|Ron Kovic, always with a smile.|
What is your legacy? This is a simple question on the surface, but at the core of it is the concept of immortality, which has plagued humanity since the discovery of death. Living forever, at least metaphorically, is a tricky process that requires first understanding oneself. How do I want my life to be remembered when I'm gone? Once I can answer this, I still have a responsibility to remind myself of it every now and then, for the rest of my life. I admire people who make it their mission to leave, not just a legacy, but one that can make positive changes in the world.
I recently had the chance to speak with a man named Ron Kovic. People may have heard of him as the man who served in Vietnam, got injured and paralyzed from the chest down, got arrested 12 times protesting the Vietnam War, and wrote that book about his experiences that was adapted, with director Oliver Stone, into an Academy-Award-winning film. Ron has been through a lot, but what's most important is that all of these things have made him a very determined man. Ron Kovic has devoted his life to fighting for peace and nonviolence.
I am an intern at the My Hero Project, and we are extremely grateful that Ron lends his name to our Peacemaker Award for short films. Ron has also decided to contribute his own money for the prize. Touched by his generosity and curious about his passion for peace, I was able to sit down with this peacemaker hero and learn what motivates him as an anti-war activist. Ron spoke of an experience in his time in Vietnam that made him question the value of warfare:
"I was in and out of morphine every four hours. I'd just lost 3/4 of my body, and nearly been killed. Two marines had already been killed trying to save my life that day. The first one had just reached me and was shot immediately in the heart. The second one lifted me up and carried me under heavy enemy fire --it's a miracle we weren't shot again-- and threw me into a hole. And then he ran off. I never saw him again. 22 years later, when the movie came out, I found out that he died later that afternoon in an artillery attack. We were involved in a big battle that day. I was at the very front of the battle. I led a squad of marines into a village on the Northern bank of the Cua Viet River, and half of my squad was either killed or wounded. I was trapped out in the sand...I was breathing on one lung, had a chest tube inside of me, and they brought in this kid, a Vietnamese boy. A Vietcong. I remember we were chanting in Camp Pendleton, California just before we went over to Vietnam. (I volunteered. I went over twice.) We were chanting "Kill Vietcong! Kill!" We were ready to kill the enemy. And here he was, laying across from me in his bed, shot in the chest only a few days before, struggling to stay alive.
One morning I awoke from the morphine. The lights were on in the Intensive Care Ward all the time. I didn't know whether it was night or day, but I awoke....I looked across, and the bed was empty. I asked the nurse what had happened, and she said that he'd died. We were making eye contact for several days, and I remember thinking I felt no hatred or animosity towards this man who I'd been taught to hate. I just realized "I don't hate you. In fact, I see you in many ways as a reflection of myself. You've got a mother and a father...you're about as young as I am. I want you to live. I don't want you to die." I remember looking at him without words, and he looked at me. I remember there was a real connection there between two human beings. He was not my enemy anymore. I couldn't hate him any more. I felt very sad when he died, and I couldn't tell anybody that because I was amongst all of these marines who were in the middle of a war.
I think back to that connection with him still, after all these years. I recognize that we're all part of this humanity together. We're all interconnected... We have a lot more in common than we think. I think there's a need for redemption, healing, and understanding. I've lived long enough to realize those things and to heal from the war. To commit myself to peace. It gives my life meaning because it's difficult everyday for me, being a paraplegic. It's very complex, very challenging. I have to work really hard at staying alive, on multiple levels. I'm doing pretty well. It's just such a triumph to be able to have a normal life with everything that's happened to me, but, to me, one of the most important things to give my life meaning is being committed to making a difference with the time that's still remaining in my life...I always want to be moving towards peace and nonviolence in everything that I do. Right to the last days of my life."
Since those fateful days in Vietnam, Ron has made it his life mission to speak out against the horrors of warfare. He wants to see the end of fighting, aggression, and dehumanization amongst human beings. That is a grand mission, and I, the MY HERO Project team, and many others would like to help him accomplish his goals of a peaceful world.. If our legacy is an end to violence, then there is nothing more worthwhile to dedicate our lives to.