Ronald Lawrence ”Ron” Kovic (born July 4, 1946) is an American anti-war activist, writer and a former United States Marine Corps sergeant, who was wounded and paralyzed in the Vietnam War. He is best known as the author of the memoir Born on the Fourth of July in 1976, which was made into an Academy Award–winning film in 1989 directed by Oliver Stone, with Tom Cruise playing Kovic.
Kovic received the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay on January 20, 1990, 22 years to the day after he was wounded in Vietnam, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. Bruce Springsteen wrote the song ”Shut Out the Light” after reading Kovic’s memoir and then meeting him. Tom Paxton, the folk singer/political activist, wrote the song ”Born on the Fourth of July”, which is on his 1977 New Songs from the Briarpatch album, and met Kovic backstage at the Bottom Line Club in New York City the same year. Academy Award winning actress Jane Fonda has stated that Ron Kovic’s story was the inspiration for the 1978 Vietnam War film Coming Home that she starred in.
Kovic was born in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, the second eldest of the six children of Patricia (Lamb) and Eli Kovic. He was raised in Massapequa, New York, in a Roman Catholic household. His father of Croatian descent served honorably in the United States Navy during World War Two. After the war Eli Kovic and his family moved to Levitown, New York where he worked as a grocery clerk in an A&P food store., His mother also served in the United States Navy during the Second World War having enlisted not long after Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941. It is where she met his father. She was of Irish ancestry, and a housewife. In high school, Ron Kovic was a wrestler and pole vaulter, and hoped to be a major league baseball player after graduation.
Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s ”Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” Inaugural Address in January 1961 and after Kennedy’s death in November 1963, Kovic joined the United States Marine Corps after high school in September 1964. He was sent to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, for twelve weeks of intensive recruit training. After recruit training, he was promoted to the rank of Private First Class and became the push-up champion of his battalion. Kovic was then sent to the Infantry Training Regiment (ITR) at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for advanced combat training. He returned home to Massapequa just before Christmas in December. After several weeks’ leave, Kovic was assigned to the Marine Corps Barracks at Norfolk, Virginia, where he attended radio school and learned communication skills, including the International Morse Code. He was next assigned to the Second Field Artillery Battalion, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Kovic volunteered for Vietnam and was deployed to South Vietnam in December 1965 as a member of H&S Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. In June 1966, he was transferred to Bravo Company, Second Platoon, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division where he participated in 22 Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols in enemy territory. After a 13-month tour of duty, he returned home on January 15, 1967. He was next assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point, North Carolina. Several months later, he volunteered to return to Vietnam for a second tour of duty.
He was assigned to H&S Company, 1st Amtrac Battalion (1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion), 3rd Marine Division in South Vietnam. In October 1967, Kovic supposedly shot and killed another Marine by accident in a friendly fire incident during a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) ambush near a village along the Cua Viet River.
On January 20, 1968, while leading a reconnaissance force of battalion scouts from the 1st Amtrac Battalion just north of the Cua Viet River in the vicinity of the village of My Loc, in the Demilitarized Zone, Kovic’s squad came into contact with the 803rd NVA Regiment and elements of a Viet Cong battalion that was besieging the village, and he was shot by North Vietnamese soldiers while attempting to aid the South Vietnamese Popular Force unit in the village while leading his rifle squad across an open area. He was shot first in the right foot, which tore out the back of his heel, then again through the right shoulder, suffering a collapsed lung and a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down. The first Marine that tried to save him was shot through the heart and killed, then a second Marine carried Kovic to safety through heavy enemy fire (Kovic learned years later that this second Marine was killed later that afternoon but that is disputed). Kovic then spent a week in an intensive care ward in Da Nang. As a result of his service and injuries in the conflict, Kovic was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Combat ”V” for heroism in battle and the Purple Heart Medal.
Before the war in Vietnam was declared ended on April 30, 1975, Kovic became one of the best-known peace activists among the Vietnam veterans and was arrested 12-times for political protesting. He attended his first peace demonstration soon after the Kent State shootings in May 1970, and gave his first speech against the war at Levittown Memorial High School in Levittown, Long Island, New York that same spring. Kovic’s speech that day was interrupted by a bomb threat and the auditorium cleared.
Undeterred, Kovic continued speaking to students from the school’s football grandstands. His first arrest was during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration at an Orange County, California draft board in the spring of 1971 when he refused to leave the office of the draft board explaining to a representative that, by sending young men to Vietnam, they were inadvertently, ”condemning them to their death,” or to be wounded and maimed like himself in a war that he had come to believe was, ”immoral and made no sense.” He was told that, if he did not leave the draft board immediately, he would be arrested. Kovic refused to leave, and was taken away by police.
In a new introduction to his book, Born on the Fourth of July (1976), written in March 2005, Kovic stated, ”I wanted people to understand. I wanted to share with them as nakedly and openly and intimately as possible what I had gone through, what I had endured. I wanted them to know what it really meant to be in a war, to be shot and wounded, to be fighting for my life on the intensive care ward, not the myth we had grown up believing. I wanted people to know about the hospitals and the enema room, about why I had become opposed to the war, why I had grown more and more committed to peace and nonviolence. I had been beaten by the police and arrested twelve times for protesting the war and I had spent many nights in jail in my wheelchair. I had been called a Communist and a traitor, simply for trying to tell the truth about what had happened in that war, but I refused to be intimidated.” In 1989, Kovic presented actor Tom Cruise (born July 3, 1962) who portrayed him in the movie Born On The Fourth of July, on the last day of filming, the original Bronze Star Medal he had received, explaining to Cruise that he was giving him the medal as a gift ”for his heroic performance.” Time magazine reported that Oliver Stone said, ”He gave it to Tom for bravery for having gone through this experience in hell as much as any person can without actually having been there.”
In 1974, Kovic led a group of disabled Vietnam War veterans in wheelchairs on a 17-day hunger strike inside the Los Angeles office of Senator Alan Cranston. The veterans protested the ”poor treatment in America’s Veterans Hospitals” and demanded better treatment for returning veterans, a full investigation of all Veterans Affairs (V.A.) facilities, and a face-to-face meeting with head of the V.A. Donald E. Johnson. The strike continued to escalate until Johnson finally agreed to fly out from Washington, D.C., and meet with the veterans. The hunger strike ended soon after that. Several months later Johnson resigned. In late August 1974 Kovic traveled to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he spent a week in the Catholic stronghold of ”Turf Lodge,” interviewing both political activists and residents.
Kovic was a speaker at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, seconding the nomination of draft resister Fritz Efaw for Vice President of the United States. Time magazine described the scene as one of the few poignant moments of the convention and many in the audience were brought to tears. On July 12, 1977, Kovic was arrested with 191 students and supporters during the Gym protests at Kent State University. In 1988, Kovic was a Jesse Jackson delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia.
From 1990 to 1991, Kovic took part in several anti-war demonstrations against the first Gulf War, which occurred not long after the release of his biographical film in 1989. In early May 1999, following the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Kovic met with China’s ambassador to the United States Li Zhaoxing at the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. to express his most sincere condolences and present the ambassador and his staff with two dozen red roses. He was an outspoken critic of the Iraq War.
In November 2003, he joined protests in London against the visit of George W. Bush. He was the guest of honor at a reception held for British peacemakers at London’s city hall by Mayor Ken Livingstone. The following day, he led a march of several hundred thousand demonstrators on Trafalgar Square, where a huge rally was held protesting the visit of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. Kovic attended the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. On Sunday, August 24, 2008, the day before the convention began, Kovic spoke, then led thousands in a march against the war which ended with him saying, ”In the city of Denver, we got welcomed home.”
In March 2007, Kovic checked into the Ernest Bors Spinal Cord Injury ward of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Long Beach, California, for an undisclosed illness.
On January 20, 2008, Kovic observed his 40th anniversary of having been shot and paralyzed in the Vietnam War. Kovic, in March 2005, said: ”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, and entirely different vision. I now believe I have suffered for a reason and in many ways I have found that reason in my commitment to peace and nonviolence. My life has been a blessing in disguise, even with the pain and great difficulty that 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.”
On April 8, 2009, Kovic joined British MP George Galloway to launch Viva Palestina USA, an American branch of Viva Palestina. Kovic planned to co-lead with Mr. Galloway a humanitarian relief convoy to the Gaza Strip in early July 2009. On December 6, 2009 Kovic spoke honoring Bruce Springsteen at the 32nd annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. On December 22, 2009, Kovic, Oliver Stone, and friends celebrated the 20th anniversary of the 1989 film release of Born on the Fourth of July at a dinner party in Torrance, California. In April 2010, Kovic traveled to Rome, Italy, as a member of the Council for Dignity, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation. Between April 19–26, he attended meetings at Rome’s City Hall with other international peace activists, diplomats and academics, to discuss the need for conflict resolution and other more peaceful, nonviolent alternatives to war as a way of solving the world’s many conflicts. On April 21, 2010, he spoke of his journey from war to peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation before Rome’s mayor Gianni Alemanno, and other civic leaders at Rome’s Ara Pacis (Altar of Augustan Peace), commissioned by the Roman Senate July 4- 13 BC.
Kovic lives in Redondo Beach, California, where he writes, paints, plays the piano, and gardens. He has never married although he did have a relationship with Connie Panzarino (author of The Me in the Mirror). He is now in the process of writing the long-awaited sequel to his book, Born on The Fourth of July.
Kovic is the uncle of Adam Kovic, founder of media company, Funhaus.