Born on the Fourth of July Once More
By Dick Price
Editor, LA Progressive
August 22, 2011
If you're a contemporary of Ron Kovic's and mine, pushing
through your 60s, you know his story well. As told in
his best-selling autobiography "Born on the Fourth of
July" that was made into a widely praised movie
starring Tom Cruise?, a working class youngster from
Long Island filled with visions of Audie Murphy? and
John Wayne?, eager to serve his country and become a
hero, joins the Marines shortly after high school,
serves first one tour of combat duty in Vietnam and
then a second, during which he is gravely injured,
endures a grueling rehabilitation in a rat-infested
veterans hospital, finds the temerity to speak out
against the war, and quickly becomes a lightening rod
for other veterans who have become disillusioned as
But it's an old story, one that you've heard before. If
like me, you read his book when it first came out in
1976 - a lifetime ago - back when you were still bound
up in the aftermath of your own combat experiences.
Even the Oliver Stone movie drawn from the book is
more than 20 years old. You saw that, too, after you'd
sobered up and straightened up, talked it all through,
and left Vietnam and all its memories far behind.
And you've heard Kovic speak over the years, in radio
interviews, at an Arlington West Memorial Day
commemoration several years ago, on Youtube.
So, knowing just what to expect, you sit back after
Lila Garrett`s glowing introduction, prepared to nod
and clap at the appropriate moments, and then head over
for cake and coffee and polite conversation afterwards
on the patio with the spectacular view behind Dorothy
But then when Kovic begins to speak - telling how the
first bullet shattered his foot, how the second entered
his shoulder, collapsing his lung and severing his
spine, and how he waited for the third bullet, unable
to move, wondering if he'd ever go home - you're struck
by how peaceful and firm his voice sounds, how strong
and healthy and, dare I say, jovial he looks, sitting
ramrod straight in his motorized wheelchair.
"The first Marine who came forward to help me was
killed, shot through the heart," Kovic says. "The
second one carried me back to safety, saving my life -
twenty-two years later, I learned he was killed in
battle later that same day."
You hate it when other veterans tell familiar stories
like this. What's with the labored breathing, Dick -
the tears, the looking away? You've talked this all
through, remember? You've left this all behind.
Bobby Muller?, who helped found the Vietnam Veterans of
America and who was a patient with Kovic at the
Bethesda Spinal Cord Trauma Center, got Kovic started
as an activist.
"He kept after me to speak to the kids at the
Levittown, Long Island, high school," Kovic related,
his lightly bearded face framed by the majestic valley
that falls below Dorothy's house. "He wanted me to tell
my story to young boys who in a few years might want to
follow my footsteps."
Knowing the blowback he'd get from a still-divided
country, Kovic finally relented, but almost before he
could get started speaking, someone called in a bomb
threat at the school and they had to evacuate,
reassembling at the football stadium outside.
"Here I had given three-fourths of my body to my
country and somebody won't let me speak!" he says,
recalling his rage. "Somebody wants to stop me from
For that moment, the jovial expression fades, the
powerful voice cracks. You see the depth of Kovic's
anger - or perhaps it's his love - that has propelled
him through 40 long years of activism, turning him into
a leading antiwar speaker, leading to Saturday's award,
and making him such a valuable voice in stopping this
generation's senseless wars.
At a time when progressives are under attack from all
quarters - not just from troglodytes on the Right where
you'd expect to find opposition, but from the party
faithful who want to somehow "decertify" your existence
lest you rock their boat - Kovic reminded his audience
of malcontents and rabble-rousers and true patriots to
stand strong, to rebuild and not to retreat. Asking the
assembled progressives to remember how Vietnam ended,
Kovic advised them to get out in the streets and demand
an end to the current wars. "Stay strong," he
admonished. "Don't retreat."
Afterwards, after I had introduced myself and related a
bit of my own history with Army hospitals, Kovic
"welcomed me home." Now, ordinarily I find this little
latterday campaign of one veteran welcoming another
home all these decades later a little corny. After all,
as I have already said, I found ways to welcome myself
home long ago, thank you very much.
But Saturday, Kovic and I posed for a picture with my
wife and his girlfriend, his strong hand gripping mine
as he said for the second time, "Welcome home, Dick."
It didn't seem corny in the least.
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