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In Loving Memory: Veterans of the Vietnam War, Past and Present

By Alyssa Cadue, with comment by William Doherty

A little background

[1] Throughout history, wars have claimed the lives of innocent people all over the world. Sometimes the death toll is in the millions and sometimes in the hundreds, but the pain and loss affects entire societies for many years afterward. Although we as humans mourn those who have lost their lives from war, either from engaging in the fighting or simply living in the cross fire, we have a tendency to forget the survivors -- more importantly, the veterans. Veterans find themselves in a limbo between the dead and the living. They have experienced the harshest conditions and witnessed violence of unprecedented levels but somehow persevered while their fellow soldiers were lost. With the gift of life comes a difficult task of returning home and finding a place in society.

[2] Unfortunately, veterans must bear the burden of reliving war in their memories day in and day out. For the sake of their families, friends, and their futures, veterans frequently suppress their grief and march on with smiles on their faces. In reality, the original social expectations for veterans were completely unreasonable, and within the past three decades (beginning with Vietnam) a major effort has been made to increase awareness of veterans' rights and health. These changes have sparked protests, legislation, non-profit organizations, books, and films. Films, in particular, bring the reality of war and veterans' affairs into millions of homes. It is their contribution that is worth exploring because films are interconnected with the progress of veterans within our country.

The making of a visionary

[3] The name Oliver Stone holds great prestige within the film world. In his career Stone has directed over 25 movies and written several classics. Most of his films relate to historical events or figures from a variety of eras. Stone's vision and brilliance with movies has elevated his reputation beyond Hollywood and into the realm of politics. He writes with emotion and the purpose to educate the public about history, no matter how controversial the topic. As a child, Stone lived with unusual parents in New York City and struck out on his own after high school to teach in Vietnam. His experience abroad, Stone writes, was enlightening and he witnessed a Vietnam before a heavy American presence. Several years after teaching, Stone returned to Vietnam as a Marine. His perspective on humanity and peace quickly changed after his tour of duty in the war.

[4] When Stone arrived in New York City after serving in the Vietnam War, he struggled to find his place. He was a jaded, angry young man who watched his friends die in front of him and was responsible for the deaths of Vietnamese people. He mentioned in several interviews later in his career that he remembered feeling hatred towards the protestors because they couldn't possibly relate to him, and yet they were criticizing the soldiers who risked their lives for others. One of Stone's few outlets was writing, a childhood interest and talent. Unfortunately, he rejected many of his early stories and actually destroyed one in the East River. He credits his disillusion with writing as another reason for joining the Marines. However, Stone reconsidered his writing talents and entered film school in New York City after the service. The offer was particularly tempting because of the financial assistance for veterans from the G.I. bill. Stone thrived in the film environment; however, his work was darker and more complex than most of the younger students.

[5] As Oliver Stone progressed as a writer and director, his films became increasingly popular. Platoon recalled Stone's personal experiences in Vietnam and escalated his reputation to an award-winning filmmaker. Although Platoon remains a keystone Vietnam War movie, Stone's next major film's accomplishments would surpass it.

[6] "I was working on an idea about my homecoming and I'd written the script: twice, in fact -- it was called Second Life. But I was never satisfied with it. And I thought compared to Ron's story…Ron told a much larger story about the extreme of the returning veteran story. And perhaps that was the right way to do it, to do the extreme" (Salewicz 58). The film that blossomed out of Stone's and Kovic's story was none other than Born on the Fourth of July. Finally, life beyond the warzones of Vietnam was addressed to the public. Born was important to veterans because it's overwhelming success sparked conversation about the soldiers. Stone held nothing back in the film; it was harsh and angry and, most importantly, it was real. (see comment by William Doherty)

[7] The cinematography in Born was brilliant -- it captured emotions and suffering to the point where viewers could feel as though they were experiencing the same things. Perhaps the key element of Born was the cast. Stone relied on the acting skills of a few former Platoon characters, but his wisest decision was the casting of Tom Cruise to play Ron Kovic. Not only are the two men physically similar to one another, but Cruise spent hours with Kovic to learn about him and copy his mannerisms. Cruise's performance in the film is striking. As he transcends from a child to a soldier and, finally, an advocate, we can actually see the evolution of his acting and intensity on screen. He refused to portray Kovic with less fervor than the man possessed.

[8] Despite his overall great acting, it was Cruise's adaptation of Kovic's post-war hardships that make this film a critical piece of history. Beginning with the Veterans' hospitals, Kovic learned first-hand what the American majority felt about the war. As he watched the protests from a television in the hospital lounge,Kovic slowly learned that the men and women, whom he thought he was fighting for, did not in fact appreciate his service. People called the soldiers "baby killers" and rapists, not heroes. The more time that Kovic spent in rehabilitation with other veterans, the angrier he became at the government and the rest of the country. Even the nurses lacked sympathy for the patients because many of them were dealing with their own race and class wars. At one point in the film, Kovic screams to hospital staff that he just wants to be treated like a human being. In this desperate scene, Tom Cruise gives an incredible performance. He captures Kovic's anger and pain while demanding respect for himself and other soldiers. The hospital scenes are the beginning of Kovic's transition from the all-American boy next door to a determined representative for Veterans. Together, the actual events of Kovic's life and Cruise's acting bring the tragedy of post Vietnam into plain sight.

The Tipping Point

[9] Although Kovic fought bravely throughout his tours in Vietnam, he fought even harder for change when he returned. His physical handicap and emotional torment was not unlike that of thousands of young men who survived Vietnam. Unfortunately, the attention given to the needs of the Vietnam veterans was far from sufficient, and many people have struggled with grief and depression for their entire lives. Families, marriages, and friendships have dissolved from the horrible effects of post-traumatic stress disorder that was common among veterans. The extent of these problems was usually hidden within the walls of a household or displayed like a circus act in public places by homeless vets. In either case, America as a whole was unwilling to acknowledge the forgotten soldiers. In Kovic's home in Massapequa, Long Island, the controversy could not be more prevalent. His family lacked the ability to comfort him, and his parents were blatantly ignorant of his feelings. Sadly, he was not the only person to suffer under the same conditions.

[10] The climax of Born on the Fourth of July occurs late one evening. Though the scene only lasts for a few minutes, it is one of the most difficult to emotionally stand. Kovic comes home from the bar and finally breaks down into a screaming, crying rant. He realizes that all of his beliefs concerning the Marines and the Vietnam War have been lies and his sacrifices were in vain. Depressed and drunk, Kovic compares himself to the crucifix hanging on the living room wall. He renounces his belief in God and in the War and wishes that he was dead like Jesus. Unfortunately, he has to live everyday with the tormenting memories of Vietnam. While his parents and siblings try to calm him down, Kovic continues to scream and criticize the Marines. He's torn apart emotionally from the pain that he inflicted upon other people, even though he was following orders. Unlike the many arguments that he's had with his siblings because they didn't support the war, Kovic is now instigating a fight with them for not dissuading him from enlisting.

[11] While Kovic is ranting about the injustices that he's living with, his parents show no remorse, especially his mother. She's ashamed of her son and wants to dismiss his problems and ignore the facts that he shares with her. Even when Kovic admits that he killed women and children, Mrs. Kovic tells him that he didn't do those things and that he needs to get help. Rather than listen to Kovic and try to understand his grief, Mrs. Kovic (like the majority of the United States) prefers to disregard the truth. Instead, Mrs. Kovic, with her deep religious values, only acknowledges that Kovic is cursing and drinking in the house and worries what the neighbors will think of her family, not the blatant cries for help that are coming from her son.

[12] This heartbreaking scene may seem excessive and overly dramatic, but it fully exposes the magnitude of post-traumatic stress. Perhaps the fact that a Vietnam veteran directed the scene made it particularly effective. Stone focused heavily on shooting from Cruise's/ Kovic's height in a wheelchair. He locks the camera on Cruise's face for most of the dialogue, and you can see the sweat, spit, and tears as he screams to Mr. and Mrs. Kovic. Kovic is desperate and furious with the fact that he lost his physical capabilities in the war. He believed in the war without any skepticism, laid his life on the line voluntarily, and then lost his innocence with a gunshot wound. Although we sympathize for him, Kovic's struggle was felt by veterans from all over the country. These men were angry, disabled, and broken, but America stood back and refused to intervene.

[13] Despite Ron's difficulty with coping with his problems, he found a way to channel his feelings in a productive way. He joined rallies to protest the Vietnam War and demanded that veterans' rights have higher standards. His popularity as a speaker and eventually an author gave Kovic the power to help his fellow soldiers. Kovic constantly spoke on behalf of the disgraceful treatment of veterans. Men were living on the streets without medical attention. In every major city, camouflaged strangers wandered in parks with long, scraggily hair and usually with a bottle of alcohol in their hand. And what did this say about the leadership of America during this time of crisis? It said very simply that there was no room for Vietnam on our soil and fixing the problem would require an apology that government officials had little interest in issuing. That kind of gesture might get people thinking that perhaps the war was not a wise decision and that men were dying for no reason. No. We were not about to abandon our efforts in Vietnam, but the veterans were expendable losses.

[14] If you examine Ron Kovic's life after the marines, he seemed destined to spend the rest of his days drinking and crying. He lost the support of his family and was asked to move out. Completely isolated, Kovic journeyed down a path of destruction. He visited Mexico and wasted money on liquor and women. The men around him were also veterans--so disillusioned by the American perception of vets that they abandoned their country entirely. How could we let so many young soldiers slip through the cracks of society? The armed forces promised them adventure and valor. They had the chance to move out of their small towns and start over in a world that judged them by their hard work, not how much money they had or where they went to college. Yet, no soldier's dreams came true once they arrived in Vietnam. The pleasant memories from their childhoods were burned away, leaving ghosts in their place. The ultimate tragedy of the Vietnam War was the loss of an entire generation. Men and women left as teenagers and returned as adults, but the best years of their lives were spent in horrific places. They missed out on the joys of growing up, falling in love, moving away to college, and getting their first jobs. Kovic, in particular, longed to have a girlfriend and eventually a family, but that dream was shattered by paralysis.

[15] Nothing could possibly replace what the Vietnam veterans lost, but Kovic and others finally took a stand against the government. Progress for veterans' rights started slow, but with each step came more justice. Since the Vietnam War, more VA hospitals have been built with well-equipped facilities. Counseling services for veterans and their families are readily available at bases, and doctors have increased their understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions. Generally, the country has removed the negative stereotypes associated with veterans, particularly those from Vietnam, and people are more sympathetic to their needs.

[16] In spite the progress, however, Veterans' affairs continue to face obstacles with every new mission that the United States conducts. Though veterans have more resources, they ultimately decide whether or not they will take advantage of them. A common misconception with therapy is that it is a sign of weakness; therefore, seeking help for emotional trauma is considered weak. However, when you look at young men and women who are in the armed forces and walk around in public with their uniforms on, you have to wonder what they will do after going to war. Will a mother return and lack the ability to comfort her children because she's seen too many die in war zones? What about a husband who distances himself from his wife because his inner torment is so strong that it haunts him day in and day out? How many parents will lose their relationships with their veteran children like the Kovics did with Ron? This country cannot afford to repeat the inadequate treatment given to Vietnam survivors with future soldiers. These men and women offer their lives to protect those across the world, and coming home should be a relief, not another battle.

[17] From a personal standpoint, I believe that the treatment of veterans and active soldiers needs to be a priority for our government. At times, this task takes a backseat to other issues facing the country. For example, why would more money go to soldiers' salaries when thousands of people are losing their jobs every month? There is obviously a limit to financial distributions, but the work of a soldier should not be forgotten. I recently had the opportunity to visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., after working on this project. Standing alongside families and veterans meant far more after learning about the War than I ever imagined. I now understand the pain that these young soldiers went through and continue to do so. My greater concern, however, is with the men whom I know and love that are currently soldiers. I'm scared for their physical safety in war zones, but I'm more fearful of the issues they will face once they come back. After all of my research on the Vietnam War and its veterans, I am deeply troubled by the thought of seeing it within my generation.

[18] I stood in front of The Wall for a long time and looked at the thousands of names that covered it from top to bottom. Most of these people were my age when they lost their lives fighting, and they never had the chance to fulfill their dreams. My friends, when asked about the current wars, have the same goals that Ron Kovic did with Vietnam -- they want to help protect the world from adverse forces. I cannot possible thank them enough for their bravery, but I want them to have the opportunity to live happy lives after serving. They seem to think that it's only them who leave for war, but, in reality, every single person who has ever known them and loved them goes to war too. War affects entire societies and therefore should be recognized by all groups of people as a problem. We need to come together as both citizens and soldiers to make changes for the better of this country and the children who have to leave each time we declare a new purpose abroad. How many more Ron Kovic's will I see in my lifetime? How can anyone with compassion for humanity stand to see another homeless man walking in a park with his old uniform on? I plan on fighting for the people who fight for me, and I hope to see my peers do the same as we become contributing members of America.


William Doherty 8/11/10

Although Born is based on the Vietnam War experiences of U.S. Marine Kovics, this film is infused with Stone's own intensely personal view of the war. Stone served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army's Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division and First Cavalry Division. Stone was wounded twice, receiving a Purple Heart as well as the Bronze Star. Kovic's conversion from hawkish super-patriot to impassioned anti-war protester in reality took many years. In many ways, Stone uses Kovic's life -- he was born on the same day as the USA and went through a conversion from hawkish super-patriot to impassioned anti-war protester over the course of his life -- as an allegory for the changes in America in the wake of the Vietnam War and the painful coming-to-terms the country had to undergo as its feelings about the war, and whether it was a war we should be fighting, changed.