By Ron Kovic
There is nothing in the lives of human beings more brutal and terrifying than war, and nothing more important than for those of us who have experienced it to share its awful truth.
As the 45th anniversary of my being shot and paralyzed in the Vietnam War approaches, I cannot help but reflect upon those years and the many lessons I have learned. Nearly half a century has passed since I left my house in Massapequa, N.Y., to join the United States Marine Corp and begin an extraordinary journey that led me into a disastrous war that changed my life and others of my generation profoundly and forever.
The nightmares and anxiety attacks for the most part have disappeared, but I still do not sleep well at night. I toss and turn in increasing physical pain. But I remain positive and optimistic. I am still determined to rise above all of this. I know, like so many of my fellow veterans, that my pain and the horrors of my past will always be with me, but perhaps not with the same force and fury of those early years after the war. I have learned to forgive my enemies and myself.
It has been difficult to heal from the war, and I have often dreamed of moving to neutral ground—another country. Yet I have somehow made a certain peace, even in a nation that so often still believes in war and the use of violence as a solution to its problems. There has been a reckoning, a renewal. The scar will always be there, a living reminder of that war, but it has also become something beautiful now, something of faith and hope and love.
I have been given the opportunity to move through that dark night of the soul to a new shore, to gain an understanding, a knowledge, an entirely different vision. I now believe I have suffered for a reason and in many ways I have found that reason to be my commitment to peace and nonviolence.
My life has been a blessing in disguise, even with the pain and great difficulty my physical disability continues to bring. It is a blessing to speak on behalf of peace, to be able to reach such a great number of people. The one gift I was given in that war was an awakening. I endured; I survived and understood. I became a messenger, a living symbol, an example, a man who learned that love and forgiveness are more powerful than hatred, a man who has learned to embrace all men and women as my brothers and sisters.
No one will ever again be my enemy—no matter how hard he or she tries to frighten and intimidate me. No government will ever teach me to hate another human being. I have been given the task of lighting a lantern, ringing a bell and shouting from the highest rooftops, warning the American people and citizens everywhere of the deep immorality and utter wrongness of this violent approach to solving our problems, pleading for an alternative to this chaos and madness, this insanity and brutality. We who have taken our wounds and our sorrows and chosen to make them stand for something better have an obligation to rise above our pain and anguish, to turn the tragedy of our generation into a triumph and learn from the errors of our fathers and ourselves.
No one knows peace or the preciousness of life better than the soldiers who fought in war, or those who have been affected by it directly—the mother of a son who has died, a wife who will never see her husband again, a child who will never have a father, a father who will never hold his son—for it is we who have lived with the physical and emotional scars of war, we who have lived with these wounds every day and felt every morning their weight and pain. It is we who have walked and wheeled through the streets of our country and watched children stare at us and wonder why. And it is we who cry out now for the future, for a world without war. We are the reminders of what war can do, of how it can wound and hurt, and diminish all that is good and human.
We struggle every day to believe in a life that was almost taken away from us. We know that even though we have lost, though parts of our bodies may be missing, though we might not be able to see or feel, we are important men and women with important lessons to teach.
I know war very well. I know it at night when I am sleeping and nightmares still come or in the morning when I wake up and transfer into my wheelchair to start my day. I am happy to be alive, and recently bought a piano and hope to learn to play it someday. I love to play the high notes; they are gentle and soothing to me, almost like the sound of raindrops on my window when I was a boy. Just to touch the keys from time to time helps me to forget the war. The music of the piano fills the air with healing. The past recedes. And sometimes even the nightmares disappear for a while. The sound of a single note gives hope. Somehow we must begin to find the courage to create a better world even if it is with one note or one step.
Click here to view Truthdig’s Ron Kovic photo essay.
Ron Kovic touches a flag-draped mock coffin after taking part in a rally with other anti-war activists outside an armed forces recruitment center in Los Angeles in 2009.