Follow one paraplegic vet's struggle to accept his fate, and use his experience to shed light on the psychological and fiscal costs of war.
Hurricane Street (Akashic Books, 2016), by Ron Kovic, is an unflinching anti-war declaration, written in blood and the sweat of too many haunted nights of Vietnam veterans. Kovic is a Vietnam veteran paralyzed from the waist down who was a part of the hunger strike staged in 1974 to protest Veterans Administration and reveal the overcrowded and deplorable conditions in VA hospitals.
The first thing that hits you in this place is the smell. It is a terrible odor of urine and feces, of human bodies all crammed into these depressing little cubicles. There are no private rooms, just these filthy green curtains separating the paralyzed men in their hospital beds. It is like a huge warehouse of human refuse, a storage center for the living dead. There is talk of building a new facility but the funds are just not there. They must all go to the war effort, a war we cannot win, a war where young men continue to die and are maimed for nothing, for a lost cause.
As paralyzed veterans, we all walk a very thin line between being on the outside and stuck in this place. It is not an easy wound to live with. There are the bedsores and the catheters, the urinary tract infections and high fevers, the lack of sexual function, spasms, and terrible insomnia that torments you in the night. Each morning you wake up wondering how you’re going to make it through another day. There is an entire body that does not move or feel from your midchest down and you are constantly lifting yourself up from your cushion in your wheelchair to keep your skin from breaking down. You’re scared and try your best to hide all that you’ve lost, all that you’re going through.
Do the American people, the president, the politicians, senators, and congressmen who sent us to this war have any idea what it really means to lose an arm or a leg, to be paralyzed, or to begin to cope with the psychological wounds of that war? Do they have any concept of the long-term effects of these injuries, how the struggles of the wounded are only now just beginning? How many will die young and never live out their lives because of all the stress and the myriad of problems that come with sending young men into combat?
You struggle to look normal — to fit into this world again after all that has happened to you. It all seems so overwhelming at first, but somehow you find a way to continue on. There are the anxiety attacks and the horrifying nightmares, the depression and thoughts of giving up. You do your best. You’ve got to keep living. You’ve got to keep getting up every morning no matter how crazy it all seems. You’re amazed that you’re still alive, that after all the frustrations and confinement, in and out of bed, fevers, IVs, wetting your pants, soiling the sheets, you are still here, still in this world.
You try to sit proudly in your wheelchair every day, try not to lose your balance. It is incredible how normal a person can look if he only tries. You do your best to get back into life again but you know deep down inside that nothing will ever be the same, that you have lost more than most people could ever imagine, sacrificed more for your country, short of dying, than most of your fellow citizens could ever comprehend.
Dr. M., the chief surgeon at the hospital’s Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Center, walks past me. He is very tired but still he recognizes me and says hello. He has been in the operating room all day. His first patient, a paraplegic from D ward, had to have a flap put on his rear end for a bedsore that wouldn’t heal. There are a lot of them in here with that problem and sometimes the flap doesn’t take and they have to do it all over again. It can be very frustrating. Dr. M.’s second patient was not as lucky and had to have his gangrenous left foot removed. The nurses did all they could to save the foot but in the end they just weren’t able to. There are a lot of paralyzed guys around here with amputated legs. You can get a really bad burn and not even know it. I remember hearing a story once about a guy who came home drunk one night with his girlfriend and she filled the bathtub and placed him in it, not realizing the water was scalding hot. He got burned really badly and died the following week. There are a lot of stories like that and you try to never forget them. These are important lessons, and as horrible as it may seem, remembering them is crucial to our survival.
For nearly three months last year I was a patient here at the Long Beach VA hospital, healing a terrible bedsore on my rear end after a fall in the bathtub at my apartment. The accident happened not long after I had broken up with a woman named Carol who I first met at an antiwar demonstration in Los Angeles in the spring of 1972. Carol was the first woman I loved and the very first woman to break my heart. After we broke up I felt as if my whole world had fallen apart.
I was depressed and hardly getting any sleep at night. I remember putting a bandage over the bruise but it just kept getting worse. After a while the bruise became a sore and the sore an open wound, until finally I had to turn myself in to the hospital.
The last place I wanted to be was back in the Long Beach VA hospital. I hated the place. The conditions were atrocious, as bad if not worse than the Bronx VA in New York where I had been after I first came home from the war. The wards were 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 remember several times screaming into my pillow as I lay on my gurney until I was exhausted. I felt so helpless, so lost. During the entire time, in that depressing place, Carol never called or came down to visit me once. I felt abandoned, betrayed, and soon stopped shaving and began to let my hair grow long. I remember looking in the mirror one morning thinking how much I resembled Jesus Christ hanging from the cross. I thought back again to the Bronx VA when I had been stuck in that chest cast for nearly six months after breaking my femur, and how as I had lain on a gurney on my stomach I would paint pictures of the crucifixion with myself as Christ, and how they’d sent the psychiatrist down from the psych ward because they were concerned and I immediately stopped painting, afraid they would have me committed just like my Uncle Paul who had been beaten to death in a mental hospital years before.
The weeks and months in the Long Beach VA hospital passed, and I slowly began to adjust to my surroundings. Each morning the aides would lift me out of bed and place me on a gurney, stuffing a pillow under my chest to keep my testicles from squishing and my hips from getting red. They would do the same thing with my legs, placing another pillow under my kneecaps, making sure my bed bag was hooked up, then handing me my two wooden canes. Lying on the gurney on my stomach I’d push around the wards, then down to the cafeteria where I’d get something to eat. I would then go outside on the grass where I’d throw bits of crackers to the sparrows. This became a daily routine for me.
In the weeks that followed I began to make new friends. Many, like myself, had been paralyzed in Vietnam, guys like Marty Stetson and Willy Jefferson, Woody and Nick, Danny Prince and Jake Jacobs, or Jafu as he liked to be called, who used to be a bodybuilder before he joined the marines. Jafu, I learned from Marty, was wounded in Operation Starlite on August 23, 1965, while participating in America’s first major offensive of the Vietnam War. He was shot in the chest, paralyzing him from his waist down. From what Marty told me, Jafu’s squad got caught in a horseshoe ambush, and though gravely wounded, Jafu continued to return fire with his M60 machine gun until reinforcements arrived. For this he was awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart.
Nick Enders shares a completely different story, though, telling me Jafu was actually paralyzed while on R&R in Hawaii. Some guy caught him sleeping with his wife and in a jealous rage threw him out of the sixth-floor window of his hotel room, paralyzing Jafu for life. I don’t know which story is true but I try not to ask too many questions. In a place like this, those things don’t seem to matter.
Of the new friends I’ve made at the hospital, Jafu is probably the quietest of the bunch, saying very little and letting his grunting and groaning down in the physical therapy room speak for itself. A runner-up in the Mr. Universe contest before the war, Jafu could bench press 250 pounds and now boasts he will soon be lifting three hundred pounds as a paraplegic. He has an incredible physique. From his waist up, his bulging muscles remind me of a championship boxer or wrestler. In high school he ran the hundred-yard dash in 9.7 seconds and set a school record.
Jafu refuses to accept the fact that his paralysis is permanent. He is convinced that given enough time, determination, and effort he will be able to overcome his injury. He talks about it all the time and has even hired a Chinese herbalist on the outside who says he can help. The man prescribes herbal medicines, everything from devil’s claw to capsaicin, arnica to coca leaves. Jafu takes all sorts of vitamins and supplements, convinced his spine can be fused together through a proper diet and physical regimen.
He speaks of experiments with rats in Canada that he has read about in Reader’s Digest where, miraculously, the animals’ severed spines have been regenerated. Like everyone else in this place, Jafu has his hopes and dreams. As soon as he gets out of the hospital he plans to move to Hawaii and open a weightlifting gym on Waikiki Beach where he will continue his journey toward walking again. I have often seen him sitting in his wheelchair alone in the hallway, staring off into the distance, seeming terribly lost and deep in thought. I want to go up to him but I hesitate. There are just some things a man needs to figure out for himself.
While most of us here have accepted our fate and know our wounding in the war is permanent, Jafu refuses to believe that he will never walk again. For the most part we support him, encouraging him, even if we all know it’s just his way of coping. A person has a right to keep on hoping; no one wants to take away Jafu’s dreams. In a place like this, there must be hope, and even Jafu’s stubbornness and denial give us all something to believe in.
I understand why Jafu feels the way he does. When I was at the Bronx VA in New York back in 1968, I was determined to walk again no matter what. I was young, twenty-one years old, and though initially devastated by my paralysis, I was convinced like Jafu that with enough hard work and determination I could walk again. I told the doctors I wanted braces, and at first they resisted, explaining to me that my idea of walking again was unrealistic if not impossible and that the level of my injury, T4 – T6, was too high and dragging my paralyzed body around with braces and crutches would surely prove to be too strenuous.
Refusing to accept their verdict, I continued to insist that they allow me to have the braces — explaining that as a 100 percent service-connected combat vet who had just sacrificed three-quarters of his body in Vietnam, I deserved the opportunity to try to walk again. For the next few weeks I continued to ask for the braces, even threatening to call the media and hold a press conference on the Spinal Cord Injury ward unless they followed through with my request. Eventually the doctors relented and about a month later I received the braces.
I can still remember the first time I put the braces on in the ADL (activity of daily living) room with the help of my two physical therapists, Dick Carter and Jimmy Ford. I was so excited and couldn’t wait to get up on my feet. Carefully positioning myself behind the parallel bars, I grabbed ahold of both bars and in one quick motion lifted myself out of my wheelchair, and, with the help of my braces, stood in an upright position for the first time since my injury.
I felt a bit weak and shaky at first but it was wonderful to be standing again, even if I couldn’t feel anything from my midchest down and had to imagine where my lower body and feet were. With Jimmy and Dick guiding me, I began to drag myself step by step as far as I could along the parallel bars until I was exhausted.
“It’s beautiful up here!” I remember shouting to no one in particular, thrilled at the renewal of my old vantage point.
Every day after that I arrived at the ADL room early put on my braces. I would then begin my daily routine, dragging my paralyzed body back and forth between the parallel bars, determined to do my very best.
By the second week I had already left the confines and safety of the parallel bars and begun to venture around the ADL room, proudly dragging my lifeless body past the others in their wheelchairs and no longer afraid to set out on my own. Each day, as I grew more and more confident and my stamina increased, so did my determination to go farther.
By the third week I was now dragging my body down the hall and onto the paraplegic ward, visiting the other patients in their rooms and confounding many of the doctors and nurses who had earlier dismissed my belief that I would walk again.
I said hello to everyone, including a few of the doctors and nurses who had warned me that for a high-level injury like my own — no use of my stomach muscles, and a spine that had been severed by a bullet — the odds against me walking again, much less even getting up on my feet, were astronomical. Some of them looked at me like I was crazy while still others chose to simply ignore me, turning their heads as I dragged myself past them. Of course, back then as a fiercely determined, twenty-one-year-old former Marine Corps sergeant just back from a war and a former high school athlete, I believed I could accomplish anything I set out to do. As far as I was concerned, like Jafu, nothing was impossible.
I remember telling Jimmy Ford several weeks later that the only way I was going to leave the hospital was on my feet. “I’m going to walk out of this place, Jimmy, if it’s the last thing I do!”
By late November of 1968, having been in the hospital a little over eleven months and my rehab now complete, I was finally ready to be released. I’ll always remember that last day at the hospital: Dick and Jimmy helping me put on my braces one last time, awkwardly dragging my body with my crutches out of the ADL room, Dick spotting me all the way across the hall and into the elevator where we rode down to the ground floor. “You can do it, Ronnie! You can do it. Careful, Ronnie. Careful now!”
I had only a little farther to go before I reached the SCI parking lot where my brand-new hand-controlled Oldsmobile was parked. I struggled, dragging myself across the gravel lot, growing more and more determined — doing my best not to fall . . . trying not to lose my balance.
“A little bit farther. A little bit farther! Keep going, Ronnie! Almost there, Ronnie!” shouted Dick. “Only a little more to go.”
When we finally reached the car I leaned forward, still balancing myself on the crutches, and unlocked the door, and after opening it slowly I spun around, swinging myself into the seat. “I did it, Dick!” I shouted. “I told you I was going to walk out of this place.” I had triumphed. I had done it.
After returning home to Massapequa, Long Island, I continued my rehabilitation, putting on braces every day, and just as I had dragged myself around the hospital, I now began to drag my body around the yard each day, seeing how far I could go, determined to continue my struggle to walk again.
It was great to be home and as I progressed each day I would sometimes notice the neighbors staring over from their front lawns or out their windows at the neighborhood boy who had returned from the war with the terrible wound, desperately trying to walk again. I did my best to put them at ease, waving to them and smiling as I awkwardly struggled to keep my balance and not fall. I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me. As difficult and frustrating as it was for me each day, I chose to see it as a great physical challenge rather than a burden. Even back then I was trying hard to see things in a more positive light. I was still the great athlete striving to win the championship, to be my very best and make the Olympics and win a gold medal.
And although I fell several times in my yard that summer, each time I was able to get myself back up and continue on.
One afternoon, just as the summer was ending, I remember my mother peering through the dining room window with the saddest look on her face I had ever seen, as I once again struggled to drag myself around the yard. She had watched me try to walk in my braces many times before, encouraging me and telling me how proud she was, but on this afternoon she was no longer able to hide her sorrow.
Years later, my mother would confide that seeing me for the first time attempting to walk with my braces in my backyard, occasionally losing my balance, falling and picking myself up, reminded her of Jesus Christ and the Stations of the Cross.
I would try to smile, lifting one of my crutches above my head and shaking it in a show of triumph to let her know everything was okay, but my mother just kept staring at me, seeming as if she was about to cry.
“What’s wrong, Mom?” I asked her when I got back into the house later that day, but all she could do was continue to look at me with those sad eyes, telling me how it hurt her to see me struggling each day, my body all twisted and atrophied, dragging myself exhausted around the yard.
“It really hurts me to see you out there. It’s too much, Ronnie. It’s too much. Maybe the doctors were right. Maybe you should just accept the fact that you’ve got to be in a wheelchair. It’s not good for you. It’s too much of a strain on your heart. I watch you, Ronnie, and it hurts me. I love you, Ronnie. I just don’t want to see you suffer anymore.”
I had hoped that my mother would continue to be encouraging and supportive of my attempt to walk again. Didn’t she and the others understand what I was trying to do? I tried not to let the neighbors’ uneasy stares and my mother’s sadness and doubts bother me, but by the end of that summer I was putting on the braces and dragging myself around the yard less and less, feeling depressed and spending more time getting drunk at Arthur’s Bar.
One night in late August I came home very drunk and pushed myself back into my house, up the wooden ramp my father had built when I was at the hospital. I pushed my wheelchair down the hallway to my room, trying not to wake my mother and father or any of my brothers and sisters. When I got there, I sat in my wheelchair staring at myself in the mirror for a long time, thinking back to the promise I had made to myself and the others in the Bronx VA hospital that I would walk again.
I had not taken my braces out of the closet or tried to walk in several months, but on that night I was determined to get up again. Sometime after midnight, I took the braces out of the closet, transferred into my bed, and put the braces on, locking them in place. I then transferred back into my wheelchair, grabbed my crutches, and lifted myself slowly out of my chair into an upright position. After taking a deep drunken breath, I began to stubbornly drag myself around the room. I had only gone a few steps when I found myself facing the mirror once again. I remember staring at my twisted and atrophied body and with one last superhuman effort, refusing to be defeated, I spun around angrily, dragging myself across the floor of my room. After several steps I lost my balance and went crashing to the floor. I thought for a moment of getting up again, of making one last vain attempt to walk, but I was too tired and drunk and instead I began to cry, tears streaming down my face, hoping my mother and father wouldn’t hear me. A few minutes later I pulled myself back into my wheelchair where I slowly unstrapped my braces and threw them into the closet.
I know the truth is that someday they will find a way to fuse the spine together, but not in my lifetime or the lifetime of the others around me. Our job here is to keep on living, to keep getting up and making it through each day any way we can.