A Letter to the President

Dear Mr. President,

As a former United States Marine Corps Sergeant who was shot and paralyzed from my mid-chest down on January, 20th, 1968 during my second tour of duty in Vietnam, and who has lived with the wounds of that war for the past forty one years, I am writing this letter to you deeply concerned with General Stanley A. McChrystal's request for a troop escalation in Afghanistan.

Escalating this war and deploying more of America's sons and daughters to this conflict is a huge mistake -- another Vietnam disaster in the making. We are at a crucial turning point Mr. President and the decision you are about to make in the coming days and weeks may very well be the most important decision of your presidency. I cannot begin to comprehend the thoughts going through your mind as you contemplate this difficult decision, the awful burden it must be.

Many of us who served in Vietnam promised ourselves long ago that we would never again allow what happened to us in that war to ever happen again. We had an obligation as citizens, as Americans, as human beings to raise our voices in protest. We could never forget the hospitals, the intensive care wards, the wounded all around us fighting for their lives. Those long and painful years after we came home.

In your recent address to the VFW on August, 17, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona, you stated that the war in Afghanistan was a "war of necessity." I remember as I watched and listened to you that day wondering if you had any idea what you were getting us into, if you knew anything of Vietnam and the painful lessons I and others of my generation had learned from that war. You were three years old when I joined the Marine Corps out of high school in 1964, seven when I was shot and paralyzed in 1968, ten when I joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and began to protest against that war.

There were the trials and days and nights I spent in jail in my wheelchair feeling more like a criminal than someone who had once risked his life for his country, but I continued to speak. Perhaps it was survivors guilt or my own need to be forgiven and keep others from coming back like me, but as I sat before those crowds I began to open up my heart in a way I had never done before, sharing everything; all the horrors and nightmares, all the things I had locked deep inside of me, and had for so long been afraid to say. It was an extraordinary time Mr. President, an agonizing time, a time of great conflict, a time of great sorrow, and a time that would forever change the way we saw our country and the world.

In your book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream you spoke of that time, the Sixties, admitting that you were, "to young to fully grasp the nature of those changes, too removed to see the fallout on Americas psyche." I write this letter to you Mr. President as both a survivor and witness to that time and someone who must live with the consequences of a decision made by our government and it's leaders four long decades ago.

Physically and emotionally Mr. President I have struggled to live with the enormous challenge of being paralyzed. 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 feel or move from your mid-chest down and constantly you are lifting yourself up from your cushion in your wheelchair to keep your skin from breaking down.

You struggle to look normal, to fit into in this world again after all that has happened to you. It all seems so overwhelming at first Mr. President, 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're scared and you try your best to hide all that you've lost, all that you're going through every day, you can't move or feel anymore. It is an overwhelming and unspeakable injury Mr. President, but you go on. 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.

The years pass and you're still alive. You're amazed that after all these years, all the frustrations and confinement, in and out of bed, hospitals, fevers, IVs, wetting your pants, soiling the sheets, nightmares, anxiety attacks, insomnia, that you are still here, still in this world. Yet you continue on to make the best of what is left. You try to sit proudly in your wheelchair everyday trying not to lose your balance. It is amazing 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. It is a horrifying wound.

You watch your friends and fellow veterans die year after year from alcohol, drugs, suicides, a shot gun blast to the face, a car crash, an over dose, festering bed sores, toxic shock syndrome, pneumonia, homelessness, destitution and the loneliness of being forgotten. You see it all and you know that there is no flag, no parade, no welcome home that can ever make up for what you and the others have lost, for all that you have seen and endured; all those speeches, Memorial Days, Fourth of July fireworks, slogans and rhetoric about freedom and sacrifice and how, "necessary" this or that the war was, and If we did not stop them there than they would surely come to get us here.

It's way too much for a young man to see -- way too much for anyone to comprehend. Yet you go on. You do your best to block it out, to focus on the beauty of life -- the more positive things. You are amazed at the resiliency of the human spirit. You tell others how grateful you are to be alive, how you believe your wound is a blessing in disguise. And though that may be true, there are still moments in the early morning as you lie alone in your bed, slowly awakening to the wound one more time. You think, you ponder, you reflect on all that you have lost -- all those years, all that sorrow -- they come flooding back. For all the healing, despite all that you are now grateful for, all that you cherish and love; for all the goodness and kindness, despite the beauty of this still very beautiful world and all the hope and promise that it represents. But it lingers, that sorrow, that sadness. If but briefly for all that was lost for all that can never be again.

~ Ron Kovic

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