PIERRE, S.D.— It’s March 30, 1968, at a place called Khe Sanh, and a Marine named Ken Korkow from rural Blunt, S.D., is about to make the best shot of his career as a mortar man. He doctors the charge on a 60 mm mortar shell so that it dollops the mortar shell only a few feet away to explode on top of a spider trap where two Vietcong soldiers have been wreaking havoc on American troops with AK-47 rifles.
End of story for two Vietcong.
It’s what Ken Korkow was trained to do - take out the enemy. It’s part of the reason why South Dakota Gov. Frank Farrar later named a day in his honor as South Dakota’s most decorated Vietnam veteran.
But that’s not the story Ken Korkow remembers most about Khe Sanh. What he remembers is putting aside his weapons to bring wounded Americans back out from a battlefield blistered with bomb craters, some as deep as two automobiles stacked on top of each other - the work of the B-52s overhead that were supporting the American troops. Korkow first lay down his mortar, then his rifle, then his sidearm, the better to drag wounded soldiers to safety. Finally he was going out to retrieve wounded soldiers with only the added weight of a knife that he could use in hand-to-hand combat or to cut makeshift bandages. Some of the wounded GIs were scared of dying. Korkow had a line that worked great for them.
“I’d tell them, ‘I’m a doctor. You’ll be OK.”’
On his last trip out Korkow saw his commanding officer, Ben Long, and his radio man off to one side as he ran past them.
“I was invincible and I didn’t care. I shouted, ‘Come out and enjoy the war.’ Famous last words,” Korkow said.
The next moment the world exploded under his feet.
The pieces of metal they pinned on Ken Korkow’s chest afterward included the Purple Heart for being wounded and the Navy Cross for being courageous. That’s the second-highest military honor a soldier could win.
But the pieces of metal Ken Korkow was most concerned about there at Khe Sanh on March 30, 1968, were the shards of shrapnel from three 60 mm mortar shells that had exploded all around him. He was hit in both arms, in the right leg, and under one eye, where a piece of shrapnel is still embedded. Flak panties and a flak vest kept his trunk intact.
But he knew he’d been seriously hit. And what he remembers afterward is that he began laughing - laughing - when he realized what had happened. It seemed funny to him because he was a mortar man himself, and his weapon was the 60 mm mortar.
“I’ve got a strange sense of humor,” says Korkow. “They’d hit me with the same thing I’d been hitting them with,” he said.
He was a mess.
“They didn’t use thread to hold me together, they used wire, I was blown apart so bad,” Korkow said. “I had a doctor tell me at one point that I would never be able to walk again or be able to use my hands again, and I almost believed him.”
But Korkow the skeptic didn’t; he learned to walk again. Afterward, he returned to the States, to military honor, and to his young wife, Liz.
“I met Liz when we were both 15. She was a cute 4-H girl showing calves and we were putting on a rodeo in Wahoo, Nebraska,” says Ken Korkow - part of the family that’s famous for Korkow Rodeo stock.
Ken Korkow liked what he saw in Liz and eventually asked her to marry him. But, he adds, it amounted to a bait-and-switch routine for Liz. She didn’t get what she thought she was getting. That became abundantly clear after Vietnam, and it was only partly because of the war, Korkow said. Instead, Korkow said a lot of what made him a really lousy husband is an old, old idea that Christian thinkers called “sin.”
“I’m amazed that Liz stuck with me through 10 years of hell,” he said. “If there’s been a way to make a mistake, I’ve pretty much done it.”
Gradually, Korkow realized that part of what he was dealing with after Vietnam was survivor’s guilt. Men have been programmed to lay down their lives in battle from ancient times - they’re prepared for that, Korkow said. But nothing has prepared them for surviving the battle where their buddies were killed. And nothing had prepared him for an abrupt change back to civilian life where skills such as dropping a mortar shell just where you want it were no longer in demand.
Korkow returned to the States to earn a bachelor’s degree in ag economics and a master’s in business administration, then worked with the South Dakota Industrial Development and Expansion Agency. Afterward he began selling farm and ranch property - the only thing besides operating a mortar that he was ever any good at, he says now.
He’s a former member of Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association; former president of the Central South Dakota Board of Realtors, and a former president of the North and South Dakota Farm and Land Institute.
Yet despite the success, something was missing.
That’s why at age 30, Korkow said, he gave his life to Christ.
Korkow went to work full time for the Christian Business Men’s Committee USA in early 1984. He is currently regional director of CBMC Heartland, serving Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. He lives in Omaha.
He and Liz have three children, daughters Cory and Kacy and son, Adam who serves as a pilot in the Marine Corps.
In a strange way, Korkow says, the experience in Vietnam — temporary and terrible and unnatural as it was — was good preparation for the Christian life. He said that most Christians don’t understand that they are at war.
In fact, Korkow begins each day preparing for battle, and says American Christians are woefully unprepared for something he calls “spiritual warfare.” Like the apostle Paul and the early Church, or figures in church history such as Martin Luther, Korkow is convinced not only that God is real, but also that the devil is real.
He begins each day by praying God’s protection over friends and family for friends and family. He prays for Jesus Christ’s purposes to be fulfilled in their lives.
It’s the equivalent, Korkow says, of doing what Paul describes in his letter to the Ephesians — putting on the armor of God.
The ranch in the Medicine Creek valley, just east of Pierre and south of Blunt, is still vitally important for Korkow.
“This is where the wheels fell off of Grandpa’s wagon, so this is home,” he says.
It’s also where Korkow now holds Christian retreats.
In conversation he emphasizes prayer, Bible reading and — for men — being accountable to a band of brothers. Christians don’t understand that as well as soldiers do, Korkow says.
Korkow still has close ties to Community Bible Church in Pierre, a church he helped to found. Community Bible Pastor Harvey Friez said Korkow’s faith is deep and real.
“Ken still struggles with issues, especially some from what he experienced in Vietnam,” Friez said. “He’s taken that experience to try to implement a whole program for others coming back from battlefield situations that the military can use to help those soldiers. A lot of it is faith-based, and that’s where Ken’s heart is.”
Korkow said in his experience, God doesn’t waste pain — no matter what the pain is.
“I thought combat was the ultimate adventure — but now I know there’s nothing more exciting than knowing Christ more intimately and living Him more intentionally,” said Korkow. “All of life’s past pains and experiences are simply His preparation so we might have a better life now and a greater eternal impact.”
Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, http://www.capjournal.com