In 1974, Ron Kovic and some of his friends from the VA hospital decide to do a sit-in to protest the atrocious conditions under which they are forced to live when they are hospitalized. Like? The wards are "overcrowded and terribly understaffed."
The aides would sit in their little room at the end of the hall drinking coffee and cackling away as men on the wards cried out for help that never came. All the windows were tightly shut. The air was rancid, and I would push my call button again and again but no one would come to help.
"The anger and frustration would build up inside me and I would remember several times screaming into my pillow as I lay on my gurney until I was exhausted." And if they complain? Those who do get doubly penalized - - - the workers leave them sweltering in their own waste, and at times, threaten, them with lobotomies(!)
And even though they view it as a "dungeon," as they are spinal cord injured, they can never really get free of the VA hospital. They have to return again and again with the complications that all paraplegics and quadriplegics suffer repeatedly - - - opportunistic infections, weak lungs, bed sores, phantom pain, broken bones, uncontrollable spasms.
They decide the best place to do their protest is in the Los Angeles office of Alan Cranston, since he is up for reelection that year (1974). He is also chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs in Washington.
So Kovic calls his office and says to the staffer, "Hi, this is Ron Kovic and I'm a paralyzed Vietnam veteran calling from the Long Beach veterans hospital. I'm calling today because we've got some serious problems down here on the Spinal Cord Injury ward and we'd like to set up a meeting with Senator Cranston as soon as possible."
Only Kovic and his friend Bobby - - - also in a wheelchair - - - and the reader know that this will not be a simple visit to the office, but, depending on how many people Kovic can scare up, a full-fledged sit-in "until our demands are met."
This Kovic is a shit-kicker. He was wounded in 1968 in Vietnam, and soon after he returned to the United States, instead of passively accepting his fate, chose to point out to the world that his injury came from being involved in an ugly war half-way across the world, declared to keep us free from the dominoes of communism (as they phrased it in those days). Yet he knew from personal experience that those who suffer equally in these wars were not only the soldiers, but the common folk, the men and women and children who care nothing about politics, just want to get on with their lives.
It was after his injury that Kovic first began his sit-ins, marching (in his wheelchair) with other activists, picketing political conventions, interrupting speeches of politicians, raising general hell - - - and finally writing in his very angry (and very good) first book:"I am the living death,
a Memorial Day on wheels.
I am your Yankee Doodle Dandy,
your John Wayne come home,
your Fourth of July firecracker
exploding in the grave."- - - Born on the Fourth of July
§ § §
Kovic volunteered for two tours of duty in Vietnam, was injured in January of 1968. It was then that he saw the war had not only injured him, but was destroying an innocent people as it was murdering for too many young men of America. During subsequent years, he wrote, picketed, and was arrested twelve times for his activities.
After the war ended, while he was "serving time" in various Veterans hospitals, he and a few of his friends decided that the men who had given their all for their country should be treated honorably in rehabilitation as well. He also knew that the only way to change the conditions of treatment then available to disabled veterans was by direct action. This is the story of Hurricane Street.
For many of us disabled, Kovic is a double hero. He served with distinction and honor in a dispicable war. And, once injured, he vigorously protested that his country would send what used to be called "the flower of youth" to be exposed to possible injury or death, and, at the same time, force them to learn one of the hardest lessons of war. That is, that it turns all involved in it bestial.
There is a powerful chapter in Hurricane Street where each of the protesters tell of a personal experience of inhumanity in the field - - - the clipping off of ears, and fingers, and noses and, in once case, setting fire to a Vietnamese woman's hutch as she trembles watching, helpless, her baby in her arms.
We were sent over here to help these people. But I watched in silence, trying to be a good marine as the woman's hooch burned to the ground, together with everything she owned.
The best part of Hurricane Street is Kovic's story of the seventeen days with his pals camped out in Cranston's office, there in a fancy Los Angeles high rise. The protesters not only did a sit-in, they fasted, while, all the while, turning the Senator's conference room into a miniature VA hospital, with all the smells and appurtenances of a VA hospital - - - caths, bandages, swabs, support equipment.
And as the news got out, they fielded calls days and night from newspapers and radio and television stations, watching themselves on their small black-and-white television set, listening to their voices on radio.
He also tells of the strain of the evening meetings, the protesters often at odds with each other, complaining of the cramped conditions, the lack of the facilities to do their personal care, so vital for one who has neither feeling in nor protection for their atrophied limbs. Several of them rebelled, wanting just to get it done with, to abandon ship, but were often talked into staying by Kovic. He prided himself on being a cadgy, non-stop fighter, and a hell of a good leader of those who do not necessarily want to be led.
Sometimes they ended their evenings' meetings telling stories of their fighting and their agony, at one point reciting the date and place of their wounding, being "a day none of us can ever forget. . . . January 20, 1968, Cua Viet, Vietnam," I finally say, biting my lower lip.
We only learn the true extent of Kovic's disability half-way through Hurricane Street. He repeats for us a weird discussion that he had in 1969 with an official of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:
"Let me see," he said, looking down at his papers. "One hundred service-connected, totally disabled, complete loss of bowel and bladder functions, injured in combat, gunshot wound, paralysis, T-4 level.
"Is this correct," he asked, still staring down at his papers. It's really quite simple," he went on.
For instance, if a soldier or marine loses an arm or a leg in combat, they might get, if they're lucky, 30 to 40 percent disability, but in your case - - - that is, those of you who have lost everything: legs, bowel, bladder, sexual organs - - - you'll be receiving the maximum payment. Unlike the guys who lose fewer body parts - - - loss of a nose, an ear, a finger - - - that had to be decided on a case-by-case basis. I know a guy who got 10 percent disability payment for having his pinkie shot off; and a navy corpsman who lost his left ear while trying to save a marine - - - he get 20 percent, I think. It's crazy.
"It's crazy," he says. He's right. War is a nation gone mad. Apparently, there are still those who wallow in the heroics of it, but their numbers may be diminishing. Part of the reason may be this man Kovic and his buddies, so long ago, taking over the office of a disinterested Senator, making the politician's office into "a makeshift VA hospital ward," which action finally ended up getting the attention of the director of the VA.
All the medical supplies that Eddie got are now lined up perfectly along the office windowsill: twenty-four irrigation-solution bottles, eleven boxes of latex rubber gloves, sixty tubes of lubricant for cleaning out our rear ends, six dozen plastic bags to put the crap in, seventeen urine bags or "nighttime drainage bags" as they are called, twenty-six catheter-change kits used to insert the catheters into our penises and inflate the little plastic bulbs inside our bladders, enabling us to urinate without wetting our pants. Several boxes of government diapers have been added for those who are incontinent.
By his singular acts of rebellion, Kovic taught many of us that the price of international violence is high, for it not only destroys "the enemy," whoever that may be, but also those who are supposed to be on "our side," which ever that may be.--- Richard Saturday