Who Is Ron Kovic?
In 1968, Ron Kovic was paralyzed while fighting in the Vietnam War. Once home, he stayed in veteran hospitals where conditions were poor, and sought an outlet for his outrage in activism. In 1976, he published Born on the Fourth of July. A film of same title, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Tom Cruise as Kovic, was released in 1989. Kovic continues to fight against war and in support of veterans' rights.
Ron Kovic was born on July 4, 1946, in Ladysmith, Wisconsin but was raised in Massapequa, Long Island, New York. When Kovic was growing up, his father worked as a supermarket clerk, while his mother was a stay-at-home mom to Ron and his five younger siblings.
As a high school student, Kovic didn’t excel in academics. He was, however, a respected athlete in wrestling and track. He was considering a career as a professional baseball player after graduation, but a speech by a local military recruiter inspired him to enlist in the Marines instead. Kovic’s choice was reinforced by his own sense of duty, which had been instilled in him as a child of a patriotic family with a history of military service.
In 1964, Kovic joined the Marines and was sent to fight in the Vietnam War. On the battlefield, he accidentally shot a young corporal. Kovic was shocked when his superiors refused to hear his confession.
On another occasion, he and his fellow platoon members were ordered to kill a village full of civilians. They were told the citizens of the village were armed. After the massacre, Kovic discovered that none of their casualties — which, to his dismay, included women and children—were in fact armed.
Having joined the Marines to become a hero, Kovic was disillusioned by his experiences in Vietnam. On January 20, 1968, he was shot in the spine during combat and paralyzed from the waist down. Because of his service and courage, Kovic was awarded a purple heart medal. But, instead of feeling like a hero, he grappled with feelings of guilt and shame.
When Kovic returned to New York, he did not receive a hero’s welcome — as one might expect. Facing the disdain of people who were enraged about the Vietnam War, Kovic languished in Queens and Bronx veterans’ hospitals where conditions were deplorably poor.
Becoming an Activist
Following his initial recovery period, Kovic enrolled in college in New York. Soon after, he broke his leg while exercising and landed back in another veteran's hospital. Again, the conditions were terrible. Freshly indignant, Kovic sought an outlet for his outrage in activism. He started spreading his anti-war message at local high schools. He became increasingly active with Vietnam Veterans of America, run by his friend at the time.
Although Kovic participated in numerous rallies and demonstrations, it wasn't until he spoke at the 1972 Republic National Convention that he truly garnered the nation's attention. Interrupting Nixon's acceptance speech, Kovic told the audience, "I'm a Vietnam veteran. I gave America my all, and the leaders of this government threw me and others away to rot in their VA hospitals. What's happening in Vietnam is a crime against humanity."
Throughout the rest of the Vietnam War, Kovic remained active in spreading his message of peace and promoting better treatment for veterans, even going so far as to lead hunger strikes. In 1976 he gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention. That same year, he published a best-selling autobiography, Born on the Fourth of July, detailing his experiences as a Vietnam veteran. A film of same title — based on Kovic's book — directed by Oliver Stone and starring Tom Cruise as Kovic, was released in 1989. The film won two Academy Awards and several Golden Globe Awards, and increased public awareness of the activist's causes.
In Recent Years
In 2003, Kovic led demonstrations protesting the war in Iraq during the George W. Bush administration. His recent activism also includes arguing for the construction of a Los Angeles facility for homeless and disabled veterans. Kovic continues to fight for improvements in the way veterans are treated when they return home from battle.
Because Kovic found the experience of making the film Born on the Fourth of July cathartic and healing, he established a peace prize in his name, and on a yearly basis, has been awarding a prize to "the filmmaker who best addresses the issues of peace in a short film."
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