Vietnam War veteran's 'Born on the Fourth of July' account disputed by comrades' memories
By JEFF JARDINE | McClatchy Newspapers | Published: July 4, 2012
MODESTO, Calif. — Whenever someone gives an account of just about anything, you can bet someone else will contradict it — especially when the claim involves heroism.
Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic detailed his exploits as a Marine staff sergeant in his autobiography, "Born on the Fourth of July." Tom Cruise portrayed Kovic on the big screen in the 1989 film directed by another Vietnam vet, Oliver Stone.
Rudy Molina Jr. says some of Kovic's story is just plain wrong and wants to set the record straight.
Molina, 65, served with Kovic in H&S Co., 1st AmTrac Battalion, 3rd Marine Division in the late 1960s. Kovic mentions him numerous times in the book, specifically in reference to an attack on a mistaken location that left a hut full of Vietnamese women and children dead. Molina said it was the saddest moment of his life.
Their lives went in different directions. Kovic came home and wrote his book. Molina remained in the military into the 1970s. He eventually returned to his native Texas. He worked for the Border Patrol and then became a U.S. Immigration inspector in Arizona, where he made the biggest mistake of his life. He went to federal prison after being indicted in a cocaine smuggling conspiracy in 1991. He spent 22 years behind bars and is now under house arrest at his parents' home in Modesto, Calif.
I learned about him through Steve Lawson of the Modesto Vet Center, where Molina is receiving counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Why trust Molina? His story matches that of Florida's Dennis Kleppen, another survivor of the firefight Jan. 20, 1968, at Cua Viet, south of the Demilitarized Zone. Kovic was shot twice, the second bullet hitting him in the shoulder, lodging in his spine and paralyzing him for life.
That much is fact. Molina and Kleppen, though, dispute Kovic's depictions of what happened before and during the time he was hit.
Kovic claimed that fellow Marines ran away from the fight, leaving him and one other Marine — Molina? — under heavy enemy fire.
From Page 213 of the book:
"I looked to my left flank and all the men were gone," Kovic wrote. "They had run away, all run away to the trees near the river, and I yelled and cursed at them to come back but nobody came.
"I kept emptying everything I had into the village, blasting holes through the pagoda and ripping bullets into the tree line. There was someone to my right lying on the ground still firing."
No, Molina said, the other Marines didn't flee, and he's angry Kovic would even suggest it. With the group running out of ammo, Kleppen, a master gunnery sergeant, and another Marine dodged bullets as they went back for more. Then they returned to fight.
"They never ran away," Molina said.
Moments later, Kovic was hit by enemy fire and paralyzed. Hence, Molina's second correction request. In the book, Kovic claimed he was carried to safety by a black Marine.
"There were no blacks in our outfit," Molina said. "I was the only Hispanic."
In fact, Molina maintains he is the one who rescued Kovic.
"He was wounded in the right foot," Molina said. "I was on his right flank. I went over, took his boot off and while I was patching him up, he got hit in his shoulder. That was what severed his spinal cord. I dragged him over behind a little mound to get him out of the open."
Reinforcements enabled medics to get Kovic out of the area and onto a medevac helicopter. Then they returned to provide the cover that allowed Molina to get away. He escaped unharmed and soon was reassigned to another unit. For decades, he never knew whether anyone in his group had survived.
"I thought everybody was dead," Molina said.
In fact, until about two years ago, he didn't know Kovic had written a book or that Cruise had portrayed Kovic in the movie. When you spend more than two decades in various federal penitentiaries, it's difficult to stay in touch.
"They don't show R-rated films in prison," Molina said.
While incarcerated at Taft Correctional Institution in Taft, Calif., he asked his sister to search the Internet for the names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. He wondered if Kovic's name was on it. That's when he learned Kovic not only survived, but had written an autobiography.
Molina read the book in prison. He saw the film after his release. He understands that many folks will dismiss him or at least be skeptical of his claims because of his prison record. They won't care that seven members of the Molina family have served in the U.S. military while another fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Fine, Molina said. If you don't believe him, at least listen to former unit member Kleppen, one of the Marines who went back to get more ammo and, presumably, was one Kovic accused of running from the fight.
"When the book came out, I went ballistic," Kleppen wrote. "I was hard to be around until I came to the conclusion that the book and the movie were written to sell."
In 2001, Kleppen submitted a lengthy video to the Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Va., "to ensure the true story was on file in the Marine Corps Historical archives," he wrote in a May 2011 letter to Molina. An official at the archives confirmed to me the existence of the recording.
Molina said he wants the Marines to call for a military tribunal to set the record straight.
"They can subpoena me and Kovic and Kleppen and determine what's true and what's false," Molina said. "I'm willing to do it under the penalty of perjury."
Because Molina is on parole, he would stand to lose plenty—his impending freedom—if he were to lie under oath. As it is, he could face sanctions from the Bureau of Prisons for talking to me for this story.
So what, then, about Kovic's recollections?
"I think he was delirious," Molina said. "The guy was wounded. The guy was nearly dead, and that's what he thinks he saw. But I wasn't wounded. I had all of my senses. I know the truth."
Molina and Kleppen said they have written to Kovic without receiving a response. When I talked with him Tuesday morning, Kovic said he's never received anything from them. Molina shows a certified mail receipt delivered to, and signed by someone at, Kovic's residence in Southern California.
Kovic said he remembers Molina, but remains steadfast about his own account of what happened, including that a black Marine — not Molina — carried him to safety that day in 1968. Kovic said he learned that Marine was later killed in action. And yes, Kovic said, the other Marines fled.
"Absolutely," Kovic said. "I remember exactly what happened that day, from my perspective. I'd been shot in the foot and in the shoulder. One of my lungs collapsed, and I was surviving on the other one. But I remember everything, and that's exactly what happened."
He said he's open to a reunion.
"I'd be more than happy to get together with them," Kovic said, before ending the conversation to catch a flight from Los Angeles to New York. He plans to join director Stone for a special screening of the movie on Thursday, July 5. "I wish them well."
Neither Molina nor Kleppen contests Kovic's account of what happened to him after returning stateside a paraplegic and becoming an anti-war activist arrested at numerous protests. They weren't there for any of that. But they were there that day in Vietnam, and don't believe for a second any of the Marines ran away from the fight.
"Their families need to know," Molina said. "Their sons were not cowards. They were heroes. They were not cowards running in battle. Everybody needs to know the truth."
Ultimately, it comes down to differing versions of the same moment in time, told by people who remember what they remember.
Molina recalls that his fellow Marines fought bravely and that he rescued Kovic.
Kovic's version? Movie material.