Jeff Jardine

Vietnam vet telling his version of firefight that spawned ‘Born On the Fourth of July’

Rudy Molina was a Marine who carried Sgt. Ron Kovic to safety when Kovic was wounded during a firefight at Cua Viet in Vietnam in Jan. 20, 1968. Molina has long disputed Kovic's depiction of what happened in his bestselling book "Born on the Fourth of July," which later became a hit movie starring Tom Cruise.
Rudy Molina was a Marine who carried Sgt. Ron Kovic to safety when Kovic was wounded during a firefight at Cua Viet in Vietnam in Jan. 20, 1968. Molina has long disputed Kovic's depiction of what happened in his bestselling book "Born on the Fourth of July," which later became a hit movie starring Tom Cruise. JEFF JARDINE / jjardine@modbee.com

At a book signing event last fall in Manhattan Beach, Rudy Molina approached author Ron Kovic and asked for his signature. This is his account of that long-awaited moment:

“Mr. Kovic, will you sign this for me?” asked Molina, a former Modesto resident who now lives in Coulterville.

“Sure,” replied Kovic from the wheelchair he’s needed since being shot twice, the last bullet paralyzing him, during a firefight during the Vietnam War in January 1968. Kovic later wrote “Born on the Fourth of July,” which became a movie by the same title and starred Tom Cruise. The October signing event was for “Hurricane Street,” his second book. “What name should I put on it?”

Molina offered his first name. Kovic scribbled “Rudy, best wishes, Ron Kovic.”

Molina then said, “Do you remember me?”

“Are you Rudy Molina?” Kovic asked?

“Yes, I am,” Molina replied. Suddenly, Kovic’s memory sharpened.

“He knew who I was,” Molina said. “He said, ‘You’re the one who came behind me, took my boot off and patched me up. I got shot again, and you packed me out.’ We had a short conversation because there were lots of people there.”

The irony is had Kovic depicted the events of Cua Viet that same way in his 1976 book, Molina probably wouldn’t have traveled to Southern California to see him. He wouldn’t have felt the need to. But Molina remembers the battle differently than the way Kovic told it on Page 213:

“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.”

That passage has gnawed for decades at Molina and others in the unit. They’ve never questioned Kovic’s bravery or courage as a Marine. They do, however, challenge his version of how they performed the day he was wounded. No, Molina told me first back in 2012 and again recently, the other Marines didn't flee. Quite the opposite, in fact. Dennis Kleppen, a master gunnery sergeant, and another Marine dodged bullets as they went back for more ammo as they ran out, and they returned to fight.

“They never ran away,” Molina said then and says now. His version is supported by Kleppen, who made a video that he submitted to the Marine Corps Historical Archives in Quantico, VA., telling Molina in a 2011 personal letter that he did so to make to make sure the “true story” was on record.

And it was Molina – not a black Marine, as Kovic told it – who carried Kovic to safety after the sergeant was shot twice, one of the bullets leaving him paralyzed. “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.”

Maj. Robert Throm, the unit’s executive officer, gave this this account to Kevin Reynolds, whose brother Lt. Richie Reynolds, died in that battle.

“As Ron Kovic was getting carried out on a stretcher, I held his hand. (Kovic) said, ‘Make sure Rudy gets a Silver Star. He saved us all.’ ”

But Molina never got his Silver Star. In fact, he never saw Kovic again until last fall, when he made a concerted effort to meet with him. So much happened in the time that passed. Kovic came home, became an anti-war protestor and then a bestselling author immortalized in film. Molina came home, went to work for the Border Patrol and then spent 22 years in prison for his part in a cocaine smuggling conspiracy in 1991, a mistake for which he blames no one but himself. Upon his release, he moved to Modesto to be with his parents before moving to Mariposa County.

They concluded their brief chat at the book signing by agreeing to keep in touch. They did, chatting a few times by phone over the ensuing weeks, Molina said. The contact has stopped, and perhaps it is because Molina is penning his own book he’ll title, “Saving Sgt. Kovic / A True Story” with help from some friends including Duke Cooper of the Veterans First chapter in Riverbank. I was unable to reach Kovic for this column.

Molina will tell his version of the events of Jan. 20, 1968, at Cua Viet, but also of the trip he made back to Vietnam in mid-March. Among his goals? To bring back some sand from My Loc and dirt from Cua Viet, DaNang, Quang Tri and Khe Sanh. More important, they went to place memorials to their comrades who who died in that battle.

They also brought back a helmet that once belonged to a North Vietnam solder. A member of the traveling party came upon it at Khe Sanh, a main target of the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese and Vietcong that began the day Kovic was wounded. Khe Sanh and Cua Viet were both just south of the Demilitarized Zone. The lieutenant who found it gave it to Molina. It had rested undisturbed for nearly six decades.

They took clothing to an orphanage of 82 children and donated money to an adopt-a-child program in honor of Lt. Richie Reynolds.

“My brother never had nieces or nephews,” Kevin Reynolds said.

And they took 800 pounds of rice to donate to the orphanage. It first had to be inspected by Vietnamese authorities, and that was the last they saw of it.

“We don’t know what happened to the rice,” Reynolds said.

Nor do they know whether Molina will ever get Kovic to talk again about what happened at Cua Viet more than 59 years ago.

Molina can only tell the story as he remembers it and hope that Kovic comes to one of his book-signing sessions in return.

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