were taking over Eastern Europe and Western Nations were growing fearful of the spread of communism. When communist-backed North Vietnam wanted to unify the country under communist rule, the United States government stepped in to support the southern, democratic, part of the nation. The stage was set for war and when marine recruiters showed up at Kovic's high school, Kovic and his buddies were eager to enlist.

*They marched, both in perfect step, into the auditorium with their dress blue uniforms and their magnificently shined shoes. It was like all the movies and all the books and all the dreams of becoming a hero come true."

Like thousands of his contemporaries, Kovic headed overseas but this was not Audie Murphy's war. The landscape and culture were unfamiliar. They were fighting in dense jungles. It was hard to tell the enemy soldiers from the civilians they were there to defend.

On his second tour of duty in Vietnam, Kovic was charged with the task of training his young soldiers for a mission that would mark the end of his military career.

"I had been shot. The war had finally caught up with my body. I felt good inside. Finally the war was with me and I had been shot by the enemy. I was getting out of the war and I was going to be a hero. I kept firing my rifle into the tree line and boldly, with my new wound, moved closer to the village, daring them to hit me again."

Ron Kovic (from Documentary: A Good American)
Ron Kovic (from Documentary: A Good American)

They did hit him again, paralyzing him from the mid-chest down, adding him to the list of grim statistics of the war. Sixty thousand soldiers lost their lives and, like Kovic, more than 75,000 were left seriously disabled.

The soldiers had been trained for battle but nothing could have prepared them for the type of homecoming they would receive back in the states. The nation's political climate had cooled toward Vietnam. Anti-war protestors were actively demonstrating against the war that these soldiers had risked, and often given, their lives for. There were no movie-style ticker tape parades for these veterans. They were spat on and cursed at with angry shouts of, "baby-killers."

Enduring months of insulting and inadequate treatment at the Veterans Administration hospital brought feelings of isolation and rejection.

"The wards are filthy. The men in my room throw their breadcrumbs under the radiator to keep the rats from chewing on our numb legs during the nights. We tuck our bodies in with the sheets wrapped around us."

It was a turbulent and confusing time for the young veteran, who was struggling to come to grips with his future in a wheelchair, and Kovic was not alone in his suffering. More Vietnam vets would take their own lives after returning home from the war than actually died in combat.

Kovic was losing faith in the war effort but he was not ready to join the anti-war protestors. However, that started to change when he watched young demonstrators clubbed in the streets.

*I couldn't understand why this was happening, why the police would attack the people, running them into the grass with their horses and beating them with their clubs. Two or three horses charged into the crowd at a full gallop, driving the invading army into retreat toward the Lincoln Memorial. A girl was crying and screaming, trying to help her bleeding friend. She was yelling something about the pigs and kept stepping backward away from the horses and the flying clubs. For the first time that day I felt anger surge up inside me. I was no longer an observer, sitting in my car at the edge of a demonstration. I was right in the middle of it and it was ugly."

The emotional turmoil made Kovic uncomfortable with his past, while his physical wounds forced him to question his future. He decided to live alone and enroll in college, as he struggled to find his place in the world.

*I am watching the young couple walk along the beach. They are walking on the wet sand just where the waves wash up to the shore. The girl is holding his hand and she is laughing. Oh I want so badly to be that guy with her. I want to feel, I want to feel again. "

Operation Last Patrol (Directed by Frank Cavastani)
Operation Last Patrol (Directed by Frank Cavastani)

Each morning, Kovic wheeled himself to the bathroom in his new apartment and would vomit from fear and memories of the war. The severe New York weather made it even more difficult to deal with the everyday details of life in a wheelchair. When the opportunity arose, Kovic moved to California with a friend. He wanted a new start and fresh surroundings but the anti-war movement was nipping at his heels.

*I had been in California for about a month when one day there was a big photo on the front page of the L.A. Times-a group of vets had gone to Washington and thrown away their medals. It was one of the most moving antiwar demonstrations there had been. I would have given anything to have been there with them. I read about it sitting by the pool of the Santa Monica Bay Club, wearing a ridiculous Mickey Mouse shirt. Suddenly I knew my easy life could never be enough for me. The war had not ended. It was time for me to join forces with other vets."

In California, Kovic found his new tribe. a community of vets called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. To help attract the nation's attention, Kovic guided a caravan of vets across the country to Florida, where incumbent President Richard Nixon was giving his acceptance speech.

Kovic talked his way past the guards with a borrowed press pass and made sure he caught the eye of national news cameras. While fellow veterans were being arrested and beaten outside, Kovic rolled onto the floor of the 1972 Republican National Convention and addressed the nation. "Can you hear me?" he yelled. "Can I break through your complacency?"

*This was the moment I had come three thousand miles for, this was it, all the pain and the rage, all the trials and the death of the war and what had been done to me and a generation of Americans by all the men who had lied to us and tricked us, by the man who stood before us in the convention hall that night, while men who had fought for their country were being gassed and beaten in the street outside the hall."

Frank Cavastani, who, along with photographer Catherine Leroy, chronicled Kovic's journey in the documentary Operation Last Patrol, spoke of his passion recently at an event honoring Kovic. "I think Ron is one of the major forces that ended the war that he and I fought in," said Cavastani. "His voice, it rang with the truth. The truth was embodied in it and it echoed our pain, our shame, and it let us know what America could be like it were under better footing, if it didn't send these young men off to kill."

Born On the Fourth of July (by Ron Kovic)
Born On the Fourth of July (by Ron Kovic)

Video pioneers from the collective TVTV were also at the scene, recording Kovic's historic protest. The footage, by Skip Blumberg, was featured in Operation Last Patrol and the TVTV documentary, Four More Years.

Two years after the Republican Convention, Kovic isolated himself in the Santa Monica Holiday Inn and poured his thoughts and history into a manual typewriter purchased from Sears and Roebuck.

Filmmaker Loretta Smith spoke about her first encounter meeting Ron Kovic at The MY HERO Project's International Day of Peace Celebration on September 21, 2013.

"I was one of the first people to be privileged to hear him read from the manuscript for Born on the Fourth of July," said Loretta Smith, director of A Good American: The Times of Ron Kovic. "The first night I met him, he pulled this illegible manuscript out of a knapsack and started reading to me and he just knocked my socks off. I thought 'this man is speaking for our entire generation' and, sure enough, a month later, he sold the book to a major New York publisher."

After a month of sipping coffee and working to the brink of exhaustion, Born On the Fourth of July, Ron Kovic's autobiography was complete. Ron wrote in the introduction.

*I remember thinking to myself one morning that if I died in my sleep, someone would come into the apartment and find those pages next to the typewriter and know that I was not a victim, but someone who had been trying to move beyond his terrible tragedy and the terrible injustice of that war.

Born on the Fourth of July was an eye-opener for the nation. For many, it was the first realistic look at the effects of war. The book quickly became a bestseller. Later, Kovic and director Oliver Stone would adapt the book into a screenplay, which would gross $70 million, earn them a Golden Globe, win an Academy Award for director Stone and give leading actor Tom Cruise his first Oscar nomination.

"His story for me, it just resonated in so many ways and his generosity of spirit, I think his courage to not give up," said Cruise in 2013. "The experience that we had together, it was extraordinary and, now, having made many, many films and years have gone on since that experience, it still resonates with me. It still lives with me."

Ron Kovic and Robert Scheer (The MY HERO Project)
Ron Kovic and Robert Scheer (The MY HERO Project)

"It's very much the spirit of Ron in my head," said Stone in 2013. "We wrote the script of Born on the Fourth of July together and we suffered through ten years of it being turned down and neglected and, finally, we got the chance to make it and I'm very proud of the movie." While waiting for his story to make it to the big screen, Kovic started to paint. He created more than a thousand works, primitive but filled with emotion.

"It was a way and is a way and continues to be a way to move beyond my wounding in the war," said Kovic. "Beyond my paralysis and my injury, obviously, to a brighter place, a more positive place, a healing, to go back to an innocence that I knew before I went to war, before I joined the marines, before I was injured, before I was part of the chaos. It's a strong statement about wanting to be part of life again."

With his friend and companion TerriAnn Ferren, Kovic has traveled the world, speaking before peace activists, Presidents, and Nobel Prize winners. He was honored to be part of a special tribute to Bruce Springsteen at the Kennedy Center in 2009 and, later that year, at a Peace and Reconciliation Conference in Rome.

Kovic delivers a yearly lecture to students in his friend Robert Scheer's class at The University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism, discussing peace and media and activism. During the International Day of Peace Celebration, Scheer, who is the founder of the news web site Truthdig, presented Kovic with the first MY HERO Messenger for Peace Award.

Each year, Kovic awards the MY HERO Kovic Peace Prize, a $1,000 cash prize to the short film that best addresses the theme of 'peace' at The MY HERO International Film Festival.

With his indefatigable spirit and passionate eloquence, Kovic delivers his message of peace and challenges us all to build a better future.

Related Links

A Tribute to Ron Kovic - MY HERO Celebrates Ron Kovic
A Good American: The Times of Ron Kovic - Excerpt from a documentary by Loretta Smith
The Ron Kovic Peace Award - The MY HERO International Film Festival
The Most Dangeous Man in America - Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Truth Dig - Drilling Beneath the Headlines

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