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McNamara Still Owes Vets a Debt : EYEWITNESS: RON KOVIC

April 23, 1995

* As told to Robert Scheer

I have no malice toward Robert McNamara, I have nothing but forgiveness, but I want him to understand the real lessons of the Vietnam War. I want him to understand what those difficult days and years were like for me and what they must have been like for the tens of thousands of others who were wounded. I want him to know the human cost of war, for those who served and those who did not question. All the dead whose names are on the Wall in Washington, their voices have been silenced forever. But I can still speak, and I want to express to the former secretary of defense my understanding of a war that I continue to live with each day.

It would be a great gift to me to be able to meet with Robert McNamara in person and to walk him through those years, to take him into the intensive care ward in Da Nang, where I saw young men, 19, 20, 21 years old, fighting for their lives.

To take him back to the States with me, to share with him what it was like at the Bronx VA, with rats and overcrowded conditions, to have him experience what it was like to come home to a hospital slum. And to feel as if no one cared. To take him with me back to my house, struggling to learn to live my life in a wheelchair. Waking every morning to a body that I would never be able to feel or move again, from my mid-chest down.

I would like to walk him through my ordeal, some days when I felt like giving up, walk him through that despair, through those long bouts of depression. I would take him with me on that long dark night that I and thousands and thousands of other Americans--and obviously Vietnamese as well--went through. Those first years when I woke up every morning to anxiety attacks, to fear. Every morning when I woke up, I threw up--that 's how I started the day. I don't throw up anymore in the morning. I am happy to be able to wake up and not feel that terror, that fear and that terrible anxiety that tore me apart every morning for the first couple of years. I get up in the morning now happy to be alive, very thankful.

I still don't sleep that well. I deal with pain and discomfort all the time. I will for the rest of my life. It doesn't mean that I have to stop. I keep going, I have been going every single day for 27 years. I make myself get up into that wheelchair, and before I get up, I have got to unhook my catheter--I have a tube that goes inside my penis, and I have to change that tube; that is the only way I can go to the bathroom.

I have never been married. I live alone. I will be 49 on the 4th of July, and I have never had a family.

I would hope that he would listen to me, not only McNamara but all those still living who made this war possible, that they would have a change of heart, just as I was able to have a change of heart after serving two tours of duty in Vietnam.

I would like to take him to the Vietnam Veterans Against the War demonstrations that I spoke in, and ask why he didn't listen to the many Vietnam veterans who spoke out against that war, men who had served in that war, many of whom had been wounded. Why didn't they look to us then? Because if they had, lives might have been saved, fewer names would have had to be put on that wall in Washington. And many more Vietnamese lives would also have been saved.

McNamara moved around very freely; it was an exciting war for him. For us, it was not exciting, it was very serious, it was very difficult and it was very lonely. He could come and go as he wished, but we were isolated from our families and our friends, never able to speak to anyone, almost prisoners of that place for 13 months. Experiencing the terrible loneliness of being so far away from home, in a place that you never quite understood.

I want Robert S. McNamara and the other architects of that war to know what it was like when we veterans spoke out against the war, when we were thrown out of our wheelchairs, put behind bars, put on trial, treated like non-persons, called traitors, simply for trying to stop a war that was ruining our country.

McNamara's book is the first step. His statement that the war was "terribly wrong" is just the beginning of a national confessional that is inevitable. The greatest gift would be that our country learned the real lessons about war. Not the "Vietnam syndrome," so that we can learn to fight another war with even more bombs, even more ruthlessness, even more viciousness. What we did in the (Persian) Gulf was an atrocity, and it was an insult to the real lessons of the Vietnam War: that war is deeply immoral, that warfare is not a way to solve our problems. That's what I would tell Robert S. McNamara. That's what I would tell the people of this country.

We must confess our wrongness and the brutality. We have committed crimes against the human beings of Vietnam and against our own sons and daughters. If they could change the Wall in Washington, (we) could put above the names of those who died: "They were killed by their own government, they were killed by people who didn't understand, people who were not sensitive to life."

* Ron Kovic enlisted in the Marines at the age of 18 and was severely wounded in Vietnam on Jan. 20, 1968. His story was told in the 1989 Oliver Stone movie, "Born on the Fourth of July."

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