To 1st Lt. Ken Kuratko, the landscape of South Vietnam was like a postcard.
“When we were flying, I’d say, ‘Look at this gorgeous country.’ Someday this is going to be a tourist attraction,” he remembered.
As an air observer for the First Infantry Division, he also spent a good deal of time calling division artillery to pummel that landscape as units on the ground made contact with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers.
He did a fine job of that, winning three air medals in the five or so months he spent hunting the enemy from above. He liked it a heck of a lot better than his first job in Vietnam, as an artillery forward observer attached to one of the Big Red One’s infantry companies.
“I called it the 9 to 5 war,” Kuratko said of his months as an air observer. “You got a shower – a cold shower – and hot meals every day. There was even an officers’ club.”
Kuratko grew up in North Riverside, the son of an undertaker. He attended St. Mary School in Riverside and graduated from Fenwick High School in 1962. For college he went to Xavier University in Cincinnati. His studies focused on obtaining an education degree. He was also in the ROTC program, which prepared college students to become commissioned officers in the Army upon graduation.
Kuratko, now a Riverside resident, graduated in 1966 as the Vietnam War was escalating, and he didn’t feel the need to rush things. He asked for and received a one-year deferment to pursue his master’s degree in education and reapplied for another deferment after the first was up.
But the Army didn’t go for it. There’s always a need for junior officers in a combat zone.
Not that Kuratko was certain his ticket would be punched for Vietnam. When he arrived at Fort Sill, the Army’s artillery school, Kuratko was assigned to be an instructor and was told that since instructors were valuable, they never got called to duty in Vietnam.
In the summer of 1969, Kuratko got called.
“The good news was you’re promoted to first lieutenant, the bad news is you’re going to Vietnam,” Kuratko said.
And when fresh artillery lieutenants went to Vietnam, they were assigned to be forward observers, which put them among front line rifle companies. Artillery forward observers attached to an infantry company worked in three-man teams, the observer, a radio man and a gunner.
Kuratko arrived at the First Infantry Division base camp at Lai Khe, just north of Saigon, in June 1969. He was there about a day when he first experienced combat. Helicopters would airlift troops to designated areas, and they spent the next week or so hunting for the enemy.
Typically, Kuratko said, the enemy found them.
“Normal contact came when you’re going through the bush and you’d be ambushed,” Kuratko said. “It’d be total chaos. A lot of times you couldn’t visually see them, but you’d see the muzzle flashes.”
That’s when Kuratko’s job started. He’d grab his map, look at the coordinates and have the radio man call in fire support.
“I’d start it in back of [the enemy] and move it forward,” Kuratko said, adding that if the enemy tried to flee, they’d be running right into the barrage.
On the ground it was impossible to tell just how effective the barrage was. When he was moved to air observer after five months, “the impact was more significant from the air. Sometimes I could see them running, and I could call in different groups.”
Also on the ground, it was harrowing.
“It was not uncommon to wet your pants” when the firing started, Kuratko said. “The shock factor and fear factor would take over. But then your body takes over and you do what you have to do. Later, when it was all over, you’d get into these laughing jags and think, ‘Holy s—-, what just happened here.'”
Kuratko, in addition to the air medals, was also awarded two bronze stars for bravery.
With just a couple of days between missions, Kuratko spent most of that first five months in jungles all over South Vietnam, sometimes visiting the same spots over again, a practice that was demoralizing and eventually convinced him that the war was futile.
“The night before we moved out, the officers would be called in and we’d be told about the mission, but for the big picture, we had no clue what was happening,” Kuratko said.
“The realization was, ‘We just took this thing,'” Kuratko said of troops being asked to take the same ground over and over. “It just became futile.
“It’s like it’s some silly game you’re playing and you’d just get frustrated. What’s the point? It became a bit bizarre.”
He was also struck by what he felt were misplaced priorities, At times, troops would enter rural schools, with teachers dressed in neat white tunics and students who welcomed the soldiers.
But instead of building bridges there, “the economy we were building up there was bars and prostitution. You’d go into the schools and think, ‘This is what we should be building.'”
On one mission, the company ran across an unoccupied enemy base camp. While Kuratko was charting its location on the map and the rest of the infantry soldiers were securing the area, Kuratko’s radio operator tripped a Claymore mine. The blast severed the man’s right leg.
Later that night, after the company left the site, Kuratko called in an artillery strike on the base camp. Whether or not enemy troops had come back to reoccupy the position, the sound of the shells falling elicited hoots and cheers from the troops.
“It’s just part of the bizarreness of the mentality,” Kuratko said.
Troops kept pocket calendars with them, Kuratko said, marking off the days until they’d be relieved. Kuratko knew that day had come when he came back from a mission and found a fresh-faced first lieutenant waiting for him. It was a friend from Xavier’s ROTC program. From then on, Kuratko called in fire missions from the air.
“That was a far better place to be than on the ground,” Kuratko said.
Kuratko left Vietnam in May 1970, returned to Xavier and finished his master’s degree in counseling. He also became a vocal anti-war advocate, speaking to student and veterans groups about his experiences in Vietnam.
Even as an opponent of the war, however, Kuratko said he felt like an outcast among his fellow students.
“It was a little hard to fit in,” Kuratko said. “It’s different now. The good thing now is that people are 100 percent behind the troops. Back then, they weren’t. I think they blamed us for the war.”
By 1972, he landed a job at his high school alma mater and used the G.I. Bill to go to mortuary school and enter the family business. As a counselor at Fenwick High School, Kuratko would spend time each year visiting junior history classes, giving a slide show and explaining his experiences in Vietnam.
It was a remarkable couple of days for the students, who would hear from Kuratko and then from one of the school’s young English teachers, who had fled the country during the war in order to avoid the draft.
While he was criticized by some teachers for the anti-war bent to their presentations, Kuratko said other teachers encouraged them and even sat in on the presentations.
“My theory was that for a country this size, with so much intelligence, we have got to find a better way of solving problems than by fighting,” Kuratko said. “I was trying to give a logical view. Here were two guys from the same mold. He chose his way and I chose mine, and we ended up in the same boat.”
Kuratko, 65, left Fenwick years ago to take on the funeral business full time. He’s no longer active in the business now, but is not out of the counseling end of things. He now works as a certified grief facilitator and has started a company called Grief Journey Consultants, serving as a celebrant at funerals for those who are in his words “unchurched” and don’t have a minister or church to go to for such support.
“The point is to focus on the person and tell his or her story,” Kuratko said of his work. He also has worked for the last dozen years as an auxiliary policeman in Riverside, and is a member of the Illinois Police Honor Guard, which participates in funerals of fallen soldiers.
He hasn’t been back to Vietnam, but has friends who have been there and has talked with fellow vets from his old unit about planning such a trip.
“I’d like to go back,” he said, remembering the enchanting landscape of the country.
Flying in, this time, as a tourist.