Then & Now: Ron Kovic


HE WAS BORNon July 4th, and he became world-famous as the hero of an Oscar-winning film. But Ron Kovic was no ordinary movie hero. While serving in the Marines on a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968, Kovic was shot while leading his company across open ground near the Cua Viet river, leaving him paralysed from the chest down.

But Kovic’s real battle began when he returned to the US and found there was no hero’s welcome awaiting wounded Vietnam vets like himself. Instead of being showered in ticker tape, he returned under a cloud of opprobrium, hated by the anti-war movement and ignored by his own government.

“Like many Americans who served in Vietnam and those now serving in Iraq, and countless other human beings throughout history, I had been willing to give my life for my country with little knowledge or awareness of what that really meant,” Kovic wrote in 2005. “I trusted and believed and had no reason to doubt the sincerity or motives of my government. It would not be until many months later at the Bronx Veterans’ Hospital in New York that I would begin to question whether I and the others who had gone to that war had gone for nothing.”

While he was at the Bronx Veteran’s Hospital, Kovics watched the news of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, and, inspired by the writings of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, who had just recently been assassinated, Kovics became an activist, speaking up for veterans’ rights and speaking out against the Vietnam war. He was at the forefront of anti-war demonstrations right through the 1970s, getting arrested at least a dozen times, and he also led a 17-day hunger strike in Los Angeles to highlight the shoddy treatment of Vietnam vets.

The movie adaptation of his memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, became a box-office smash, and earned its director Oliver Stone an Oscar. Tom Cruise played Kovic, and although he was pipped for a Best Actor Oscar, many consider it to be the actor’s best onscreen performance. The world knew Kovic’s name, and soon after the film came out he was leading high-profile protests against the first Gulf War.

Twelve years later, Kovics was back at the frontline when he joined protests in London against the visit of George W Bush, who was putting together his “coalition of the willing”. In 2009, he wrote to president Barack Obama urging him not to send more troops into Afghanistan. “Escalating this war and deploying more of America’s sons and daughters to this conflict is a huge mistake – another Vietnam disaster in the making.”

When he’s not leading anti-war protests, Kovics lives a quiet life at his home in Redondo Beach, California, where he paints, plays music and writes. In January this year, on the 43rd anniversary of his wounding in Vietnam, Kovic posted an essay on entitled, In the Presence of My Enemy: A Reflection on War and Forgiveness, which detailed his thoughts as he lay paralysed in the intensive-care ward in Da Nang in 1968: “Despite all our differences, there is, I believe, a powerful connectedness to our humanity – a deep desire to reach out with kindness, with love and great caring toward each other, even to our supposed enemies, and to bring forth the better angels of our nature – that is undeniable and cannot be extinguished, even in death.”