Sharing Christ, Sharing Hope: The Ranch Ministries Gives Veterans New Lease on Life
Ken Korkow is convinced that God doesn’t waste pain. He has seen his share. But he also believes that since Christ has changed his life and transformed his pain, he now has the privilege of being an agent of change and a channel of the comfort he has received in the lives of others.
Raised on a ranch near Blunt, South Dakota, Ken knew how to work hard, and loved risk and a challenge.
“My dad, Erv, started Korkow Rodeos in 1947,” Ken said. “He was definitely a workaholic. We put on rodeos all over the area every year. Dad didn’t teach with words, he taught by example, and his example was to run toward a problem, not away from it.”
In 1966, 18-year-old Ken enlisted in the US Marine Corps. He had a couple of years of college already under his belt and he was engaged to Liz Alm, the girl from Nebraska who had been his sweetheart since they met at a rodeo when both were fifteen.
“I thought combat would be the highest adventure,” he said.
After basic training, Corporal Ken Korkow shipped to Vietnam with Company B, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. He was sent into combat as a mortar section leader in the defense of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. U. S. Troops had been stationed there since 1964. It was considered a key strategic location for reconnaissance in the northern area of South Vietnam near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Laotian border.
According to General William Westmoreland, the U.S. Commander in Vietnam, “Khe Sanh could serve as a patrol base blocking enemy infiltration from Laos; a base for… operations to harass the enemy in Laos; an airstrip for reconnaissance to survey the Ho Chi Minh Trail; a western anchor for the defenses south of the DMZ; and an eventual jumping-off point for ground operations to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail.”
North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and Viet Cong (VC) troops met U.S forces in the Khe Sahn area in several smaller battles during 1967. December, 1967, intelligence learned that PAVN troops were gathering in the area near Khe Sanh, and additional U.S. troops were sent to the area for reinforcements.
On January 21, 1968, at 00:30 hours, PAVN artillery fire was directed at the Khe Sanh base. The relentless attack would continue for seventy-seven days. It would turn out to be one of the longest and deadliest battles in the Vietnam conflict. Still, Ken continued to fight hard, stepping up his leadership and running into the face of danger.
“I passed up a couple of chances for R & R because I didn’t want my Marines dying on my watch,” he said.
This in spite of the fact that he had a girl at home waiting for him.
“it’s been said that a thousand deaths can be a statistic, or one death can be a tragedy, it all depends on the degree of relationship,” Ken said. “There came a day when I lost two of my closest friends. That night I made a vow never to have friends or feelings again.”
On March 30, 1968, while his men were under intense attack, Ken destroyed several hostile mortar placements and made repeated trips under fire to carry his wounded men to aid. An M-61 mortar exploded right under him as he was trying to get a wounded comrade to safety. Ken was seriously wounded but continued to work to save the lives of his brothers in arms and contributed to the defeat of the enemy forces that outnumbered the American soldiers. He continued to help his injured soldiers until he was evacuated for medical treatment. Ken received the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart for his valor on the battlefield that day.
“I had a doctor tell me at one point that I would never walk again or be able to use my hands, and I almost believed him,” Ken said. “They didn’t use thread to hold me together, they used wire, I was blown apart so bad. I was 20 when I arrived at Khe Sanh and 120 when I left – but had not celebrated another ‘birthday’ while in Vietnam.”
Ken beat the odds. The ‘cowboy tough’ work ethic he had grown up with helped him to fight the battle of recovery in spite of the grim prognosis.
He came home to marry his fiancé Liz, pushed through college, got his MBA from Vermillion, and became a millionaire by the time he was thirty. He was recognized by Governor Frank Farrar as South Dakota’s most decorated Vietnam veteran. It should have been a dream come true but nothing satisfied Ken. The darkness from the days in Khe Sanh still filled his soul.
Ken was dead inside.
“After Vietnam, our peers in society referred to many returning soldiers as ‘down and outers,’” he recalls. “Many veterans turned to alcohol, drugs, bar fights, or driving a Harley Davidson too fast, or other destructive behaviors, all in an attempt to medicate the pain they carried inside. Some of us became what I call ‘up and outers,’ medicating our pain by being busy, becoming workaholics, and pushing to the top of the business ladder.”
In spite of the outward success, Ken was still running away from the problem of the pain in his heart and soul.
“They don’t teach you about the aftermath,” Ken said. “They never told us what it was like to kill someone. Or what it was like to hold your buddy when he died. They don’t teach you about survivors’ guilt. They taught us how to kill but never told us about the consequences of killing.”
When Ken came home from Vietnam, nobody knew about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but Ken and many of his fellow veterans had it. Flashbacks, nightmares, feeling as though they were reliving the horrors of the war, intense fear, hyper arousal, sleeplessness, avoidance of anything that might remind them of the trauma they had witnessed, and loss of interest in otherwise enjoyable activities were all common symptoms. The U.S Department of Veterans’ Affairs reports that thirty-eight percent of marriages failed within six months of veterans’ return from Vietnam. Divorce rates for veterans with PTSD were double that of vets without. They also reported more general relationship problems, family violence, physical and verbal aggression, and more instances of violence against a partner in families where PTSD was present.
“It’s a miracle that Liz stayed with me,” Ken said. “I put her through hell.”
But then, a friend shared the Gospel with Ken.
“I went home and it was like the pieces were falling into the puzzle,” Ken said. “I had already read the entire Bible twice. But it didn’t mean much up to that point. Religion doesn’t work—but a personal relationship with Jesus changes everything. That night, for the first time in ten years, I had tears in my eyes.”
Ken was able to work through his pain and find healing in Jesus.
“God is in control and He has a plan,” Ken said. “When I was able to surrender my pain to him I was able to believe that He had a purpose for it.”
Part of that purpose, for Ken has been to share the comfort he has received with other hurting veterans.
“Christ has changed our lives,” he said. “Now we get to be agents of change for others. I get to share the comfort I’ve received from the Lord. It’s not exclusive to the military. Everybody has pain.”
The Ranch Ministries was born out of this desire to reach out to other veterans struggling with the pain of PTSD, physical wounds that had changed their lives, and other combat related issues.
The Ranch Ministries is located in the rolling Missouri River hills near Pierre, South Dakota. It offers veterans a chance to experience a number of recreational activities: horseback riding, hunting, shooting, carting, firearms safety, fishing, roping, reading, studying, hiking; the list is endless when you have the prairie to explore. Wounded warriors can learn team building skills, connect with each other and find community, all while surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation.
But most importantly, they are introduced to Jesus Christ, and invited to find true healing in Him.
“Guys will come, and they are pretty uptight,” Ken said. “We team them up with other older veterans out of the Marine Corps. We just try to be with them where they are and show them God’s love until they feel they can share their pain. We try to honor our vets by giving them a fun experience while they are here, but if that was all we did it would be like putting a sugar pill on the tongue of a cancer patient. Only Christ heals.”
The Ranch is open to veterans year round, and is also open to youth and church groups. The Ranch serves as a retreat center that helps restore minds, marriages, and lives of veterans affected by PTSD. Additionally, The Ranch serves hundreds of men, women, and youth in and around the Pierre community through safety courses in firearms and archery. Ken has developed The Ranch into a relaxing place for PTSD-troubled minds by building fun and adventurous attractions such as an ATV course, horseback riding, fishing, and of course pheasant hunting. Guests also enjoy several safe and monitored marksman activities. While at The Ranch, visitors have access to spiritual counseling, and they can contact any one of a dozen professional counselors across North America at any time.
“We are a ministry that loves God and people, and we focus on serving military service members, veterans, and their families,” Ken said. “Our society in general has no clue what kind of pain our soldiers have carried home from Iraq and Afghanistan with them. We older vets need to reach out to these younger ones and let them know that there is hope.”
Ken and his team have developed faith based materials focused on PTSD recovery specifically for military service personnel. Approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, these books and DVD’s are available at no charge from the Post Traumatic Growth Institute (http://ptgi.us.com). PTGI collaborates with several other faith based military ministries to make these materials available to veterans and their families.
“If anyone wants these free materials they can email me at email@example.com,” Ken said.
Ken has also had opportunities to share what he does at The Ranch Ministries with others who want to establish similar retreat centers in other areas of the country. He’s also on the lookout for the perfect, gentle, ‘bomb proof’ retired gelding for veterans with no legs or with dead legs to ride at The Ranch. He has a special saddle to make it possible for them to ride, but hasn’t found a quiet enough horse yet.
“I thought combat was the ultimate adventure — but now I know there’s nothing more exciting than knowing Christ more intimately and living for Him more intentionally,” he said. “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.”
At 74, Ken has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and with Agent Orange.
“Agent Orange is a rotten way to go; I’ve lost a buddy to it,” Ken said. “But God is still in control and I’m just here to do the next thing and tell Satan to go to hell. God takes weak, broken people like me and does amazing things. I’m just here to show what He’s done.”
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