It was soon after I became paralyzed in 1996 that I realized that the anti-war activist Ron Kovic (“Born on the Fourth of July”) was the only person permanently in a wheelchair I had ever known personally. In 1972, as part of a “guerrilla” video collective called TVTV, I had met Ron in Miami, Florida at Richard Nixon’s second Republican Convention. Ron was leading a powerful protest group, the Vietnam Veterans Against The War, perhaps the single most striking and effective of all the antiwar contingents. These were not college kids trying to avoid the draft. These were hardened soldiers who experienced first-hand the death and destruction wrought by a war that even its architect, Robert McNamara, called “entirely wrong.”
In Miami, Ron and two other fellow vets in chairs led a march of other vets right down Collins Avenue, the main thoroughfare, surrounded by official Republicans who sneered at their presence. TVTV documented this march and later helped Ron and others get onto the convention floor to tell Richard Nixon on the podium to “stop killing human beings!”
If you read the book or saw the 1989 movie, “Born On The Fourth Of July,” the latter winning dozens of major awards, then you know who I am talking about. Ron Kovic had survived a rifle assault that had paralyzed him in Vietnam, survived a then-inadequate, almost hellish VA experience, and then came home, shattered and lost, at one point asking the question, “Will anyone ever marry me?”
Out of this nightmare came his commitment to end the war – he spoke before the National Democratic Convention four years later – and his place in history as one of the most visible public soldiers of the Vietnam era. With the war ended and his life immortalized on film, the question became, “What direction would his life take?” When Tom Cruise stars as you in the movie of your life, and does it excellently, what do you do: re-live the past the rest of your life? Feel completely abandoned after the hoopla dies down?
I never knew Ron that well and have no idea how he went about redefining himself. I do know how he ended up: somewhere along the line he went from war protester to an eloquent speaker, an artist, and what he would call “a peace warrior.”
I was invited to an event honoring Ron Kovic a couple of weeks ago, sponsored by a group called myhero.com, whose mission is to recognize and support peace makers all over the world. I hadn’t seem or talked to him for at least a dozen years and I had carried around an impression in my head of Ron as a stern, humorless, intense man since the days when he was a fiery wounded warrior in a wheelchair. I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I walked over to say hello, I met a completely different person. He was relaxed, smiling, outgoing, and as one friend commented, “looked like your accountant.” He did not seem like a guy struggling with the demons of the past. He seemed like a guy who had come to terms with his paralysis, his purpose, and his life.
The event was an unabashed tribute to Ron and his character. Hollywood heavies like Tom Cruise and Oliver Stone praised his courage and passion for justice. Daniel Ellsberg, the Wiki leaker of his time, quoted Otto von Bismarck, the great Prussian statesman, as once saying, paraphrased, that there are many courageous people in war but it is rare to find one in civil life. Finally, Ron’s lady friend of a dozen years attested to Ron’s kindness and generosity. It took a few years, but he had found someone to love and be loved by.
During a question and answer period, someone in the audience asked Ron what has kept him going all these years. His answer: “What keeps me going is that I am just happy to be alive.” His very first thought after being shot in Vietnam, he said, was “Wow, I’m alive.” One of the men who rescued him that day was killed that afternoon. When you are surrounded by death on all sides, life takes on a fierce poignancy.
What I carried away from that event is hard to put into words. I knew all about Ron’s triumphs and the praise coming from others was heartfelt but not especially enlightening. Without getting too wiggy here, it was Ron’s gestalt – the kindness and gratitude that you felt in his presence – that made the deepest impression. He didn’t seem to be reliving the past day after day – the paralysis, the loneliness, the anger and contempt for a war he hated. He still was a warrior for peace, but more impressively, he was at peace with himself.
Maybe I had too much wine at the free bar, but I don’t think so. I think I got a glimpse, however skewed, of where the long odyssey of life after paralysis ends: self-acceptance. Now that’s something to shoot for.
Purchase Allen's book:
The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life