Rolling Stone – 7/19/1973
Ron Kovic was born on the Fourth of July, 1946, and spent much of his youth laying cap pistol ambushes for the Long Island Railway trains that clanked in and out of Massapequa. In those days, the Fourth of July still meant something in the state of New York. Every year, the American Legion marched and Ron’s birthday shone through it all as a blessing, if not a small miracle, in the family. Being born like that wasn’t something the Kovics took lightly. Ron’s father had left the family farm to work for A&P and Ron’s Uncle Jim fought all over Korea with the United States Marine Corps. The two of them sat in the kitchen behind beers and talked. Uncle Jim said he’d seen good men splattered for the birthday his nephew had been given as a gift from God. Ron’s dad nodded his head.
After overhearing a few of these family discussions, Ron had his heart set. He ran his body until it was a young bunch of ropes. He was Massapequa High’s finest wrestler and the American Legion cannon’s biggest fan. The sign by the road said, MARINE CORPS BUILDS MEN: BODY, MIND AND SPIRIT, and Ron knew it was true. No one in the neighborhood was surprised when Ron Kovic finished high school and joined up. He was meant for the Marines. They were just in his stars.
When Ron signed his life over to the bald eagle, he went to Parris Island with all the others just like himself. His dream commenced with the drill instructor lining all 82 up on the parade deck. Their heads were shaved and they wore their first khaki in wrinkles and lumps. The DI introduced himself and told them they were a bunch of maggots. He would address them as “the herd” and they would respond with “aye, aye, sir.” They would say aye, aye sir when they opened their mouths and aye, aye sir before they closed them. If they did everything he said and did it quicker than he could say it, then he would transform them from lowly maggots into something the Marine Corps could use. That was the Di’s first promise. His second promise was to beat their asses if they didn’t. Ron listened hard. The walls of his stomach grew hair and he settled into his life. He was going to be a marine. For goddamn sure, he was going to be a marine. The first thing the Marine Corps taught Ron Kovic was how to take a quick shit. It seemed strange and Ron had always been a slow one to crap, but be learned like a beaver. He had to. The DI wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ron and his squad were standing at attention, just like they always stood, and Ron felt a shit coming. The private stood erect and shouted.
“Sir. Private Kovic requests permission to make a sitting head call, sir.”
The DI sucked his face in. “Come here, maggot.”
Ron ran to the front of the squad bay and locked all his bones in place.
“Sir,” Ron shouted, “Private Kovic requests permission to make a sitting head call, sir.”
“Sir, the private has to, sir.”
“Five hundred bends and thrusts, maggot,” the DI answered. Then he said “do it” and Ron ran out into the corridor and did 500 of the prescribed exercise.
“Five hundred bends and thrusts, aye, aye sir. One, two .. . aye, aye sir …’three, four … ” When he finished, Ron ran back and asked again.
“Does the private think he’s ready?”
“Aye, aye sir. The private is ready, sir.”
“All right, private, you have one minute.” The Di’s voice bounced along the squad bay like a live grenade and Ron one, two, threed into the toilet bowl.
Thirty seconds later, Private Kovic heard the DI scream from the room next door.
“Countdown,” he screamed.
“Countdown, all 82 privates repeated. “30 … 29 … 28 … “
At 24, Private Kovic had his ass wiped, and his pants up and buckled by 17. He looked around to make sure he had everything and sprinted back. At the count of ten, the squad began to clap with each tick. Being late was worth 500 more bends and thrusts, aye, aye sir. It also meant the next time his bowels moved, the DI wouldn’t give permission. Then, sooner or later, Private Kovic would have to ask the sergeant if he could change uniforms and that was a motherfucker.
Ron learned quick enough to keep his pants clean. It’s something he’s always been grateful for, even today.
Private Kovic was much better at push-ups. They became his specialty. He was held up to the squad as the “push-up body,” the supreme push-up principle. He did push-ups in his rack at night after the lights were out. It squeaked and everybody who heard it thought Ron was crazy. Maybe he was. If so, it wasn’t quite crazy enough to satisfy his DI. Ron never did become the best push-up marine at Parris Island. Three times he came in second at the island championships. After his third try, when Ron collapsed on his 283rd, the DI assembled the squad and called Ron to the front.
“Private Kovic,” he bellowed, “I want the private to know that second is as good as last. I am sick of seeing the private’s scabby face. The private has failed his platoon and come in second. I am sick of the private’s bald head. The private is a maggot, a lady maggot and a poor excuse for a marine. Two hundred bends and thrusts. Do it.”
“Aye aye, sir. One, two …. “
Even failure never slowed Ron down. He wanted to be a marine too bad. He shot expert with his rifle and learned to repeat the chain of command. recruits were required to, every night before lights out.
“Chain of command,” the DI screamed.
“Chain of command,” they answered and began, ‘”the President of the United States is Lyndon Baines Johnson …the Secretary of Defense is Robert S. . . . ” The chain dangled down-to “my junior drill instructor is” and stopped. The 82 shaved heads said it like a prayer to put themselves to sleep at night.
The prayer worked. Ron Kovic became Private Kovic officially and marched in the graduation parade. The Marine Corps gave him the same dress blue uniform he’d seen on the posters. When he wore it, Ron Kovic was a proud son of a bitch and wanted everybody to see.
After boot camp, Private Kovic was sent to Camp Lejeune and then on to Radio School at Norfolk Marine Barracks. When he was done in Norfolk, the private was a private first class and assigned to the Second Field Artillery. It chafed Ron a little. He wanted to charge up a hill but mostly he cleaned radios. It was getting hard on him, being ready and not asked, and then he heard about Vietnam. Right away he wanted to go. That’s where the marines were fighting and that’s what a marine is supposed to do.
PFC Kovic requested immediate transfer to WESPAC, Vietnam. When the form asked why, he wrote, “to serve my country.” It’s so much later now that it’s hard to believe, but back then Ron and everybody in the battalion office had no doubts. PFC Kovic got orders in ten days and flew to Camp Pendleton to Okinawa to Da Nang Airfield and into his dreams.
At Pendleton, everything was serious. They were there to get trimmed into final fighting shape and the marines slogged their hardest for three weeks. The last day was the time for the last lesson. It was the one the sergeant called “survival.” It started with a rabbit. The rabbit was fluffy and white and shook its feet when the sergeant held it by the ears. “If you want to come back,” the sergeant said, “you better learn this one real good.” With that, he pulled his trench knife and gutted the bunny between kicks. The sergeant flopped the carcass in his hands and skinned it. Finally he took the guts and threw them out in the crowd. The pieces dropped in pitter-patters all over their helmets.
By Okinawa, the approaching reality of Vietnam was rising in short hairs all over Ron Kovic’s arms. He was ready. It was his job to make the world safe for Sparky the Barber and Scadato’s delicatessen and he wanted to do it better than anybody else. He was Massapequa’s boy going to war and he planned to be Audie Murphy and John Wayne all rolled into ISO pounds. In an Okinawa bar, the waiting hero got a glimpse into his future.
It was crusted on the boots of the marines sitting in the silent corners. It was yellow mud and someone told Ron they were “in country.” They’d been “down south” and that meant Nam with a capital N. Their uniforms were faded and they all had a gaze, just a stare off past the walls. Ron didn’t look for long. He wanted to do it for himself before he watched it on somebody else.
The next day, Private First Class Kovic got the chance he’d waited 18 years for.
From Da Nang, Kovic was sent in a C-190 to Chu Lai and into the Admin office of the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines.
“How many days you got left?” the clerk asked.
“I just got here today,” Ron said
“He just got here today,” the clerrl repeated to the sergeant behind him. “He just got here today.” They both laughed and Ron had no idea why.
PFC Kovic was too busy to waste time figuring it out. Pretty soon he was out with the 3/7, hustling along with the captain’s radio on his back. It was the old model PRC-10 and it carried like bricks. It was also a target. When they went out after the VC, the antenna stood like a flag over the elephant grass. The VC sighted in on it and popped. As hard as the gooks tried, Ron never got hit. He didn’t let the scattered whizzes and pings up off the dry ground get past his ears. Kovic looked for the action and moved as quick as he’d been taught. He got the feel for it on his first patrol.
The action happened down by a river. Some VC suspects had been sighted and chased into mud caves along the bank. They wouldn’t come out so the marines were busy killing them where they sat. As Ron and the captain approached, he could hear the gas canisters sizzling and the sounds of M-16s. When they’d finished, the marines pulled the bodies into a fishing net. The net was tied to the back of an amtrack and dragged along in the mud to the village. The caravan passed Ron and he saw the bodies were all covered with slop and frozen in weird shapes.
The captain was standing a few steps away. He had two silver bars on his helmet, blue eyes and a face that never quite got the fear out of it.
“How’d you like it?” he asked .
“l liked it, sir,” Ron answered. “I really liked it.”
The captain shook his head and walked off for the landing zone.
• • •
Ron Kovic really did like it. Just like he knew he would back in Massapequa. He liked it so much he went right for its middle. After three months, PFC Kovic was a lance corporal and he volunteered for what was called “Recon.” It was April and Sgt. Jimmy Howard and a platoon from Delta Company had been surrounded on Hill 488 west of Chu Lai. Only eight grunts got back so the reconnaissance outfit had to be what was called “rebuilt.” The sergeant asked for volunteers and Ron was the first to step forward. He’d heard about Recon.
Recon were studs. They were jungle thugs and said they ate Cong for lunch. Every mean thing Ron had ever heard, he’d heard about Recon. They were the light of the West in an ocean of darkness. Ron was ready for it.
Kovic fit right in at Bravo Company, second platoon. He was the radio operator and artillery F.O. Ron and 17 others got up on Monday morning before light and painted themselves to look like tree stumps. The chaplain said a prayer in front of the choppers and they were gone. Off to a set of lines on a map, hovering 20 feet over the long grass, and jumping out one by one. As long as somebody back in the office didn’t fuck up and drop them into a VC base camp, they were all right. Once down, the second platoon started moving. They kept it that way for five days. All day they stalked along under the canopy and across streams. The leeches dropped out of trees and began to hang on their marine bodies but they didn’t stop. Their job was to look. If they saw large outfits, they broke radio silence and called in. That was Ron’s job.
“Crepe Myrtle,” he’d say, “this is Crepe Myrtle three, over.”
“Crepe Myrtle three. This is Crepe Myrtle,” the radio answered. “Over.”
“Fire mission. Coordinates 353/271, azimuth 270 degrees. Target: VC in open. Shell VT. Fuse quick. Over.”
“Roger, Crepe Myrtle three,” the radio said.
Then the shells walked in, blowing hunks of flesh and jungle left and right. Ron talked into the box moved the explosions in and out and down and up until the lieutenant was satisfied. As soon as he was, the second platoon got their asses in gear. At this point the platoon was called compromised.” That means someone knew they were there. It was a fair assumption to make and Recon was trained to take one response. They headed for a prearranged landing zone and told the radio. At the spot marked exit, they hacked the brush down and went out in the H-34s. The H-34 was a smaller chopper and it took four to extract the whole platoon. Ron went on 22 of these patrols, five days out and dead-bone, sore-assed tired when you get back. His last one was his closest.
While the platoon was squatted, waiting in the LZ, someone lobbed a Chicom grenade into the clearing and opened up. Whoever it was was in the treeline and the marines returned fire blind. The air was full of lead but nobody in the second platoon was hit. The lieutenant, the medic and Ron were always the last ones to leave. They leaned up against each other and drew 360 degrees with automatic fire. When they jumped in and the chopper lifted, Ron could hear the pops follow them up. The door gunner was chopping back with his M-60 and so was everybody else. Ron emptied his clip into the jungle and laid back. Nobody’d been hit. He was in Recon for eight months and not a hit in his outfit. He laughed ripped the leech off his face, and flung it past the gunner and out the door. “Wooowhee,” Corporal Kovic said inside his helmet, “I’m a Recon motherfucker. Too fast for a bullet to catch, too good a marine to die.”
When he got home, the Marine Corps gave Ron Kovic a Commendation medal with a combat V and a promotion to E-4.
Ron had a good taste in his mouth right up to the time he left. He was tied in a knot with the second platoon and he loved them the same way he loved his gun. It was tight, hairy, silent work they did together and made them close. Only one last memory had an edge on it.
Ron was sitting on his sea bag in the middle of base camp waiting for the jeep ride to his plane. He was right by the sign that said DUNN’S RAIDERS. That was his outfit, Dunn’s Raiders, like the sign said: WE CAME TO KILL. NEVER HAVE SO FEW DONE SO FOUL TO SO MANY. There was a skull and crossbones on its bottom edge.
The heat was burrowing into his back when someone called him.
“Hey Kovic,” they said. “Come here and see what we got.”
Ron walked over to one of the tents with three marines inside. The grunt in middle had a jar in his hands. Inside the jar there were two fingers and an ear. “Look at this,” he said. “Nice, huh? I’m gonna mail ’em back to the States. Wheatstraw says he knows how to get them through.”
Ron got stiff and a strap tightened around his gut. The fingers hung half way up in the fluid and the ear was floating on the top. Since he was about to leave, no one held his reaction against him. It was to be expected.
Charging up the runway, to the plane back to the States, Ron forgot about the jar and sailed home to Massapequa to show the neighborhood his yellow boots.
• • •
T he C-130 took him to a different world, miles away. It got old quick and Ron missed Recon. His memories burned at him. Ron Kovic was stationed with a Hawk Missle Battalion and his buddies were getting cut up in the jungle. That was no good. It pushed at him and pushed at him until it finally pushed him over.
A copy of the New York Daily News did the trick. The front page was covered with four longhairs burning a flag in Central Park. That pissed Ron off so bad, he sat on his foot locker and cried for the first time since he’d become a marine. When he finished, E-4 Kovic went down to the Admin office and requested a transfer back to Vietnam. Transfer was denied four days later. Going back had come to be thought of as insane and the sergeant stared when Kovic came in 14 more times to repeat his request. By then he was considered crazy enough to return.
His new orders made Ron Kovic a full sergeant with three stripes on his arm. He was sent to Pendleton and staging battalion right away. Sgt. Kovic wanted to serve his country and he meant it. It was the right thing to do. He knew it was, as sure as he’d been born. He trained a platoon and marched them all on the plane. They sang the Marine Corps hymn going up the gangway and some cried. It was late in 1966 and Ron Kovic was 20 years old. He sat by himself in the chapel at Travis Air Force Base the night before he left and prayed. He had a feeling something was waiting for him to the west and he trusted God to keep him clear. When the sergeant was honest, he copped that his future had him worried. His orders wouldn’t let him join his old outfit. He was going to the Third Division in the DMZ instead. From what he’d heard, the DMZ was a different kind of place from the one he remembered.
It sure enough looked that way on the plane he took to Dong Ha. No one talked. The only sounds were the marines loading their ammo magazines. When speaking broke out, the dirty ones said there was lots of “arty” up there and Ron had never been under arty before. Not that it took long to find out what arty meant. He looked out the window and Dong Ha airfield was full of rocket holes. People there said the shit was coming in every day, a hundred at a time.
That’s just the way things were in the DMZ that winter. The shellings came like the mail and it mined. When the arty wasn’t falling, the Third Marines were up against the North Vietnamese Army in the wet slop and the NVA was good. Make no mistake, it was something every marine kept in mind.
Ron’s base was at the mouth of the Qua Viet River, past Geo Lin. The Third Marines’ job was sweeping an area called Charlie four. Khe Sanh was across the river and a place they called the Rockpile on past that. The country was all sand and stumpy pine trees and the marines worked mostly off amtracs: steel boxes with a cave inside big enough to carry a squad. The camp was dug into bunkers, eight sandbags high. At night, Ron led a scout team outside the perimeter and laid ambushes 1000 meters from the wire. They sat in the rain and watched for the NVA. During the day, the scouts slept. At least they tried to. They had to ask arty’s per mission first. When it was arty’s turn to talk, nobody slept.
As soon as the marines heard the crack with the whistle on the end of it, every son of a bitch with any sense ran for the bunkers. The rounds came in right on top, each one sounding like it had a ticket for the hairs on your ass. Noses bled and ears ached. A lot of the Third Marines got to keeping rosaries close by, to use in the shelters. It was nothing but scary. The worst Ron ever saw was when they took 150 hits, right after lunch.
As soon as the arty lifted, Ron grabbed a medic bag and ran out on the compound. He saw his own tent first and it was just shrapnel holes held together with canvas threads. Past that there was a crowd where Sgt. Bodigga’s supply tent had once been. Sgt. Bodigga never left the camp. He handled paper in his tent and bad a rug on his floor. Whatever you wanted, Sgt. Bodfafl could get it if you just gave him a day. Ron pushed through the ring of marines and found a hole. No tent. Just a hole. In the bottom was something that looked like five or six bodies. They were all powder-burned and tom up. Ron reached in to find IDs and could only find Bodigga’s wallet. After looking again, Sgt. Kovic realized that Bodigga was all there was in the hole … all those pieces were just Bodigga. Ron stacked Sgt. Bodigga on a stretcher and cried. Over his shoulder, in the motor pool, someone was screaming.
“McCarthy,” they screamed. “They got McCarthy. Those motherfuckers. Those rotten motherfuckers. They got McCarthy.”
McCarthy was from Boston and he had blue eyes. When he was laid out with the rest of the dead, stripped naked in front of the command bunker with his loose parts piled next to him, McCarthy’s eyes were open and looked straight up into the rain.
Ron saw him there and wanted to kill somebody. He wanted to kill somebody and use them to paste McCarthy and Bodigga back together.
It didn’t turn out that simple. As soon as Ron Kovic got to wanting that way, something happened to make him feel just the opposite. It was a night patrol.
A lieutenant took Ron’s detail out to search for sappers across the river. There was a village on the far bank and the colonel was worried someone would dive in and put a mine to the marine boats. A hundred meters from the village, the patrol saw the light of a small fire. It was inside a hootch and it wasn’t supposed to be there. The village had been ordered to keep lights out. The platoon spread out along a paddy dike and watched. Word was passed to hold fire and the lieutenant set off an illumination flare. Just as the flare lit, someone to Ron’s left fucked up and let go. That shot set the whole line on fire for 30 seconds at full automatic. When they finished, Ron and Leroy were sent up to check the hootch.
Inside the broken bamboo, there was an old man with the top of his head shot away. Two kids were on either side of him. One’s foot just dangled. The other had taken a round in the stomach that came out his ass. The hootch’s floor was covered with blood.
When the platoon crossed the paddy and saw it, the marines melted into lumps. Some dropped their weapons and only Leroy talked.
“Jesus Christ,” he whined. “What’d we do. We’ve killed an old man and some kids.”
The lieutenant yelled to form up in a 360 but Leroy kept moaning and no one else moved. The villagers started to come out of their huts and scream at the marines. It took the lieutenant five minutes to round the patrol into shape. After they called a chopper for the kid who was still breathing, the platoon went inside the wire. Sgt. Kovic laid in his bunker all night and wanted to give it up. He wanted the referee to blow the whistle and call time out until he’d had a chance to think it over.
But wars don’t work that way. Ron reported to the colonel in the morning and asked to be taken off patrols. The colonel said no. Instead the platoon got a week in camp, and Sgt. Kovic was ordered to get his shit together and act like a marine.
• • •
The platoon didn’t go back to action until January 20th. When they did, it was in the afternoon. January 20th started late but turned into a big day, about as big a day as there will ever be in the life of Sgt. Ron Kovic. It was a day that made all the ones after it very different from the ones that went before. Word was that the NVA had the South Vietnamese Popular Forces pinned down by the village. Ron volunteered his men to take the point and lead the company’s sweep. Another company was moving north from the river bank through the village graveyard. The platoon spread out and headed towards the treeline 100 meters off. Ron was on the right with just one man further over than himself. Everyone was out in the open when January 20th exploded. Ron couldn’t forget it now if he wanted to.
“The people on the amtracs got hit first,” is the way he remembers it .”I heard the pop . . . pop . . . pop as the mortars left their tubes and the crashing as they hit around the tracks. Then rounds started cracking around us. I couldn’t tell if they were coming from the village or the treeline, so I fired both places. I was completely out in the open.
“All we could do was take ground and return fire. After a little bit, I heard a loud crack right next to me and my whole leg went numb. A .30 caliber bullet had gone in the front of my foot and come out the heel. It took a piece out the size of a silver dollar. My foot was all smashed. I stayed standing as long as I could but then it began to feel like it was on fire. I went to a prone position and kept using my rifle until it jammed from the sand.
“When I couldn’t get a round into the chamber, I decided to stand and see where the rest of my platoon was. I slammed the rifle down and pushed myself up with it. Just as I got my arms straight, I heard a huge crack next to my ear. It was like getting hit with an express train. My whole body started vibrating. Another 30 caliber bullet had hit my right shoulder, passed through my lung and severed my spinal cord into two pieces. My whole body seemed to have left me. I felt like I was somewhere up in the air.
“I closed my eyes for just a second, then I started to breathe. My lung was collapsed so I just took little breaths. Slow little sucks. All I could think was that I didn’t want to die. I couldn’t think of nothin’ else. I waited to die. I mean I just waited for it all to black out, for all the things that are supposed to happen when you die. I couldn’t believe what was going on. Where was my body? I must’ve been hit with a mortar. That was it, a mortar. It had ground up everything below my chest.
“Then I moved my hands behind me and I felt legs. I felt legs but they didn’t feel back. They were my legs. There was something wrong but I couldn’t explain it. My body was there but I couldn’t feel it. Then I got real excited. It was still there. I wasn’t going to bleed to death. My body was still there.
“The next thing I knew, Leroy was over me. He was bandaging my shoulder.
“‘I can’t feel my body,’ I said.
“‘It’s all right, Sarge,’ he said. ‘You’re gonna be all right. Pretty soon you’ll be back in the States with all the broads.’
“When he got the bandage on, he split towards the treeline with rounds cracking all around him.
“After Leroy, I heard Palmer calling me from off to my left. ‘Hey Sarge,’ he said. ‘We got to get the hell out of here.’
“‘I can’t move my legs,’ I screamed.
“‘Come on, Sarge,’ Palmer kept yelling. ‘Let’s go. Let’s get outta here.’
“‘I can’t feel my body,’ I said. Then I heard a crack and Palmer screamed. “‘Are you hit?’ I yelled.
“Palmer yelled back. ‘They shot my finger off. They shot my goddamn finger off.’ After that I guess he left. I didn’t hear him no more.
“I lay there for what seemed like hours. Once, somebody ran up in back of me. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Hey Sarge, you all right?’ Then I heard another crack and he seemed to fall on the back of me. I couldn’t feel it but I heard. Someone from my left yelled, ‘He’s dead, Sarge. They shot him through the heart.’ He was a marine from the company who’d run all the way up. I yelled for everybody to stop coming. I don’t know if they heard, but I yelled. I was being used as bait. other than that, I felt nothing. I just wanted to live. I tried to calm myself. I felt cheated. I felt cheated to die. Twenty fucking years old and they were taking my life away from me.
“Then a black man came running up. He grabbed me and threw me over his shoulder. He started dragging me back. He was a big black man. Big black arms. Big black hands. All I can remember is staring up at the sky and the sky sort of spinning and jumping. I could just feel the top of my body. I felt the sun in my face and him picking me up and throwing me down. All the time he was yelling, ‘you motherfuckers. Fuckers. Fuckers. Goddamn motherfuckers.’ And me screaming the same thing. ‘Motherfuckers. Motherfuckers.’
“Finally he threw me one last time in a hole and a corpsman jumped in on my chest. He’d been running all over and he was out of his head. I told him I felt I’d made it so far and that was the roughest part. I told him I was gonna live.”
By the next morning, Sgt. Kovic had been given the last rites of the Catholic Church and gone on the operating table. He was in the intensive care ward at Marble Mountain in Da Nang. He’d been brought there by choppers with tubes in his lungs and IVs all over his body. There was a Korean (who’d hit a booby trap) in the bed to his left. When he wasn’t babbling in sing-song, the Korean waved his two remaining fingers over his head until he died. Then a black pilot took the Korean’s place.
Ron watched the pilot die too. The corpsmen surrounded the bed and one began to beat on the pilot’s chest with his fists. They brought a machine over and attached it to his heart but it didn’t seem to do much better. The corpsman went back to his hands and pounded as hard as he knew how. After a half-hour, the medic gave up. Ron could see his white jacket. and hear him laughing like the Bob Hope show. The corpsman had to laugh. He pounded on chests all day long. The last thing Ron saw of the black pilot was the sheet they covered him with and the sound of the body cart, squeaking across the linoleum.
After that, Ron was sure he’d die if he stayed at Marble Mountain. Living meant doing everything right, so Sgt. Kovic listed his dos and don’ts on a Red Cross pad. The nurse turned him over every four hours and Ron never complained. He was going to be the perfect patient who recovers miraculously. The morphine helped. He got his syringe every 120 minutes. When he was waiting for his shot, Ron Kovic noticed that he couldn’t feel his dick anymore. All day long, he explored his floppy body and checked to see if it had come back while he was asleep. It never did.
When the doctors asked Ron how he felt he said he felt great. Good enough to leave intensive care anyway. In desperation, Sgt. Kovic finally stuck his thermometer in an ice bucket and the reading was low enough to go to Japan. With Da Nang behind him, Ron knew he was going to live. He didn’t know how that living was going to be, but right then he didn’t care.
Before the plane left Marble Mountain, a general came down the ward, distributing Purple Hearts, bed by bed. The general’s shoes were shined and he had a private with him. The private carried a polaroid camera and took pictures the men could send home to their families. The general handed Ron a medal, the private took a picture and Ron put the ribbon under his pillow.
Then the general went to the bed next door. There was a 19-year-old marine in it. He’d had the top of his skull blown loose. The 19-year-old’s brain was wrapped in wet towels. He babbled like a two-year-old and pissed in his sheets. Ron waited to see if the general’s private would leave a picture.
He did. The private told the nurse to send it on to the marine’s mom and dad.
Ron Kovic lay three days in Yokuska Naval Hospital with his catheter and his striker frame and then he demanded a wheel chair. “I’m ready,” he said. The doctors thought it was early but Ron insisted. They brought the chair and lifted Ron into it. He was still being Marble Mountain’s best patient and didn’t make any noise. For half-an-hour he tried the chair. At the end of it, Sgt. Kovic puked all over himself and passed out. When he recovered, Ron decided to wait on the chair until he reached the States.
In the meantime, he’d concentrate. Ron kept a little chart of his progress each day. He swore to the doctors he was going to walk out. “If it’s the last thing I do,” is the way he said it. “Right out the fucking door.” The doctors said that wasn’t possible, but Ron wouldn’t listen. He had to have something to want and that was it.
When he wasn’t wanting, Sgt. Kovic watched. There was pain all around him but Ron knew it would pass. He figured out that most of the other lumps under the covers would heal. The pain would become a memory and then they’d leave, tall and strong again and whole. But he wouldn’t. His wound couldn’t. His shoulder would close up and so would his foot but that was all. The life in Sgt. Kovic’s head would never touch his feet again.
One day, when he was lying back watching, the general brought a tour through the hospital. Bart Starr of the Green Bay Packers visited Ron’s ward. He stood at the end of the bed.
“How’s the war going?” the quarterback asked.
“Shitty,” Ron said. “Pretty shitty.”
After a while, the war had almost disappeared. The radio said everybody’d be home soon and hospitals were just about the only thing Ron remembered. There was a short one in Anchorage, another in Virginia, one in New York State and then another that looked out on New Jersey. The last one was the Kingsbridge VA. It was summer by then and Ron stayed at the Kingsbridge hospital 11 months the first time and then again for six more.
Sgt. Kovic now belonged to the Veterans’ Administration. The marines discharged him with a bronze star and wished him well. The VA’s job was to retrain certain kinds of ex-soldiers and Sgt. Kovic was 100% retired. The first thing the VA tried to teach him was how to shit slowly and once every three days.
That’s when they gave the enemas, every third day. Other than that you had to shit in your bed and lay on it. The enemas started at five in the morning. Tommy the Enema Man came by with his tube and dangled it under their noses. When everyone was awake, they each got a striker frame. Tommy and his helper rolled them all, 24 para- and quadriplegics, half the ward, into what was called the blue room. When it was full, the two white coats pumped all the stomachs up with soapy water. All 24 lay in there with their withered bodies and listened to their bowels hit the buckets like cow flop. When it was done, Tommy wiped each of their asses and rolled them into the shower.
Ron called it the car wash. The attendant ran a thin white strip of pHisohex down the middle of Ron’s body and then hosed it off. When they were shorthanded, the attendant sometimes had to leave in the middle of the scrub. The second time Ron got washed, he lay in the Kingsbridge shower for an hour waiting for the attendant to come back. All Ron did was try not to scream like he wanted to. He learned to lie on the tile and watch his body that wouldn’t move and had started to shrivel.
Every third day Ron wanted to scream and he never did. After a couple of months, the screams didn’t even bother to cross his mind. Ron lay there and felt he’d been used up and thrown away and no one was treating him like the marine he had gone out and been.
• • •
The more he looked around the ward, the more Ron felt it. C-3 was the sign over the door and it was one big mirror. He saw his friends and there he was. Propped up and flopped over, they weren’t much to look at. Ron noticed Mark more than anybody else. Mark was a 19-year-old head. He’d been a six-foot marine once. But then his truck hit a mine on the way to Khe Sanh and Mark went out the window. He was paralyzed from the neck down. Mark got around by pushing his chin on an electric button that made the wheels on his chair spin. It was Mark who taught Ron how to fight the rats.
The rats were smallish, brown, and came out at night. Just past 2 AM, one crawled up on Mark’s chest. He screamed. Then he screamed again. No one came. He screamed for three hours until an aide arrived and told Mark he must be drunk. From then on, Mark got Ron to lob his dinner rolls behind the radiator. That kept the rats eating all night and off their chests while Mark and Ron talked. Mark had been a high-school football player and asked Ron to look at the team picture and pick him out. Mark was proud and didn’t take to being a loose sack of flesh very easily. He fought it as hard as he could.
He taught the rest of them to fight it too. Mark lead the revolt in C-3. It started when the hospital staff canceled the paraplegics’ party privileges. The VA said too many people were getting drunk. Mark was pissed as soon as he heard.
“I’m going to that fucking office,” he said and everybody agreed into a line behind him: all the paras and all the quads, rolling themselves however they were able and heading for the part of Kingsbridge that had carpets. There were some things they wanted to say. It was harder the closer they got to the front. The rugs were miring up around the wheels of Ron’s chair like a Chrysler in the mud. A fat man in a blue suit came out into the hall and let them know where they sat.
“The President is doing everything he can to help you boys,” he said. “All of us are doing everything we can.”
“Do you think you could get the President to come in and change my sheets?” one of the chairs asked.
The fat man didn’t laugh. Ron asked him when was the last time he’d been on C-3. The fat man in the blue suit couldn’t remember but he was sure it was recently.
C-3 listened for a while and then went back up the hall to sleep. Mark couldn’t. He lay up all night and listened to his plastic piss bag slop over onto the floor and he hated it. He kept hating it until the day he would talk his friend in Chicago into sticking a needle through his vein. Mark would. die with his eyes full of heroin and his body full of empty space. But that was much later, after Ron left the VA for the first time.
• • •
When Ron reached the doors, he left just the way he’d promised back in Japan. He walked. It wasn’t like he’d pictured it but it sure wasn’t in a chair. He trained every day with braces until he could move on crutches and drag his strapped-up legs along. He scraped out the door to his mom and dad and he felt proud. Every time he got up on his crutches he felt that way. To Ron Kovic, he was tall and pretty even if his spine did have a new bend to it. Ron walked like that all over the backyard in Massapequa. The doctors said he did it too much. He finally broke his femur when he was out on a walk and had to return to Kingsbridge.
This time there was an operation. When he got off the table, his right leg had a plate in it and was shorter than the other. The leg turned in, too, and wouldn’t fit in his braces anymore. Ron screamed at the doctors.
“You ruined it,” he said. “Now I can’t walk anymore. I’ll never get to stand up.”
“It’s all right,” the doctors said. “You couldn’t really walk anyway.”
The second time Ron left Kingsbridge he was pissed. He remembers it today and he still gets angry: His jaw freezes up and he talks louder than he means to. “It was like I’d swallowed a lie,” he explains, “and then they rubbed my face in it. America made me. They made me and I gave them everything I could give and then I wasn’t good enough to treat like a man. I didn’t want to be a good patient anymore. I was proud and they wouldn’t even let on I was still alive. I was something for a closet and a budget cut. I didn’t feel lucky anymore. I was gonna live and I knew how I was gonna live. I was living with a body that was already dead. That had to be worth something, but it wasn’t. All it could get me was a seat out by the pigeons and the old men from World War II.”
After a while, Ron couldn’t sit on his anger any more. He moved to Los Angeles and called the office of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. While he dialed, he thought about Mark and a guy named Willie.
Willie was just a head too. To listen to Willie you had to put a cork in his throat and your ears next to his lips. As Ron was leaving Kingsbridge, Willie stopped him at his bed. Ron put the cork in and listened.
“Don’t let them do it to anybody else,” Willie said.
When the phone answered, Ron said he wanted to join and do anything he could to stop the war.
Ron meant it. He manned tables and spoke at high schools. He told them how he’d been the Massapequa flash and the push-up body. He told them how he’d sung about the “Halls of Montezuma” and the “Shores of Tripoli” and how it was a lie. He told whoever would listen and half those who wouldn’t.
Ron felt better than he’d felt in a long time. He liked the folks, like he was one of them. He didn’t feel like a freak and he wondered why it had taken so long for him to find out. His new life gave Ron a chance to meet his country again. One such meeting on Wilshire Boulevard drove the last of the bald eagle from Ron Kovic’s mind. It happened in front of the headquarters for · Richard Nixon’s re-election.
The picket started at 11 AM and by noon there was quite a crowd and almost as many cops. And these weren’t any run-of-the-mill-bust-a-drunk-on-a-street-corner cops. It was the L.A.P.D. and anybody west of Barstow knows the L.A.P.D. doesn’t take no for an answer.
The ones Ron met were young, undercover, and tried special hard. They moved in the crowd and took notes. Ron was up the block with a line of people who had wheeled over the cross street and blocked traffic. The blue line of police moved their way and they scattered back to the sidewalk. As soon as the cops leaned to the cross street, the people on Wilshire did the same thing and the police scurried back. It didn’t take long for the L.A.P.D. to tire of the game. The captain gave an order to disperse and the people decided to take it. The blue men had their clubs out and their goggles on: two very bad signs. The decision was made to go to McArthur Park. Ron wheeled the word up to the cops.
“We’re leaving,” he said. “We’re going to obey the order to disperse.”
With that, the line of signs made its own slow way back down the boulevard. Ron stayed at the back, making sure everybody got out all right. It was then that he met the L.A.P.D. up so close there was no way to mistake what he saw. The two long-haired ones came up from his back. The first grabbed Ron’s chair. The second said, “You’re under arrest,” and started banging the handcuffs on Ron’s wrists.
“What are you doing?” Ron said. “We’re leaving.”
The back of the crowd saw what was happening and ran to help. That set off a whistle and the blue line charged into a big circle with Ron inside. He was
dumped out of his chair and onto the street. All Ron could think to do was shout.
“I’m a Vietnam veteran,” he yelled. “I fought in the DMZ. I’m paralyzed. Don’t you know what you’re doing?”
The L.A.P.D. didn’t shout back. The red-haired one pulled Ron’s hands behind his back and locked them. Then the blue circle made a wedge and headed across the street with Ron in tow. A cop had each shoulder and Ron’s head bobbed up and down off the asphalt. The people who tried to help said they saw the police beat Ron’s body with their sticks, but Ron didn’t feel it. He felt the curb when his forehead hit it and then all of a sudden he felt lifted up and into a squad car. They propped him up in the front seat. He immediately flopped over into the dashboard and panted.
“I have no stomach muscles,” he said. “With my hands in back of me, I can’t sit up. I can’t hardly breathe either.” Ron had to talk in a grunt.
The cop shoved him up straight. “Sit up,” he said.
Ron flopped back over. “I’m a veteran he wheezed. Don’t you see what you’re doing to me? rm paralyzed.”
“Sit up,” the cop said and rammed Ron against the Ford’s seat. Ron flopped back. “I said sit up you commie son of a bitch.” The L.A.P.D. bounced Ron back and forth all the way to the station. At the booking desk, the cop asked the turnkey where to put the crippled one.
“Take him up on the roof and throw him off,” the turnkey said.
They didn’t. But it wasn’t because they didn’t want to. When Ron left five days later, the turnkey looked at him from behind his jowls.
“They shoulda let you die over there,” he said. “You shoulda died and never come back.”
• • •
Ron still had some people he wanted to see. All the vets did. That’s why they went to Miami. They went in caravans and called it the Last Patrol. They were going to expose once and for all the lie of the way they had fought. They rolled into Miami and met lines of buses, tear gas and helmets. They came to see Richard Nixon but only a few got the chance. Ron was one of that few.
It happened on the night the President came up from Key Biscayne to accept his nomination. Ron had tickets that got him into the lobby. A reporter pushed him through the first door and his own wheely sprint brought him up to the back of the delegates. Then the security guard stepped up.
“You’ll have to leave,” he said.
“I’ve got a right to be here,” Ron said. “I fought in Vietnam for it.”
Nobody wanted to touch him with the TV cameras on, so the guards just tried to block him from sight. Ron shouted around them to the delegates. They had signs that said FOUR MORE YEARS and didn’t really want to hear about it.
“You want to see your war,” Ron yelled. “Here it is. I’m your war in a package. I’m here. I’m real.”
The nearby Republicans pretended not to notice. Ron felt stymied. He was blocked off and wanted closer. Fortunately, the word from Muller reached Ron through another vet. “Come on back,” the vet said. “Muller’s got passes for you, a place down front on the side.”
Ron went back around and to the right and found what he was looking for. It was Bob Muller and Bill Wyman. Lieutenant Bob Muller had been leading a South Vietnamese unit when the ARVNs called olly-olly-oxen-free and split. That left the young lieutenant in front all alone with a bullet through his chest and spine both. Bill Wyman’s legs had been blown off at the knees by a mine. Ron Kovic, Bob Muller and Bill Wyman lined up wheel to wheel and waited for the President. He was on next. After Richard Nixon stepped into the footlights and the clapping died down, the three vets took deep breaths. With the first pause they shouted, “Stop the bombing. Stop the war.”
That made the Republicans behind the chairs stare but Richard Nixon didn’t miss a step. The next time he paused, they did the same thing. Now the crowd around them was surly and embarrassed. The delegates began to chant “Four More Years” to drown the three chairs out. They screamed and clapped and one fat man with a red face spit on Ron’s neck. Finally, the Secret Service came and made a ring around the vets’ small noise. Moving in a circle, they carried the three chairs backward and formed a wall to screen out the cameras. Ron and Bob and Bill were taken to the rear entrance and put out. The security guard chained the door behind them and they were left in the parking lot. When no one came out to bust them, the three headed for the day’s rally site. Miami was full of gas and they made their way on the side streets.
Flamingo Park was empty when the three chairs wheeled into it. The cops had run everyone off. If that happened, the vets had planned to meet out at the municipal dump. Ron and Bob and Bill found everyone else waiting. It was midnight and the men of Chu Lai and Dong Ha and the Ai Shau Valley sat in the garbage and tried to figure out who was still in jail. The dump smelled of old fish and pepper gas and all of them felt like they’d been there before.
• • •
If you want to find Ron Kovic just go to the VVAW office in L.A.: the Arlington off-ramp from the Santa Monica Freeway and head for Pico Boulevard. The letters are painted on their storefront. I went in and found him. He looked up from writing a leaflet and I asked him how he felt.
“In the last five years,” he said, “I’ve felt tremendous pain and bitterness both. I felt a closeness to no one but myself and my chair. I felt an anger I could never describe. I also felt a humility and a compassion I could never explain. It was a tremendous sense of loss and a tremendous sense of gain. I felt I had lost a great portion of my body but I’d gained a good deal of my soul. It was like I had to trade the one for the other.”
Then I asked what he was going to do now that the war was over.
He laughed. He laughed the way he does: letting it run out to the ends of his lips and vibrate there.
“The war’s not over,” he said. “The war is between those who catch hell and those who give it out. Just ’cause it’s not on TV don’t mean they stopped giving it out. Ask somebody who’s fought one. They’ll tell you a war don’t end just because somebody says so. A war isn’t over until you don’t have to live with it anymore.”
For a lot of us that’s going to be a long old time. Like Ron Kovic. Sometimes when he sits up at night, he can hear the war rumbling down in his legs. It makes a sound like the Long Island Railway flashing through Massapequa and heading west.