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Al Kovach Finds A New Way To Serve His Country

Disability Awareness Month 2013 Honoree

Al Kovach, Jr., looks a lot like Steve McQueen. In fact, in his Navy days, he was known as Petty Officer McQueen, just because of his strong resemblance to the actor known as "The King of Cool."

Photo credit: Jim Spadoni

2013 Disability Awareness Month Local Hero Honoree, Al Kovach.

But look beyond Kovach’s handsome features and you'll find he has a bit of McQueen's cool, adventurous spirit, too. For starters Kovach is a former Navy SEAL and an All-American competitive swimmer. He’s a triathlon athlete, and races hand-cycles and racing cars designed especially for him.

He’s also a quadriplegic, as a result of an accident suffered more than two decades ago. Yet, he’s not about to feel sorry for himself. Instead, he likes to compare himself to a pinball.

"Like a pinball, I launched in the air and didn’t know what was going to happen next,” the 2013 Disability Awareness Month Local Hero wryly observes. “I hit a thousand bumpers, and I land at the bottom, and someone pulls on the flipper and I shoot right back up again. I'm constantly reinventing myself, changing directions and taking calculated risks."

In his youth, Kovach’s life was all about competitive swimming. An All-American swimmer at a Detroit high school, he was soon recruited by the head swim coach of Indiana University, Dr. James Counsilman, affectionately known to his students as, "Doc."

"I swam for the best swim coach in the world at Indiana University. Doc invited me to Indiana to take a look at the university. I figured, when Doc speaks I should listen. The school was known for recruiting some of the best international swimmers, some of whom would go on to participate in the Olympics, like (Olympic Gold Medalist) Mark Spitz. In comparison, I was a small fish in a big pond."

Four years later, Kovach followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Navy.

"I started in the nuclear program, but one day, when I was wearing an Indiana tee shirt that said, 'What's up, Doc?' I was stopped by a former Indiana University swimmer and Navy SEAL motivator and recruiter. He saw me come out of the nuclear power building and said to me, 'If you're smart enough to be a nuke and swim at Indiana, you'd make a good SEAL.'"

And so in January 1989, Kovach entered the program. He vividly remembers what it took to make it through the training.

“The instructors are there for one reason,” he explains. “To make you quit. For the first eight to ten weeks that’s all they do. If you can get through that torture, then it becomes more academic. But still, they’re not going to make it any easier for you. I think the mental stress is what’s really the killer. The rate at which people fail or quit is 75 percent. You look around you in the room and know that everyone to your right, left, front and back are not going to be there at the end. It’s just going to be you. You really have to be self-motivated for this stuff.”

Photo credit: Jim Spadoni

Kovach confers with a PVA colleague at the VA Hospital in La Jolla.

In May of 1991, just before his team was about to deploy to the Philippines, Kovach broke his neck while parachuting with his team at Brown Field. The accident left him paralyzed from the neck down, and with limited use of his hands. No longer able to continue as a Navy SEAL, he found comfort from the very same instructors who’d once made it their mission to make him quit.

“A whole group of instructors came into my hospital room to visit me,” Kovach remembers. “They brought in a blue and yellow jersey shirt that said, ‘Instructor.’ They don’t normally give away these shirts, but they said, ‘You’re a real honorable student and we just want you to have this.’ Here they were, taking time off from work to visit me in the hospital. My platoon, the guys I worked with had already deployed to the Philippines. They were the only friends I had and they were all gone. To see the instructors come, when I didn’t think they knew who I was, was powerful. I didn’t think anyone cared, so to see them in my room felt very, very good.”

While in the hospital Kovach also received a visit from the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), an organization that helped him get the support he needed, including a housing grant to make his home wheelchair accessible, as well as healthcare and education benefits. Seeing the extent to which PVA provided him with much needed assistance, made Kovach want to give back, too.

“I saw what the PVA of San Diego did for me,” Kovach says. “If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have anything. It’s not as if the Department of Veterans Affairs is going to volunteer and offer me money. Knowing that is what made me want to help. Also, the Americans with Disabilities Act had just been passed. Before that, I couldn’t get on busses. I couldn’t get off the curbs. I couldn’t get into stores. There were no seats for someone like me in the movie theater, but PVA was instrumental in helping to pave the way. When ADA came around, I saw a big surge in change in attitude toward people with disabilities and I wanted to be part of that.”

Kovach hasn’t allowed his accident to prevent him from participating in triathlons.

“When I was discharged from the hospital, I was asked to manage the disabled division of a triathlon. I recruited as many disabled veterans I could find. I did the swim and lifeguards had to rescue me because I went into hypothermia. They had to put me in the showers to thaw me out. Once they thawed me out, they carried me to my bike and I rode 56 miles and then I got into my racing chair and did 13 miles. When I came across the finish line, I was given an award for inspiration.”

Photo credit: Jim Spadoni

Al Kovach hand-cycling in Tidelands Park on Coronado.

In 1998, Kovach participated in a triathlon from Los Angeles to New York—3,500 miles in all. His teammates included a man with AIDS and a woman who was deaf and blind. It took more than two months to complete, and a lot of problems along the way.

Kovach recalls, “You could see the change in people’s attitudes as you worked your way across the country. I enjoyed being part of that wave of changing people’s perceptions about people with disabilities.”

Today, Kovach’s ties to the PVA continue. Most recently, he has served as National Senior Vice President, and as the chairman of its Education Foundation. He now looks forward to his next goal—becoming the new PVA president.

“There are a lot of opportunities for an organization like PVA,” he notes. “It’s been around for more than 67 years. I would like to see us thrive, but we are competing against Wounded Warriors and others like it. Wounded Warriors only takes care of veterans injured after September 11th and they only take care of those injured while in combat. We take care of everybody. What sets us apart is that we’re the only veterans’ association allowed to go into the hospitals and audit healthcare. We can sit down with the doctors, nurses, patients, and housekeepers—anybody who has anything to do with our patients. And then we write a report that goes to the Secretary of Veteran Affairs and the secretary either agrees or doesn’t agree, though 95% of the time he agrees. And then the VA has one year to fix it.”

Kovach sees his volunteerism as an extension of his service in the military.

“I volunteered to serve my country in a camouflage uniform,” he explains. “Once I got paralyzed, my uniform changed. I’m wearing a suit and I’m in a wheelchair but I’m still serving my country by taking care of my veterans. So it’s rewarding to see people that were once in the military, but are now wearing suits and in wheelchairs, still in that mindset of serving their country. Like me, they’re now doing it in a different way.”

Disability Awareness Month 2013 Honoree

Disability Awareness Month 2013 Local Hero Honoree


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