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Ron Kovic: Breaking the Silence of the Night
Posted on Oct 10, 2006
By Ron Kovic
You learned that the very first day at Parris Island when the drill instructors started screaming at you. It is “Yes sir” and “No sir,” and nothing in between. There is the physical and verbal abuse, the vicious threats and constant harassment to keep you off balance. It is a powerful conditioning process, a process that began long ago, long before we signed those papers at the recruit stations in our hometowns, a process deeply ingrained in the American culture and psyche, and it has shaped and influenced us from our earliest childhood.
Born on my country’s birthday in 1946, I had grown up in the shadow of the Cold War after the great victory of World War Two. Both my mother and father had served in the Navy during that war. It was where they met and were married, and we their children were to be called the “Baby Boom.” It was a beautiful time, a time of innocence, a time of patriotism, a time of loyalty, conformity and obedience. The threat of Communism was everywhere. We did not question. We did not doubt. We believed and we trusted our leaders. America was always right. How could we ever be wrong? We were the most powerful nation on earth and we had never lost a war, but all that was to change, all that was to be shattered in Vietnam.
I can still remember marching on Memorial Day, our parents on the sidewalks waving their American flags proudly. There were the war movies and the Sergeant Rock comic books, the toy guns that we got for Christmas, and the little plastic green soldiers that I played with in my backyard, fighting the Japs and the Germans, attacking the imaginary bunkers with our bazookas and flamethrowers, dreaming that someday like our fathers before us we would become men.
I volunteered for my first tour of duty in Vietnam in 1965, only to return to a country deeply divided. I remember tears coming to my eyes when I saw a photograph in the newspaper of the American flag being burned at an antiwar rally in New York City. I was outraged and became determined to set my own example of patriotism and volunteered to go to Vietnam a second time, ready to die for my country if need be. Before leaving I purchased a diary that I promised to keep during my second tour of duty. I still have that diary today, and though it is a bit worn and frayed the words that I wrote nearly four decades ago are still there. On January 18th, 1968, two days before I was shot and paralyzed, I wrote, “Time is going fast in a way, while in other ways it seems I’ve been here 100 years. I love my great nation and am ready to die for freedom.” Just below I had written the quote,
Like many Americans who served in Vietnam and those now serving in Iraq, and countless other human beings throughout history, I had been willing to give my life for my country with little knowledge or awareness of what that really meant. I trusted and believed and had no reason to doubt the sincerity or motives of my government. It would not be until many months later at the Bronx Veterans Hospital in New York that I would begin to question whether I and the others who had gone to that war had gone for nothing.
It was a violent spring. Martin Luther King had been killed in Memphis and I had just begun reading Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s book “To Seek a Newer World” at the Bronx VA when Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy had been the antiwar candidate, and I remember picking up his book with hesitation at first, his views seeming so very different from my own back then, but there was something that drew me toward him and his call to end the war that spring. Maybe it was the wounded all around me on the paraplegic ward, or the hundreds of Americans who continued to die each week, but I remember feeling deeply saddened when he died, just as I had when his brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been killed in Dallas in 1963.
I had been so certain of victory, but each day now I began to realize more and more that we were not going to win in Vietnam, and that realization was painful and devastating. I felt betrayed and could not understand why my government had not done all that it could to win the war. Did they have any idea how much we had sacrificed, how many had already died and been maimed like myself? I felt sad and depressed and would often go down to the hospital library on the first floor, where I would read for hours at a time trying to forget the war. The first book that I read was about the life of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and I remember listening to his voice on the Armed Forces Radio during my second tour of duty and writing in my diary how much hearing him and his determination to stay the course and not give up in Vietnam had inspired me. Several days later I discovered the diary of Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary who had gone to Bolivia and was later killed there while attempting to inspire a revolution. I felt uneasy at first holding the book in my hands as I sat paralyzed in my wheelchair, afraid that someone might come up to me and catch me reading about the “enemy,” but I now wanted to know who this enemy was, who were these people I had been taught to hate and sent to fight and kill.
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