A Combat Veteran Reflects on ‘Born on the Fourth of July’

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Throughout my life and in my writing I have used movies to remind me of particular places and times. As I have grown older, my values and opinions have been shaped, polished, shattered, and rebuilt by my experiences. But as my own life and the ways I view it have changed, the movies I’ve watched over the course of it have not.

These windows into society are like a history book, brought to life on screen. They don’t change, even though my perceptions of them do. Rewatching them has shown me how I’ve grown and how my experiences have changed views that I once considered the pillars of who I am.

Born on the Fourth of July, starring Tom Cruise, is a biography of Ron Kovic. In the film directed by Oliver Stone — a Vietnam veteran himself — we see a story we can all relate to. Kovic grows up in the home of a World War II veteran in a patriotic community and answers his nation’s call to arms, enlisting in the Marine Corps directly out of high school. After Kovic is seriously wounded during his second tour of duty, the film charts his transition and healing and, eventually, how he becomes one of the most outspoken antiwar protestors of the era.

born on the fourth of july, combat veteran, jariko denman

The author as a young child. Photo courtesy of Jariko Denman.

I was also born into a military family. Both of my grandfathers served in the Pacific during World War II, and my father is a veteran of three of our nation’s wars — Vietnam, Grenada, and Desert Storm — spanning more than 23 years in the Army. So as a kid I was enthralled by Vietnam War movies as a way of getting a glimpse into the world that forged my father into the hero I saw him as.

These movies usually kept things very simple for me and my worldview as an Army brat growing up in the ’80s. I even had a T-shirt that said “Kill a Commie for Mommy.” I watched and read everything about Vietnam that I could, which included watching and rewatching my favorite movie of all, Platoon, so many times that I wore out our VHS copy. I wasn’t yet mature enough to understand what that movie really meant, I just knew it captivated me. Looking back, I didn’t understand most things.

Rewatching Born on the Fourth of July was one of the most emotional and reflective experiences I have had since retiring from the US Army three years ago. Watching it as a combat veteran of a long, drawn-out, and seemingly forgotten set of wars, I looked back to who I was the first time I watched it. I was a 10-year-old child wearing a pair of old BDU pants and hoping to see another 90 minutes of cinema detailing the bloody heroics of the brave men who fought alongside my dad in Vietnam.

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Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July. Photo courtesy of Google images.

Tom Cruise as Rob Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July. Photo courtesy of Google images.

In the first act of the film, I was given everything I wanted — much like the first act of my life. I watched as a young Ron Kovic played out almost my exact boyhood — my friends and I in our dads’ helmets and web gear running through the woods and our neighborhood playing army. But as Kovic grew up, 10-year-old Jariko could identify less and less with the character. My fondness for the movie decreased until I grew angry, cursed it as a hippie movie, and questioned why I’d been duped into seeing it by the poster.

Looking back, I see myself not only in the boyhood Kovic but also in him as a teenager. Like Kovic in the movie, I was the son of a veteran, and I was a dedicated athlete, pouring myself into the sports that I was never the best at but that I thought might earn the attention of my father the hero — and also the girls I was too shy to talk to. And sports didn’t do that for me; they taught me things like mental toughness, hard work, and sacrifice, which set me up for a life dedicated to something larger than myself. This dedication, combined with patriotism and a yearning for the adventure my father’s generation found at war, led me straight into the Army recruiter’s office and into uniform a week after I graduated high school. Just like it did for Ron Kovic at the beginning of the war in Vietnam, and like it’s done for 17-year-old Americans for generations.

We left our homes hoping to do our part, to see action, and to prove something to our fathers and ourselves. Something that we didn’t even know existed. As you read this, you may be thinking I’m gonna say we got duped or that it was all for nothing. Keep reading.

born on the fourth of july, combat veteran, jariko denman

The author in uniform. Photo courtesy of Jariko Denman.

The author in uniform. Photo courtesy of Jariko Denman.

In the movie, Kovic goes from a bright-eyed high schooler to a salty Marine NCO in a matter of seconds with a fade into the chaotic red-hued world of war. In reality, it was over the course of several years before a second tour of duty in Vietnam saw him experiencing the horrors of war that led to his disenchantment — a slow crawl of life events that shaped his worldview.

As movies are forced to do, we see years of events condensed into minutes. These minutes encompass years of his life, much like as old men, we look back at ours in flashes of memory. The highs and horrors of a life at war flash through my mind every day. At points in my life they are unwelcome enemies, but I try to embrace them as friends or mentors to help carry me toward a full life shaped by them. Much like they do for Kovic’s character in the film, the memories are what make his story, but we see them play out and know the ending. As veterans of contemporary conflicts, our ending is yet to come.

Kovic lives through every manner of combat trauma, which I saw compound on myself over years of rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan. And aside from committing fratricide, I experienced the same things firsthand. The culminating event of his time in combat is when he is wounded and subsequently paralyzed for life. The injury is initially in his foot, but instead of leaving the fight and waiting for aid, he gets to his knees and continues to fight like a man possessed, completely consumed in the moment.

born on the fourth of july, combat veteran, jariko denman

Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic in Born of the Fourth of July. Photo courtesy of Google images.

As he does after the fact, I questioned his actions the first time I watched. But having been part of a team and in fights for my life, I know how the world can become slow, narrow, and surreal while also becoming very clear. His conscious mind ceased to function as his training and primal being took over to save his life and the lives of his mates. It’s a phenomenon I’ve experienced but still can’t put into words; it’s only understood with a glance or a nod to those who have experienced it themselves. Again, I am able to see how my perception of the same events has totally changed. It isn’t better or more correct but viewed through the lens of experience.

From this point on he goes through physical experiences that I have not and a psychological reckoning most cannot imagine. It’s a challenge I’ve seen drive better men than me to take their own lives. He spends years in a series of hospitals learning to physically survive in his new body — “a living dead man” as Kovic describes it in his book of the same name. During this time, he’s forced to come to terms with what will be his new normal. He can’t work harder and walk again any more than we can work harder to rid ourselves of the demons that live in our minds. We can only learn to live in harmony with them and use them as tools.

As Kovic comes to terms with his new life in a wheelchair, he returns home to the life that has gone on without him — to a world that hasn’t gone through the hundred lifetimes of living and growth that he experienced in just a few years. People talk past him, never wanting to peel back the surface and be forced to experience his pain by asking the hard questions. They take their fear of knowing the things that our men and women do at war and explain it away as their fear of not wanting to offend us for asking what goes on. And those of us still treating our memories as enemies reinforce their fears by saying our experiences are only for those who have lived them.

born on the fourth of july, combat veteran, jariko denman

The author in uniform. Photo courtesy of Jariko Denman.

Unlike Kovic, I had the advantage of the lessons learned by his generation in regard to returning to a country that had no skin in the bloody game they sent us to play. And while I returned to challenges, they were challenges I could find resources to overcome. His reckoning and rock-bottom moments were lived out in Mexico with fellow veterans; again, years of struggles were masterfully summarized in minutes on screen as he and his new friends compared combat traumas through a haze of drugs, alcohol, women, and high-risk behavior. It isn’t until he realizes that none of those things will take care of him or make him forget that he decides to go home.

After going home to find the love of his former life, he sees that what he imagined for himself will not come to pass. However, in his pursuit of what he thought he needed, something else happened. He found what he was searching for all those years ago when he left home — he found a purpose. And as I look back at my reactions to that purpose when I was the gung-ho 10-year-old, I realize that his purpose hasn’t changed. He wanted to make his country a better place. He wanted to sacrifice for the safety and betterment of his fellow citizens. The only things that changed were his life experiences and his idea of what that looked like.

And as I sit and write this now with my experiences and the knowledge I have of his war and mine, I can’t say he was right or wrong. I can only say that I’m glad he found what he was looking for, and I’m glad I’ve realized there’s a way for all of us to do the same. We haven’t all hit rock bottom in an empty mezcal bottle in the Mexican desert or seen a hundred of our own deaths in a Peruvian jungle. We’re all just wandering the earth unknowingly searching for what we haven’t yet figured out. So as you navigate the world today, try to remember that everyone you encounter is only doing the same based on what they’ve seen so far. Listen to each other, and in doing so, you’ll broaden your perspective and also help someone else feel seen.

The world will be a better place for it — because of you.

Jariko Denman is a contributing writer for Coffee or Die. He is a retired U.S. Army Ranger and deployed to combat 15 times in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002-2012, amounting to 54 months of total combat experience as part of a Joint Special Operations Task Force. He now lives in Los Angeles and has advised on several major motion pictures, national ad campaigns, and television series’ as well as continuing to train and work within government and tactical industries.
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