Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Hurricane Street by Ron Kovic


Hurricane Street is the long awaited follow-up to Ron Kovic's 1974 Born on the 4th of July, which Oliver Stone faithfully adapted into an award-winning movie under the same name in 1989.
From the publisher: In the spring of 1974, as the last American troops were being pulled out of Vietnam, Ron Kovic and a small group of other severely injured veterans in a California VA hospital launched the American Veterans Movement. In a phenomenal feat of political organizing, Kovic corralled his fellow AVM members into staging a sit-in, and then a hunger strike, in the Los Angeles office of Senator Alan Cranston, demanding better treatment of injured and disabled veterans.

This was a short-lived and chaotic but ultimately successful movement to improve the deplorable conditions in VA hospitals across the country. Hurricane Street is their story--one that resonates deeply today--told by Kovic in the passionate and brutally honest style that led to over one million sales of Born on the Fourth of July.
The publisher's blurb above makes it sound like Kovic's accomplishment was the result of well-laid plans. It was anything but. While Kovic knew he wanted to agitate for better conditions in VA hospitals, he admittedly had no idea what he was doing. When he came up with a vague idea to occupy Senator Cranston's office, he lied to his fellow veterans about his intention and why they were going to the office:
“I know that I have not been completely honest with them and have purposely withheld information regarding tomorrow’s meeting. I am hoping that if I can just get them down there, everything will fall into place. I’m also convinced that if I tell them the whole truth, few, if any of them, will want to go. This is the only way it can be done” (84).
The small group of veterans occupy the senator's office, but they're not getting results. Enthusiasm wanes. The idea of a hunger strike wasn't planned, but someone proposes it and this idea borne of desperation is what eventually gets the attention Kovic and his group were hoping for. Reforms are promised.

The group returns to Hurricane Street riding a wave of success. After a few days the guys are ready to go back to their lives. Kovic panics:
“Maybe they are right and it’s finally time we all go our separate ways, but the thought of breaking up the AVM and ending up alone on Hurricane Street again frightens me. As my dream of the AVM being the catalyst for a greater uprising begins to fade, I plead, “We’ve got to stay together, brothers. We can’t quit now!
    Once again I know I have to do something fast if I’m going to keep everyone together, and I immediately suggest and even greater action. And just as I withheld some facts in order to get all the guys to come with me to Senator Cranston’s office and launch the sit-in, I begin doing the same thing all over again, refusing to tell them of my hidden agenda, knowing full well that few if any will join me if they know all I hope to achieve” (191).
This greater action is a march on Washington, which ends up being a bust. Kovic and his closest allies next attempt to take over of the Washington Monument and the White House, both of which are unsuccessful and end up making the AVM look a bit foolish. Shortly afterwards, Kovic is voted out as leader of the AVM, which is immediately disbanded.

And that's what success in real life looks like. Kovic got results even if it sometimes seemed like failure. Because of guys like Ron Kovic and the media attention they generated, veterans started to receive better care at VA hospitals. Fighting for better medical care is something each generation of American veterans has had to do.

The style of Kovic's writing is as simple and straightforward as the cover of the book. At times it seems graceful and at other times it seems as if you're reading the private journal of a ham-fisted teenaged grunt.

I wanted more details from Kovic in this book. Some sections seemed much too vague, such as when he was traveling around the country visiting veterans groups to gain support for the march. At least one detail was totally wrong--he mentions quietly opening a can of Diet Coke in 1974, a beverage that didn't exist until 1982. (Sorry, I was in high school when it came out and it was a big deal.)  And I'd like to know if there was a government spy in the AVM who worked to shut it down. But these are small beans compared to the overall story Kovic tells. It's not a story most people will bother to read.

One detail that caught me off guard, which is one of the most poignant moments of the book, is when Kovic mentions running into Donald Johnson years after the hunger strike. Johnson was head of the VA in 1974. Back then Johnson had been the enemy, but over the years Kovic came to learn that Johnson had served honorably in WWII, that the man's father died in WWI and his own son was a disabled Vietnam-era veteran. Kovic writes about Johnson,
"Never during the strike did I or the others take this into consideration. How could we? We were angry . . . obsessed with our own priorities. Back then there was no middle ground. The truth is, I wish I had been able to tell him that day that I was sorry for the way we had treated him" (233).
But it was a battle he was fighting in 1974 and because of "powerless" men like Kovic, men in positions of power like Johnson were made to work harder to truly take care of America's veterans (or quit if they weren't the right man for the job).

Title: Hurricane Street
Author: Ron Kovic
Publisher Akashic Books, July 4, 2016
Source: Free book with no strings attached from LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Recommend to folks interested in U.S. veterans, veterans rights, Vietnam era. Not recommended for general audience.

See my post on Born on the 4th of July.

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