From All American to U.S. Navy SEAL to national president of Paralyzed Veterans of America. Al Kovach Jr continues to lead with a philosophy founded in resiliency
From All American to U.S. Navy SEAL to national president of Paralyzed Veterans of America. Al Kovach Jr continues to lead with a philosophy founded in resiliency.
PN Online: When did you first realize you wanted to enlist in the Navy?
Kovach Jr.: I was an “All-American” swimmer in high school which resulted in a lot of offers from universities, including West Point. It was my interactions with the swim coach at the military academy that sparked my interest in serving my country as a member of the armed services. That trajectory was deflected when the greatest swim coach in the history of the sport, Doc Counsilman, recruited me to Indiana University. My interest in the military once again peaked when I made a very unwise decision to drop out of college after my 4 years of NCAA eligibility was over.
PN Online: Was it your intention to make a career or did you have other plans?
Kovach Jr.: Joining the Navy was simply an impulsive decision so making a career of it never entered my mind.
PN Online: Talk about your military occupation.
Kovach Jr.: I started off in the Navy’s nuclear power program in Orlando. I graduated from “A” school and was about half way through “B” school when a U.S. Navy SEAL member approached me. A month later I found myself going through the most difficult military training the United States has to offer. Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training is supposed to blast six months but it took me 18 months. I was injured during training and I was getting orders to other commands. My performance evaluations placed me near the top of my class so the commanding officer of BUD/S “hid” me from the fleet by changing my naval enlistment code. Once I recovered from the injury, I returned to training and graduated. Starting with a class of 1979, I was the last of 16 to make it through the program. After completing the Army’s jump school at Fort Benning, I was assigned to SEAL Team 5, Golf Platoon.
PN Online: Where did you serve?
Kovach Jr.: As a member of SEAL Team 5, I was stationed in Coronado, California. I never did the typical deployment. Often we would simply pack up our sea bags and cruise boxes and go somewhere for a few weeks. I never went anywhere worthy of a postcard.
PN Online: Talk about how the military helped shape the person you are now.
Kovach Jr.: Obviously, as a quad, my days of jumping from planes, shooting and diving under ships at 3 a.m. were over, but the teams taught me a lot about character, goal-setting and perseverance. Today, I continue to use the tools that the Teams gave me.
PN Online: Regarding your injury. Briefly share the details to how you were injured.
Kovach Jr.: On May 21, 1991, eight teammates from my platoon jumped out the back of a C-130. I became entangled in another team member’s parachute. Together, we began a rapid decent that both of us knew was un-survivable. All things considered, I didn’t have much time to do anything, but I gave it my best shot and went for a “Hail Mary.” I jettisoned my combat gear which allowed the other guy’s canopy to partially open and I began to free-fall. My canopy would not open, so I immediately attempted to deploy my reserve chute. With only 150 feet remaining, I was out of options.
I hate to sound dramatic, but it’s a pretty lonely feeling when life as you know it is about to end. I don’t recall too much of the incident but one of the other jumpers had a video camera on his helmet. I’ve seen the footage and I must say that it’s pretty weird to see yourself lying unconscious with a broken neck in knee-deep grass surrounded by team mates as the corpsman radioed a medical evacuation helicopter.
PN Online: Talk about your cross-country handcycle trip. What were some of the highpoints of the journey and what was most challenging?
Kovach Jr.: There were a lot of high points and challenges on our 3,700-mile trek between Los Angeles and New York City. Riding through the desert was the most frustrating due to the heat. Climbing the steep snow-covered roads of the Rockies was hard but rewarding. Swimming across the Colorado River near Moab, Utah was scary considering the 47-degree muddy water was full of debris and predicting where I would reach land was a crapshoot. Finding shelter in Kansas during a tornado was funny now that I think about it, but was only one of many dangerous situations that we faced. Perhaps the biggest challenge was staying healthy, preventing injuries and fixing flat tires. Nevertheless, the trek was pretty hard on both my body and equipment.
After I finished the 65-day journey, I threw my worn out bike in the trash and checked into the hospital with a stage-three pressure sore.
PN Online: What do you miss most about the Navy?
Kovach Jr.: Well, if we’re talking specifically about what I miss about the SEALs, I miss being surrounded by like-minded people; my teammates were alpha males with a disdain for the status quo. It still drives me nuts when I observe people accepting “good enough” as a philosophy. I also miss accountability. As a SEAL, avoiding your duties or blaming others for your mistakes would result in isolation … not a good place to be when the nature of your job relies on teamwork.
PN Online: Do you feel your military service helped you better deal with the results of SCI?
Kovach Jr.: Hell yes. Resiliency is critical in SEAL training and I relied heavily on this trait in all aspects of life. So, when I found out that my paralysis was permanent, resiliency was a coping mechanism that I found useful when navigating through the challenges of SCI. I had to accept paralysis as my new reality and saw no other acceptable option other than to reinvent myself – which I have done numerous times since my accident. One such reinvention occurred in 1993 during my first trip to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. It triggered a significant change in my approach to life’s setbacks and found sports as the most effective means of dealing with a catastrophic injury.
By the way, you don’t need to be an aspiring elite athlete to gain something from the Games. Matter of fact, I suspect most of the veterans at the Games are there for reasons other than bringing home a gold medal. Employment was another means of reinvention. It gave me a sense of purpose and a reason to get out of bed every morning. It’s also a way of feeling almost normal again.
PN Online: If you could mentor new recruits or talk to those thinking of enlisting in the Navy, what would you say?
Kovach Jr.: I can’t offer much advice for someone wanting to join the Navy other than the fact that I would recommend any kid to join any branch of the service. Despite the U.S policy of an all-volunteer military since 1973, I think military service should be mandatory for a period of two years. I believe military training teaches discipline, patriotism and a myriad of other worthy character traits. Additionally, the military offers a wide range of vocational skills as well as plenty of opportunities to obtain a college degree.
PN Online: Talk about your involvement with PVA up to and including your service as national president.
Kovach Jr.: My first job was with PVA at the Cal-Diego Chapter less than a year after I was injured. I’ve been involved with PVA ever since but I didn’t rise to the national level until 2007. As national president I feel I speak for the 20,000 members of PVA … and that’s a huge responsibility. I encourage any member of PVA that is eager to make a change to get involved. PVA is always looking for the next leader.