Tim Gilmer

Ron Kovic Reborn

The day Baghdad fell, Ron Kovic was back in the Veterans Affairs hospital. Not the shameful Bronx VA that Kovic's 1976 book, "Born on the Fourth of July," and later, Oliver Stone's academy award-winning movie of the same name, exposed -- which was subsequently condemned and torn down -- but the Long Beach, Calif., VA hospital. Kovic, 56, had gone in for a checkup at the spinal cord injury outpatient clinic, only to find his doctor expressing worry over potential cutbacks, a situation reminiscent of spending priorities at the close of the Vietnam War.

"We're putting all of these millions of dollars into warfare when the disabled of our country, disabled veterans and disabled citizens, are in need. Many of them live below the poverty level," says the man whose life was portrayed onscreen in 1989 by Tom Cruise. "This policy of aggression, this policy of arrogance, of blindness, of recklessness, I don't think this is going to help America. I think that this behavior, which I abhor, this policy, which I strongly disagree with, is leading this country in the wrong direction."

Kovic was not always this eloquent. His voice has been shaped by war, its destructive aftermath and decades of fearless commitment to protesting governmental policies that support war. To Kovic, war is not an abstraction, not a neatly packaged television graphic -- The War with Saddam -- not a map bristling with colored pins. It's blood-and-guts reality, and he owns it. He's a streetwise activist who speaks like a polished politician -- the cadence, the repetition, the dramatic diction, streams of words pouring forth, demanding attention: "I think this policy is so wrong, and so misguided, and I may be one of the few Americans saying that right now, but I believe strongly in what I'm saying, and I'll say it today, even on this day -- [the day Baghdad fell]. This is a terribly misguided policy that will backfire, this will not stand, this will not work, this will work only against us. This will not lead us to peace and this will not lead us to justice, and this will not lead us to a safer world but a more dangerous world, a more dangerous and unstable Middle East. I think this is going to hurt America."

The Road to Rage

He first spoke out in public against war at Levittown High School on Long Island, N.Y., in 1969. He was 23 years old, still adjusting to the T4-6 spinal cord injury he had sustained in combat in January 1968, still feeling conspicuous in his wheelchair. It was baptism by fire. For a Vietnam veteran to speak out against the war at this time was tantamount to sacrilege, and dangerous: "All week I had not wanted to go because I had never spoken in public before, I was very hesitant, and Bob Muller, who later became the founder of the Vietnam Veterans of America, had finally convinced me to come down and join him that day, and I went out on the stage and there was this bomb threat. We had to evacuate the auditorium and go out to the grandstands on the football field. That was quite a beginning for me."

And an even more dramatic turnaround. Kovic had been a gung-ho Marine who had volunteered to serve a second tour of duty in Vietnam, a young man whose parents had both served in World War II, whose uncles had been Marines, who had been deeply disturbed by growing protests against the war and who had not hesitated to volunteer for a dangerous mission the day he was shot. But his experience in the Bronx VA Hospital opened his eyes. "They used to call it the Bronx Zoo. It was there that I began to wonder why I and the others had gone to Vietnam in the first place. And whether we had lost our bodies for nothing. It was in that place going through the sometimes-abusive conditions that I was slowly becoming aware and recognizing what had happened. And I remember seeing all the wounded around me, getting a full picture, which you never saw, for instance, during the recent war coverage on CNN or Fox News. You'll never see what I saw."

What he saw was an understaffed, outdated veterans hospital teeming with paralyzed bodies, amputees and head injuries. And why were they being treated like disposable parts of a machine instead of heroes? The questions yielded no satisfactory answers, and anger and bitterness grew in the vacuum. "I'm not ashamed to admit that I felt enraged," he says. "God, I gave so much."

Not long after leaving the Bronx VA for the second time, he moved to California, where he was influenced by author/screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. "I remember reading his book -- 'Johnny Got His Gun' -- a powerful antiwar novel [set in World War I and published in 1939]. I had just become involved with the vets against the war, just hesitantly beginning to oppose the war in 1970-71." Kovic attended the opening of the movie based on the book, where he met Trumbo and actor Donald Sutherland. "It was an extraordinary evening, and I thanked them that night and it was thrilling to meet Trumbo. He was one of the Hollywood 10, definitely a man of his conviction, someone I respected." Trumbo, suspected of having communist ties, was imprisoned for nearly a year in 1950 for refusing to testify before a congressional committee, then blacklisted by Hollywood until the late 1960s. "I really think his book influenced the very heart and soul of my writing of 'Born on the Fourth of July.'"

The year prior to the release of the film version of "Johnny Got His Gun," National Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four and wounding nine. To this day Kovic maintains a close connection with Kent State students. In the late 1970s he was arrested for protesting the desecration of the site of the massacre and has spoken on campus a number of times, primarily on the anniversary of the shootings. "I was deeply affected by what happened on that date," he says, referring to May 4, 1970 -- one of the darkest days of the Vietnam era, on a par with the infamous My Lai massacre.

As if witnessing this kind of government-sanctioned madness weren't enough, Kovic had to deal with his own personal My Lai -- his platoon had killed innocent villagers. Babies. And then there was the young corporal from Georgia, who Kovic accidentally shot and killed in a chaotic firefight.

Add to this the allure of fate: The most important dates in Kovic's life coincided with two of his country's most important historic dates. Most people know the significance of his birthdate from his book or Stone's movie, but many do not know that he was shot and paralyzed, in effect reborn as a paralyzed vet, the same day Martin Luther King Jr. celebrated his last birthday. He would later choose King as his model for nonviolent protest in the streets.

That Kovic's birthday falls on the same day his country celebrates the birth of democracy goes beyond mere coincidence. As a child, year after year he celebrated Independence Day as the high point of his life: "We'd eat lots of ice cream and watermelon and I'd open up all the presents and blow out the candles on the big red, white and blue birthday cake," he writes in his book, "and then we'd all sing 'Happy Birthday' and 'I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy.'" The same kids who attended his birthday party played make-believe war with him in the woods on the outskirts of Massapequa, a small town on Long Island. "I grew up with Sergeant Rock comic books and John Wayne in 'Sands of Iwo Jima' and Audie Murphy [decorated war hero-turned-actor] in 'To Hell and Back.' I had grown up with a strong conditioning concerning the military."

In 1972, protesting with other Vietnam vets at President Richard M. Nixon's campaign headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, he was thrown from his chair and kicked, then jailed -- by undercover police pretending to be protesting war veterans. That same year at the Republican National Convention in Miami, while attempting to shout down Nixon, he and other veterans against the war were forcibly removed from the convention hall. Moments later, a man who would later become the first president of the United States to resign rather than be removed from office because of criminal activity smiled and waved to supporters amid chants of "Four more years! Four more years!"

Little wonder -- when all these influences are combined -- that Kovic's autobiography -- published on the 200th anniversary of the nation -- opens with his darkly ironic poem:

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