Ron Kovic and the Continuing Struggle for Veterans

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While serving as a Marine in the Vietnam War, Ron Kovic suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Kovic's book, Born on the Fourth of July, published 40 years ago, discusses his time on the battlefield as well as the fight after coming home to end the war and get better treatment for veterans.

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In their conversation, Scheer and Kovic talk about the decades-long struggle to get his book made into an unflinching movie directed by Oliver Stone and starring Tom Cruise. In addition, Kovic delves into the 17-day hunger strike in which he and other veterans took part in 1974 that led to changes in care for veterans and which inspired his forthcoming book, Hurricane Street

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Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer in another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where I interview people that have been produced by this crazy quilt of American culture, with all its national backgrounds, religions, regional prejudices, racial differences and complex history in this great American experiment in democracy, and has produced some individuals who stand out for their courage, their wisdom, their insight. And my guest today, Ron Kovic, is certainly a great American original. He's someone who as a young man was living in Massapequa, Long Island; I should pronounce that better, I'm probably getting it wrong—

Ron Kovic: Massapequa.

RS: Massapequa, but I know the place, ‘cause I used to fish nearby as a kid from the Bronx. We'd go out in Freeport, Long Island—

RK: Yeah, Freeport, yeah.

RS: We've reminisced about this. And Ron Kovic, in 1964 — how old were you then?

RK: I was 18 years old, and I had just turned 18 on the Fourth of July; the independence day is my birthday. And I joined the Marines out of high school in the fall of 1964.

RS: So you were at Massapequa High School. And the movie, that I'm sure people, some people are familiar, if not, they should know about it, Born on the Fourth of July, directed by Oliver Stone; Tom Cruise plays Ron Kovic in a brilliant performance based on your book, Born on the Fourth of July. Published, amazingly enough, 40 years ago. But let me just back off onto this history a little bit. After being in high school, and you joined the Marines and hit that training—

RK: Yeah, I went to book camp; I went to Paris Island, South Carolina, Marine Corps boot camp in September of '64.

RS: Yeah. And then when were you first sent to Vietnam?

RK: Well, I volunteered, Bob. I volunteered to go to Vietnam; I had never flown across the country before in my life, and I flew across the country, and I spent about a month and a half at something called staging battalion in Camp Pendleton, California. And it was my first experience with California, and about a month later, in December, I went to Vietnam for the first time in December of 1965. I remember standing around a pool table in the recreation room in Camp Lejeune; I was stationed there for a while after boot camp. That's on the—Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. And I was standing around a pool table with a bunch of Marines, and the television was on. And all of a sudden it became very quiet, and they started talking about—Marines, young Marines started saying, "We're going to war, we're going to war." And that was during the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

RS: Yeah, and for people unfamiliar with that history, we were already at war; I mean, we'd actually been involved in South Vietnam, supposedly protecting it against North Vietnam, a country that had been occupied by the French. And there'd been a war against the French, a war for independence; but there were supposed to be elections; they didn't happen. Back in the fifties, 1956, when the election was supposed to happen, the French got out but the U.S. got in; and we got in basically under John Kennedy sending people that he said were flood control advisors, but they ended up being CIA people and troops and so forth. And we kept along, but then there was turmoil in South Vietnam; we had a leader in power, Ngo Dinh Diem, who was a Catholic but 90 percent of the country was Buddhist, and he had come from New Jersey where he was—so it was a whole sordid history. And my own connection with this is I went to Vietnam in '64, just about the time when you were joining the Marines, and published about this, and went there actually several times before you did, but I'm familiar with that. And at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin attack, in August of '64, it was assumed that, yes, there had been a second attack on American ships by North Vietnamese, VC boats. And it was only 20 years later I was sitting at the LA Times, and we got ahold of documents that were finally declassified, that showed that the U.S. government, from President Johnson down through Secretary of Defense McNamara and on out to the admirals in the Navy and the captain of the ship, knew that there was no evidence of an attack. And as it turned out, they had new radar on the ship, the Maddox, and they picked up the zigzagging movements of their radar. And they knew that in real time, but the president of the United States, the record is quite clear, lied to the American people about this attack. And it became an excuse for broadening the war, and bombing North Vietnam, extending the war. And we were off to this big involvement. You were this young high school kid who was swept up in these events.

RK: Very, very patriotic; inspired by John F. Kennedy's call to service, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." I remember how tremendously inspired I was watching John F. Kennedy's speech that day; I couldn't wait to serve my country. My father and mother had both served in the Navy during World War II; both of my uncles had served in the Navy during World War II, or were Marines. I remember having the Marine Corps Guidebook when I was nine years old, practicing saluting in front of a mirror when I was ten, eleven years old. I had grown up with John Wayne movies, Sgt. Rock comic books, and a whole romanticizing of war. And I couldn't wait to go to Vietnam. And I volunteered several times, and finally I was sent to Vietnam in December of 1965. And my first duty station was at a place called Chu Lai, Vietnam. And I was there for 13 months; that was the tour of duty for the Marines back then, 13 months. And in January of 1967, I finally returned to the United States. During my first tour, by the way, I volunteered for a reconnaissance battalion, and I did 22 long-range reconnaissance patrols in enemy territory. And finally came home—I, at the time, I believed in the war and, just like our fathers before us who had won the great victory of World War II, I wanted to win in Vietnam at the time. And I had no idea that I would eventually end up joining the peace movement and being arrested many times for protesting the very war that at one time I was so committed to participating in.

RS: And then what happened was you volunteered to go back for a second tour.

RK: Yeah, I came back from Vietnam in January of '67. I spent a couple of weeks in Massapequa; I had a couple of weeks' leave. It was great to be home after 13 months in Vietnam. But I remember I was sent to Cherry Point, North Carolina, the Marine Corps air wing. And I was there for a couple of months, and I remember seeing a picture in the newspaper one Sunday of demonstrators burning the American flag. I believe it was called [Sheep] Meadow park in New York. They were protesting the war and burning the flag, and it upset me greatly. It was not long after that I volunteered to go back to Vietnam a second time, because I wanted to—I wanted to show that there was another side to this country; there was a commitment to the war and winning the war. And so I volunteered and I went back to Vietnam a second time. I lasted a couple of months, and on January 20th, 1968, while leading my squad across an open area, I was shot first through the right, my right foot, and it blew out the back of my heel. And then I went down on my hands and knees and tried to return fire with my M14 rifle, and just as I was—my rifle jammed, and just as I was getting up, I took a bullet through my right shoulder. It went through my lung, collapsed my right lung, hit my spine, and paralyzed me from my mid-chest down. The first Marine who came up to try to save me was shot almost immediately in the heart and killed instantly. And a few minutes later, a second Marine came up from behind, picked me up and carried me back under heavy fire, and saved my life. I found out many, many years later, nearly 30 years after the fact, that that Marine was killed later that day in an artillery attack.

RS: When I first met you—you know these dates better than I do—we were both at a demonstration—

RK: It was Memorial Day, 1971.

RS: Memorial Day, 1971. And we were at the veterans' cemetery in Westwood, near UCLA in Los Angeles. And I'd been in Vietnam a few times as a journalist, and written quite a bit about it. And I had spoken, and you spoke at this rally. It was a whole bunch of us went to pay our respect—

RK: At the graveyard.

RS: At the graveyard, and there were all these crosses all over the place. And then the night came—maybe you could describe that scene, because it—it ended up being just the two of us in the dark.

RK: Everybody left, and you know, the night came on. And I remember just a sea of not only crosses, but a sea of American flags, if you can imagine that; hundreds and hundreds of American flags above the graves of those who had died in different wars—not just Vietnam, but many, many of our country's wars. And we sat there in the dark, and that was, my God, how many years ago? Forty some-odd years ago, right?

RS: Right. And then—

RK: We sat there for quite a while.

RS: Everyone else left, and the two of us—

RK: Alone in the graveyard, yeah.

RS: Yeah, alone in the graveyard. [Laughs] And we started a, began a friendship that has continued. And so let's talk about your book, because that, in a way, saved you. You went through a very rough time. What had been done to you, and then not believing in the war, and trying to get that message across. And you were thrown out of your wheelchair by police; you were arrested as an anti-war person. And in fact you have a new book out now called Hurricane Street.' It's coming out on the 40th anniversary of your incredible classic, Born on the Fourth of July. It's Akashic Books. And it's a story that really takes place in '74. And when you and a bunch of wounded, basically wounded—

RK: In wheelchairs, yeah.

RS: In wheelchairs, sat in at the office—I guess you had to sit, you were in the wheelchair—

RK: Yeah, yes.

RS: And you had your wheelchairs, and you were in the office of a fairly liberal senator, Alan Cranston. And you were demanding better treatment for vets. Why don't you tell the—

RK: Better treatment for veterans, not only on the spinal cord injury wards in Long Beach, where most of us came from at the time, but we were demanding better treatment for returning veterans all over the country. And I had already been to the Bronx VA; the Life Magazine article, May 1970, "Our Forgotten Wounded," had depicted the slum-like conditions at the Bronx VA hospital. When I came out to California I was hoping that things would have changed, thousands of miles away from the Bronx; but what I experienced at the Long Beach VA, in particular the spinal cord injury wards back in the early seventies, were as bad if not worse than the Bronx VA. And these were some of the most catastrophic wounds, some of the most severely injured; we were all in our twenties, we were very young back then; it was the spring of 1974, the war was ending, the last American troops were coming home from Vietnam, if I could set the particular time period. Many of these men that I was around in the hospital felt defeated. They felt that they had lost the war, but they felt defeated physically, emotionally, psychologically. Somehow, some way, we were able to organize a bunch of them and go down to Senator Cranston's office that day, and take over the office. And that sit-in, which was supposed to last just one night, quickly escalated into a hunger strike, which would eventually touch the entire nation. For years, I thought after the strike ended—and it lasted 17 days; we went 17 days without food. Paralyzed veterans who sacrificed their bodies in Vietnam, had to, had to go on a hunger strike to demand to be treated like human beings. We called it a national veterans' crisis at the time. We had gone to Vietnam, we had believed in what they told us, and we had lost a great deal of our bodies. And here we were in a senator, United States senator's office, demanding to be treated with respect, to be treated like human beings.

RS: You know, knowing you in all this time, your struggle as a peace advocate, for veterans' rights, has really been the greatest therapy. Because when I met you in that cemetery back there in, you know—it was '71, you said? Your memory is much better than mine—

RK: Yeah, Memorial Day '71, yeah.

RS: Yeah, you—you really were going through, as is to be expected, a really hard time. I mean, I was worried about not only would you make it physically, whether you would make it mentally.

RK: Oh no, I mean, Bob, I was going through—like so many veterans who came home from that war—post-traumatic stress disorder. I was going through—I was having nightmares, anxiety attacks, it was a very shaky time, a very difficult time for me.

RS: Writing ‘Born on the Fourth of July,' which is now 40 years ago it was published; it was published with, and received an incredibly positive review on the front page of the book section of the New York Times. And it went on to be made many years later into a movie. And it became, for you, just witnessing this as a friend, a great life-affirming activity. Your political, your peace activism—I wouldn't call it political, because you're really a peace activist—your travels, and it's difficult for you to travel; you know, find accommodations where you can—

RK: No, there's no doubt about it, writing that book changed my life.

RS: Why don't you just tell, you know, how did you come to write that book? You hadn't written a book before—you hadn't gone to college except for a few—

RK: I was living in—no, I was, I had never, I had gone to college for about two years. And I came out to the West coast; I was just so restless. I just didn't have the discipline at the time. I came out to California, I tried to go to a couple of junior colleges; I kept getting thrown out of the schools because I kept taking over the buildings, because by then I had already joined the Veterans against the War, and I was protesting against the war. I had been arrested numerous times. When it was all said and done, I had been, I was arrested 12 times for protesting the war. I went through a particular period when I was exhausted, and I was living alone along the ocean, along the beach in Marina del Rey at 24 ½ Hurricane Street. That was the name of the street I was living on, and it was during that period—that was the first attempt to write the book.

RS: That's where Hurricane Street, the name of your most, your current book—

RK: Yeah, that's where it comes from.

RS: Yeah. I should point out to people who have read your original book, you have now written what I think is another classic-to-be, Hurricane Street. And it's going to be published on July 4th along with the 40th anniversary edition—

RK: --anniversary edition, a special edition of Born on the Fourth of July. But I wrote Fourth of July, very quickly, I wrote it in a $42 manual typewriter that I bought at Sears and Roebuck in Santa Monica. And I remember I bought 500 blank sheets of paper, and I remember the guy at the counter saying, ‘What are you going to do, what are you doing, you going to write a book?' And I said, "I'm going to try." So I remember writing every night. And I had never written a book before in my life. But I knew the story, and I had been speaking—I had been giving a lot of speeches, a few in New York, but a lot in California—I was speaking everywhere after I finally decided to make a full commitment against the war and I joined the Veterans against the War. I was in and out of jail; I was on trial; I was speaking out against the war, whether it was at high schools, at churches, or in the streets, every day was so important. Because my feeling was that this was a life-and-death issue. I didn't want to see another young man have to come home paralyzed like me. I didn't want to have to see another mother grieve because her son had been killed in a war that made no sense, a war that we should have never been involved in to begin with.

RS: And unfortunately, we've had a few since then. And you've traveled very widely, even to Europe and other places, to challenge the wars in Iraq and elsewhere.

RK: Yeah, to London; to London, we marched on Trafalgar Square with thousands of people during the weekday, one of the biggest weekday demonstrations against the war. We protested—

RS: Against the Iraq war. I should remind people that this has been a lifetime commitment on your part.

RK: I'm committed to peace and nonviolence, and I know there's an alternative to war and violence and bombing and killing and shooting and guns. I know we're creative people, we're dynamic, we're intelligent, we can solve these problems; and no doubt in my mind that there are alternatives to brute force, alternatives to violence as a way of solving these problems. We need to approach things more diplomatically; we need to see creative solutions; we need to be innovative. There's got to be an alternative to what I saw as a young man in the intensive care ward. Those wounded bodies—what I saw in the VA hospitals. I mean, I saw it, I lived amongst it every day for weeks and months at a time. And I know that war is not the answer; there's got to be an alternative to this approach.

RS: Oliver Stone really played a critical role in getting your story told as a movie that has had tremendous impact. And why don't you tell that story? Because you wrote the book, and amazingly enough it got printed, and a very good book agent—

RK: Well, McGraw-Hill book company published the book—

RS: But Joyce Johnson, who—

RK: Joyce Johnson was my editor, and Lynn Nesbit, at International Creative—

RS: Famous agent--

RK: Yeah, great agent, I was fortunate enough to work with her. And she—at International Creative Management, yeah.

RS: But despite the book getting an incredible reception, you know, and rave reviews everywhere; seen as a really important work of literature, Hollywood didn't want to touch it.

RK: No.

RS: And then you went through, what, how many years with different people in Hollywood saying, "We'll make it, we got this star, we got that star"—

RK: Well, you know, we initially, we tried to make it with Al Pacino. And that was, that was I believe in the late eighties. And we came close, within a couple days of principal photography—

RS: So the late eighties is already two decades, ah—

RK: Oh, no, there was a tremendous—yeah, absolutely, there was a tremendous resistance to Vietnam movies, even Vietnam books. I mean, there was—when I went to McGraw-Hill, there was a resistance to Born on the Fourth of July. People just, people didn't want to hear about it; they didn't want to talk about it. I think it was a national—I'm thinking of Gore Vidal's expression, "a national amnesia." There was a desire to forget, I believe, because it was so traumatizing; because it was such a horrible thing, such a shock to the heart and soul of the nation. I mean, this war is still among us; this war is still a part of us. That's why I think this book that I just completed, Hurricane Street, is relevant; because I think it's—I think because we repeat certain patterns. And it's clear to me that we're continuing to not learn the lessons of that particular disastrous foreign policy decision, and that we are repeating the mistakes of the past again and again and again, in other foreign policy decisions. And young men and women now are needlessly being maimed and killed in wars that we need not be involved in.

RS: When you came out against the war, and you know, other veterans and so forth, your patriotism was challenged; your knowledge of history was challenged. And the argument that came down from people who had a much more extensive education than you—Robert McNamara, who after all was supposed to have been some kind of whiz-kid from Ford, and genius and everything, was our Secretary of Defense. And it was all about the necessity of this war: "If we don't stop ‘em there, we'll have to stop these communists in San Diego. There's an international communist conspiracy, it's going to take over the world. We have to—Vietnam is just an expression of that. Chinese communists are at our throat." So we lose in the most ignominious defeat the United States has ever had; we have to lift people off an embassy in the building next to it; and what happens? What happens? Red Vietnam, communist Vietnam doesn't invade San Diego; what they do is they go to war with communist China over border disputes. And they're still at odds with communist China; two communist countries, communist Vietnam, communist China, over some islands that they're fighting about. And we are now allied with communist Vietnam, and communist China is underwriting our economy. So here you were sent off to a war in which you sacrificed three-quarters of your body; you're here, you've got to keep lifting yourself into chairs so your body can function; I visited you in the veterans' hospitals. You know, you've constructed a great life; I'm trying to get people to feel sorry for you. You know, you really are a great survivor, you've got a great life force. But the idea that no one—no one with a straight face now could say that war was necessary, was important to our national security—it was a tissue of lies, a hoax from the beginning. And yet none of those people, as far as I can see, have really expressed any great shame. And by the way, in addition to the 59,000 American troops that got killed, there were three and a half million—by McNamara's own estimate—three and a half million Indochinese people got killed in what really are war crimes, civilian people being blasted and carpet-bombed and all that. But the reason I bring you in, again, dealing with media and society, is why didn't Hollywood want to tell that story? And I think the great thing about bringing your book out now, and maybe more people will watch the movie—I think it's a great teaching tool, educational tool—but that movie did get made. And Hollywood didn't want to make it. First they made Platoon, which was a—

RK: It got made because of the courage of one man, Oliver Stone.

RS: And Tom Cruise—

RK: And Tom Cruise.

RS: --who has been maligned quite a bit—

RK: And I must say, even though they dragged their feet initially, Universal Pictures came along, too. So slowly but surely, they came along. And they were absolutely—I think they were surprised, and they were a bit shocked when the film did so well. And they realized the American people actually were willing to watch this, were waiting for a film like this; they needed to hear this truth. And it was because of Tom Cruise, it was because of Oliver Stone that this film was made. You know, the film fell through the first time, and I must say—that that was in the late seventies, with Al Pacino—and when it was clear to us that the film was not going to happen, Marty Bregman in New York, Martin Bregman, was the producer and Al Pacino was to portray me. And Oliver and I spent quite a bit of time with Al Pacino in New York, and it looked very, you know, very hopeful; even my mom and dad had come into New York City, met with the entire cast. So we had cast everyone; we were ready to go, and it fell apart for a number of reasons. I had been involved a few, about a year before with ‘Coming Home' and with Jane Fonda, making the movie Coming Home. But I left that project to work on Fourth of July with Bregman and Pacino in New York. That fell apart. And when it did, I remember Oliver Stone was virtually unknown at that time; he was a struggling screenwriter. He had been to Vietnam; he had been wounded in Vietnam, like myself. He also had a screenplay at the time; it was called ‘Platoon,' which was eventually to become a phenomenal success. Oliver had been hired after, you know, they had hired the first screenwriter; Pacino was unhappy with that screenplay. And then Oliver Stone had just come back from London, from writing, adapting the book ‘Midnight Express' in London, which was eventually to become a very, a very powerful and moving film and it—

RS: He won the Academy Award for that, gave him a lot of leverage.

RK: He won the Academy Award and a Golden Globe for that as well. Oliver and I were very, we were depressed; we were broken-hearted over the fact that the film had fallen through, Born on the Fourth of July. And Oliver was still trying to get ‘Platoon' done at the time; he had, nobody was, nobody wanted to do that either. And now ‘Fourth of July' had just fallen through. Well, it was in an elevator in New York at Marty Bregman's building; we were going down in the elevator, and I mean, we were really going down at the time. And I remember Oliver made a promise to me: "If I ever make it in Hollywood, if I ever break through and make it as a producer, as a director in Hollywood, I'll come back for you; I'll come back for you, Ron, and I'll make Born on the Fourth of July.'' And Oliver Stone kept his promise. He came back, and right after completing the movie Wall Street—this was after Platoon, and the success of Platoon—he came back and—

RS: He won the Academy Award.

RK: Yeah, that's right. But he came back, and one thing led to another. We met with several actors; Charlie Sheen was the first actor we met with at a, we met him at an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica. I remember meeting with Oliver. And then the next, at Oliver's house, where he was living at the time in Santa Monica, the next actor that we met with was Sean Penn. And then that didn't work out for one reason or another. And it looked like the film was not going to be made again. And then just out of nowhere, Tom Cruise came into the picture. Oliver Stone and Tom Cruise shared the same agent; she actually gave Tom the original script of Born on the Fourth of July. He read it, and he was looking for a role where he could, a solo performance.

RS: But it was also, in a way, an answer to a movie that he'd made about being a pilot.

RK: Well, ‘Top Gun,' yeah, it was the opposite of that.

RS: The opposite of Born on the Fourth of July. Sometimes Hollywood doesn't get the credit it deserves, and people like Tom Cruise and Oliver Stone. The fact is, this was a gutsy move to make. And you know, you came to respect both of those guys—

RK: Oh, yeah.

RS: --for their commitment to details that were not going to help make this movie more palatable. I mean, Tom Cruise learned to live in a wheelchair, and—

RK: Oh, he gave a hundred percent. Tom gave everything he had. I was there on the set and I watched him, and I have nothing but, and will always have, just a tremendous amount of admiration for his commitment to this film and his courage. His courage, and also Oliver Stone's courage; watching them, watching them work together is something I'll never forget.

RS: People are going to have a chance, hopefully, to watch the movie now. It's available. But maybe they'll be inspired because Akashic Books is bringing out the 40th anniversary edition of your book. But you've also got a book that I've read, Hurricane Street; I've actually given a blurb for it, full disclosure. And I was blown away that you would write this book here, now, so many years later—

RK: Forty years.

RS: Forty years later. And let me just make that my last question. What prompted you to—you know, we all know it's hard to sit down and write books; it's hard for you, I can see, it's hard for you even to sit to be in an interview. You've got to keep picking yourself up, and sometimes you've got pain, sometimes you're back in the veterans hospital; these wounds don't go away. What prompted you to sit down and write ‘Hurricane Street.'

RK: It was a story that I always wanted to tell. There were several attempts to write the book over the years, and I just couldn't do it each time. And I don't know, I have—

RS: And then this rock musician, Johnny Temple [laughter], who, full disclosure, he's published a book of mine—but here's a guy who, you know, is a rock-and-roller, got a little bit of money from an album, and he started a book publishing company. And he's been your publisher now. He's kept Born on the Fourth of July alive, in print.

RK: He's a terrific editor as well. And I just know, even during the strike, this was something I wanted, I knew I had to write about this someday. And I hoped that someday I would be able to finally write this story. I, to tell you the truth, I met a wonderful woman; I finally had some stability in my life—

RS: You can give her name. She's right here.

RK: TerriAnn Ferren, my sweetheart. And I finally had stability in my life, and I—and it took three and a half years, a lot longer than writing Fourth of July; I wrote that a lot faster than Hurricane Street. But I just knew I had to tell the story, and I knew it was an important story. And I wanted people to know that there was another war going on here, not just the one thousands of miles away in Vietnam, but here within our own country. And young men who had sacrificed most of their bodies in that war were forced to fight once again for their dignity as human beings. And this story just had to be told.

RS: And you tell it well. And it's available now, or will be this July, the Fourth, on the 40th anniversary of your classic book, Born on the Fourth of July. Thank you, Ron Kovic.

RK: Thank you so much.

RS: This is another edition of Scheer Intelligence. It should be called "Kovic Intelligence," and all the other people I interview.

RK: No, Scheer Intelligence! I love the name.

RS: Anyway, get the book, spread the word. And our producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Sebastian Grubaugh at USC was the recording engineer on this show. And Mario Diaz as well at KCRW. See you next time.