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AUDIO: Robert Scheer Talks With Ron Kovic About the Continuing Struggle of Veterans
Posted on Feb 19, 2016
In this week’s “Scheer Intelligence”—the Truthdig editor-in-chief’s podcast on KCRW—Vietnam veteran, author and peace activist Ron Kovic discusses what has changed and what hasn’t since his time in combat.
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 his fight at home to end the war and get better treatment for veterans.
In the podcast, Scheer and Kovic talk about the decades-long struggle to get his book made into an unflinching movie, which was directed by Oliver Stone and starred Tom Cruise. In addition, Kovic delves into the 17-day hunger strike held by him and other veterans in 1974 that led to changes in care for veterans and inspired his forthcoming book, “Hurricane Street.”
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RS: 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—
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 boot camp; I went to Parris 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 ’50s, 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 L.A. 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 [Robert S.] 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 9 years old, practicing saluting in front of a mirror when I was 10, 11 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.
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