By John Ketwig (reviewer)
by Ron Kovic
(Akashic Books, 2016)
Fully forty years after his best-selling book "Born on the 4th of July," more than a quarter-century after Tom Cruise starred in a movie of the same name, Ron Kovic has released a new book! While I know that Kovic and VVAW had their differences back in the day, I would be hard-pressed to name another American, and especially another Vietnam vet, who has done more to attract attention to the plight of seriously wounded vets systematically mistreated by the Veterans Administration and far too many of the nation's VA hospitals. To those of us who don't know him personally, Ron Kovic is a PR genius, an attention-getter, and a genuine American hero.
Kovic's new book is titled "Hurricane Street" after the address of an apartment he rented in Marina Del Rey, back in 1974. It is a curious title, because very little of the action took place in that location. Hurricane Street is about the VA hospital in Long Beach, California back in the early seventies, and a group of severely disabled veterans who were patients there after, for most of them, being wounded in Vietnam.
I must admit from the outset that I have previously read about Kovic's American Veterans Movement and the occupation of Senator Cranston's office in Gerald Nicosia's great book "Home To War: A History Of The Vietnam Veterans' Movement." 1974 was a troubling time in America, with the war winding down, but its passions bubbling over, the emerging Watergate scandal, and the American public's range of political frustrations erupting in the form of groups as diverse as the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, the president's Plumbers, the unprecedented Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the "Hard Hats," and even the Symbionese Liberation Army. To most of America the "protest" by a group of disabled vets from the Long Beach, California VA hospital was at best a footnote of history, and one far less memorable than the photo of Patty Hearst holding a machine gun during the robbery of the Hibernia Bank in California.
There are too many typos and misspelled words in Hurricane Street. That's the editor's fault, not the author's, but it is a shame. Nicosia's book is a comprehensive history almost two inches thick. Hurricane Street is a small book in every dimension, but not in content. It will fit comfortably into the thighside pocket of a pair of 21st century cargo pants. That's great for the reader, because this is a book you won't want to put down. Ron Kovic tells one hell of a story, rich with all the raw passions and the emotions that our wounded veterans felt as they were blatantly and obscenely mistreated by the government and its VA system of medical malpractices. Kovic describes the desperation and utter despair of the maimed and helpless, imprisoned in a surreal landscape of overflowing bed pans and piss bags, of zombie-like fellows kept numb on Thorazine, and of amputees and paralyzed guys suffering from bedsores, boredom, and anger at the way their government treats them after they have given so much. But there is also ample testimony of the touching cooperation, humor, and compassion that allowed those severely wounded vets to help each other through the tough times. Back in 1974, all of these sensory overloads inspired Ron Kovic to organize a rebellion.
Now, in 2016, the memories of those horrors are still so vivid, so important, that he is inspired again to tell us the true story of the time a few brave, desperate American veterans dared to protest, to rebel, and to break out of their prison for a few days. They didn't expect much. The head of the VA flew to LA from Washington just to disrespect them from a distance, and shit upon their hopes. Still occupying the Senator's office suite, the vets staged a hunger strike until that same head of the VA was forced to return to Los Angeles and meet with them. No, the Veterans Administration was not significantly changed by this action, but it was changed a little, and the American public became aware of the plight of the veterans.
High school students today are beset with military recruiters, and Ron Kovic has once again challenged the system with the raw and ugly truth. No other American has done more.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of "...and a hard rain fell: A G.I.'s True Story of the War in Vietnam". First published by Macmillan in 1985, it is still available at most bookstores.