For paralyzed Vietnam veteran and antiwar activist Ron Kovic, 65, the premiere of the film Born on the Fourth of July 22 years ago today was the realization of a dream. But the movie, based on his searing memoir of the same name, almost didn't get made.
It was in 1977, he said in a telephone interview with the AARP Bulletin from his home in Redondo Beach, Calif., that he first met with a struggling screenwriter and Vietnam vet named Oliver Stone about turning his book into a movie. Al Pacino was set to play Kovic, but at the last minute financing fell apart. Stone promised Kovic that if he ever made it in Hollywood as a director, he would tell Kovic's story.
Stone kept his promise. In 1986, with the breakout success of Stone's Platoon, he was able to get backing and shoot the film, this time with Tom Cruise in the lead role.
Kovic and Stone went on to share a Golden Globe award for best screenplay. The film won several other Golden Globe and Academy awards.
Born on the 4th of July in 1946, Kovic grew up on Long Island, one of six children in a staunchly patriotic Catholic family. His parents met while serving in the Navy during World War II. He was an all-American boy, so proud of being born on his country's birthday, he said. A natural athlete, he idolized Mickey Mantle and dreamed of growing up to play for the New York Yankees. "We were always expecting to win all the time, just like America back then," Kovic said.
Inspired by John Wayne movies and two uncles who had been in the Marines, he enlisted right out of high school and later volunteered for a second tour. "I remember thinking how much I wanted to set my own example, like my father and the fathers of our neighborhood who had fought in World War II and won a great victory. And I was determined to go back to Vietnam."
But his life would be changed, "profoundly and forever," he wrote in his book, when he was wounded in Vietnam in January 1968. A bullet tore through his spinal cord, paralyzing him permanently from the chest down.
He was treated in the Bronx Veterans Hospital, where rats ran across the floors of the filthy wards and veterans were left unattended for hours because of staff shortages. In a 1970 cover story, "Our Forgotten Wounded," Life magazine described it as a "medical slum."
The "unspeakable" hospital conditions, he said, made him question for the first time why he had gone to Vietnam. "It truly made me wonder whether I and the others who had gone to that war had gone for nothing."