By Ben Olson
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a five-part series highlighting Sandpoint men who served in combat during the Vietnam War. As always, I thank each and every Vietnam Veteran for the sacrifices they made for their county in Vietnam.
The only notable thing about Ed Karasek’s hometown of Angola, Ind., was the fact that farmers would put billboards up on all the roads leading into town; billboards that read “Get the U.S. out of the U.N.,” and “Eisenhower is a communist.”
“They were all John Birchers back in those days,” said Karasek of his farm community roughly the size of Sandpoint.
Raised by his grandmother, Karasek and his brother grew up poor, lacking a strong foundation in discipline.
Upon turning 18, Karasek registered for the selective service and promptly left town after graduation.
“I had wanderlust,” he said. “So I didn’t know that six weeks after I’d left I’d been drafted.”
After spending the summer and fall rambling around, Karasek called back home to check on his grandmother, who told him several letters were waiting for him from the draft board.
“She opened them over the phone and told me I’d been drafted,” he said. “Then she opened another one and said I was in danger of being a draft dodger.”
Karasek was working construction in Phoenix at the time and happened to know a Marine recruiter that offered to help him out.
“He told me he would back date my enlistment papers so I wouldn’t get in trouble,” said Karasek. “I don’t know if he ever actually did that, but I ended up going into active duty in Feb. 1966.”
Preparing for the fight
The Vietnam War was raging when Karasek enlisted with the USMC. Headlines were filled with how many Americans were being sent over to fight and explosive battles.
“It occurred to me at the time that if I was going to have to go fight, I probably ought to join an organization that really teaches you how to fight,” he said. “The Marines obviously had a good reputation for that.”
Because he wasn’t raised with a lot of discipline, Karasek said it took some time to get used to the structured way of military life: “But it served me well all my life once I figured it out and got on board.”
Karasek’s first memory of arriving at Boot Camp was getting off the bus in San Diego and being yelled at by a burly Marine.
“He told us to get off the bus, and when he hit the ground, our feet had better be running, and if they weren’t he was going to deck us,” said Karasek. “The first guy came off running, the second guy wasn’t, and he went down. After that, I knew they meant business.”
After learning to adjust to the regimented way of life, Karasek began to understand the idea behind the Marines’ indoctrination style.
“You really learned that if you concentrate on what you want to achieve, you can do damn near anything,” he said. “But that’s a hard lesson to learn if you’re not pushed hard, I think.”
Instead of being shipped with his regiment, Karasek was shipped separately to Vietnam as an O311 infantry rifleman. He arrived in country in July, 1967.
“Oh my god, it was hot and humid,” he said. “You were sticky all the time, the military base was always a lot of hustle and bustle, jets screaming in all over the place. We were there about an hour before they loaded us into 4×4 trucks and sent us to the various units we would be joining.”
Since he was shipped separate from his regiment, Karasek and the other four men with him were sent as replacements to a unit that had already been in combat. They joined up with the 1st Battalion, First Division Marine Delta Company.
“The units weren’t very friendly when you joined them,” he said. “At the time they were taking heavy casualties and people weren’t around long. Everybody new that came represented a face of somebody they had lost, so no one wanted to get too close. It’s hard to appreciate that until you start to see people die.”
As testament to the attrition rate of infantry Marines, after he was in country for six months, he was the most senior person in the group.
“That mean the guys I came in with were all rotated out for injuries or death,” he said. “We took shitloads of casualties. Some serious, some not.”
Karasek said the heavy casualties kept up until Tet around Feb. 1968: “The war didn’t slow down much at that point, but the casualties seemed to lessen, at least where I was.”
Karasek was initially sent to Hoi An, the former provincial capital of Vietnam. On Sept. 4, 1967, he and his men had just returned from a three-day patrol, showered and had a hot meal before being notified that they were to be helicoptered to aid in a firefight.
“The 5th Battalion was pinned down by a heavy lot of what was believed to be the NVA soldiers, not the farmers that we had been mostly fighting up to this point,” said Karasek.
Karasek and the rest of his unit loaded into the helicopters at night and headed in the direction of the battle.
“When we flew in, they were in the heat of battle, and we choppered in as close as we could and bailed off the helicopter and ran straight into the battle,” he said. “It was probably a good thing we did, because they had taken almost 80 percent casualties, almost half of them dead by the time we got there.”
Karasek, along with the 300 men that flew in to relieve the 5th Bt., were able to push their way through and caused the NVA to retreat.
“They were afraid to bring in medevac choppers that night, so we had to stay there until dawn,” he said. “We set up an LZ for the injured to get out, then, after dawn, we pursued the Vietnamese.”
It was believed the NVA were going toward the mountains. The Marines wanted to catch up with them before they made it there.
“It was about a three-day hike to get there,” he said. “We marched furiously, 18 hours a day.”
On the second day, Karasek believed they were getting close to the NVA. They were running into a lot of snipers, and they had begun to run out of food and needed more ammunition.
“We were waiting to get resupplied in this small village,” he said. “We’d set up a loose perimeter on the edge of the village and everyone was kind of relaxed a bit, some of them sleeping. All of a sudden, these North Vietnamese soldiers started popping up out of the ground right in the middle of us and started shooting, creating a hell of a lot of chaos. It took us 10 or 15 minutes to get our act together.”
The NVA had bunkers under the ground and a half dozen holes where they’d popped into the Marines, who put explosives in there to flush them out.
“We started getting hit pretty much 360 degrees in a battle that raged well into the night,” said Karasek. “We got overrun in the corner I was at. There was a machine gun nest sitting right there to my side and the NVA threw a satchel charge and blew those guys up and came right through that hole.”
While lying in a foxhole with another Marine, Karasek watched the soldier take a round right in the head. While still processing what had happened, he realized he, too, was taking hits.
“I took one right through the top of my head, one through my ear, and out my neck,” he said. “The Marine next to me just flopped right over onto my lap, so I pretended like I was dead for awhile and the battle just continued to rage.”
All the while Karasek was lying underneath his dead comrade, he thought there was a bullet lodged in the top of his head. Later, he found that it had skimmed the head and made an enormous egg lump, bleeding profusely.
The Marines finally reestablished their lines, but it was about 50 yards behind where Karasek was lying injured at that point. It wasn’t until dark when some Marines came out searching for wounded and Karasek was able to get back behind the line.
“They couldn’t medevac us that night, so I waited ‘til the next day and got choppered out,” he said.
Karasek was sent to a triage center where they cleaned him up and shipped him to the USS Repose, where he had reconstructive surgery on his ear and the back of his head to close the bullet holes.
“They put in a hundred stitches in the back of my neck, trying to close that gaping hole there,” said Karasek. “It was three separate hits; probably a burst from an AK-47. Up until that point, I was a typical 18-19 year-old kid. I was invincible. I wasn’t invincible after that.”
While he was hoping for a longer recovery period, Karasek spent 30 days on the hospital ship before being sent back to combat.
“I lived in terror every day the rest of the days I was there,” he said. “They always tell you that if you were getting shot at, you could hear a crack by the side of your head if it was really close. After that, every time a bullet went by I thought it was headed right at me. It was just terror. It took every ounce of courage I had to do that every day after that. It was horrible in that sense.”
Karasek watched with some interest how the new guys would come in just as green as he once was, and after seeing their buddies get hurt and killed, they would then feel the terror for themselves.
Karasek was sent to Con Thien in the fall of 1967 where the NVA was shelling heavily.
“We lived in trenches the whole time,” he said. “We would go out on patrols day and night trying to intercept them coming across the DMZ.”
Karasek said the area was bombed so heavily, it looked like what you’d think the craters of the moon would look like.
“When they’re dropping those 1,000-pound bombs out of B-52s, it sounds like a huge giant walking toward you,” he said. “Boom Booom BOOM, the earth shakes. It wasn’t unusual to come upon one of those bomb craters and find a group of NVA soldiers huddled at the bottom, trying to make their way across the DMZ. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, and of course that’s exactly what we’d do.”
Often, he was ordered on night patrols to seek and engage enemy units. Occasionally, the battle-weary night patrols would engage in creative tactics to avoid going into the bush at night.
“One night, we were ordered to go out and it was just raining like hell,” he said. “Just miserable. We made an agreement that we’d set up an ambush spot and 10 or 15 minutes later, somebody would open fire, exposing our position so we’d have to come back. I know, it was silly, but we really didn’t want to spend the night in the rain.”
The Marines set up their ambush, and according to plan, one soldier opened fire in the dark.
“Much to our surprise, someone on the other side opened fire back at us,” he said. “It was raining so hard, they probably had no idea there was anybody out there with them.”
The Marines endured a 20-minute firefight with the unseen NVA soldiers and had to spend the rest of the night holding their position. The next morning, they found a dozen fallen enemy soldiers.
“That was a real shocker,” he said. “One of those funny things that happens in a war.”
Karasek said that everyone dealt with the trauma of a combat zone in different ways, but mostly the fighting men had to adopt a morbid sense of humor to make sense of the unexplainable.
“Fortunately, there was plenty of pot,” he said. “In the unit I was in, everybody smoked, including our First Lt. … You need some kind of mental release during that shit.”
Karasek remembers feeling an existential dilemma the first time he knowingly killed an enemy soldier.
“I was raised as a Catholic, although I became an atheist while I was over there,” he said. “But you thought you were really violating God’s orders in combat, that this was a horrible thing to be doing. But the next day you see some of your friends get killed and pretty soon, in all honesty, killing people becomes as easy as it is in the movies. I can’t tell you how many Vietnamese I came upon that were wounded and I just blasted them as we moved on and chased the rest of them. There was no emotional feelings for those people at all whatsoever, which was sad.”
In addition to wrestling with his soul, Karasek also struggled with some of the orders he was given.
“You really didn’t know who to trust sometimes,” he said. “We’d be going through a village every day giving candy to kids and stuff, and one day you take a sniper round from there and somebody gets killed. The first time that happened to us, after we’d flushed out the sniper, the Lt. told us to go burn the thatch huts and round up all the animals and kill them. We left the people alone.”
Karasek said the ongoing stress began to numb him over time: “It was just something you experienced every fricking day you were out there,” he said. “People you’d been friends with for months, you’d carry them off the battlefield dead. It was gut wrenching in many ways, but you developed a numbness to it all.”
Though his tour was only supposed to last 13 months, Karasek ended up doing 14 months in country, with the last major engagement opening up Khe Sanh. The village sat on one of the main transportation routes coming in from the Ho Chi Minh Trail out of Cambodia.
Karasek’s unit was assigned to Hill 881 South, which the NVA were bombarding with constant mortar rounds. The Marines lived in trenches and bunkers, fighting off the relentless surges of NVA soldiers.
“They were constantly trying to overrun us,” said Karasek. “They’d always try to breach the lines, and we’d have a lot of night battles up there.”
The Battle of Khe Sanh ended up being Karasek’s last combat engagement in Vietnam. His tour was up and he was sent stateside, by way of Da Nang, Okinawa, and the Mediterranean. By May 1969, he was discharged from the Marines.
As is the case with many combat veterans, Karasek began feeling the effects of post-traumatic stress as soon as he arrived stateside.
“You felt there was no one you could talk to,” he said. “You see a lot of people you killed, walking through your mind. You thought, ‘Why me? Why did I survive?’ You went from shooting people to being civil. It was an awkward feeling.”
Karasek joined a group of vets that were against the war and began to experiment with self-medication to cope with the horrors he’d seen.
“I was in pretty bad shape for awhile after my service, but then LSD turned my life around,” he said. “I’d take LSD and just sit up and go through all my experiences. It provided a movie in my brain and really helped me feel that I could be OK.”
Karasek enrolled in college at Indiana University party on the G.I. Bill and received an undergraduate degree in 1975, right in the midst of a recession. Left trying to figure out his next moves, Karasek thought it would be a good thing to help others in his same situation.
“I couldn’t find a job, so I got a deal to be a VA employee and entered a master’s program as a rehab psychologist.”
Karasek attained his master’s and began counseling veterans who had returned from Vietnam. The work was worthwhile, but weighed heavy on him: “I spent six years with the VA and burned out,” he said.
Karasek then discovered the world of training and development in the aerospace industry and moved to Newport Beach, Calif. where he eventually took a job working for Hughes Aircraft Co., and later moved into building computer simulations to customize training for the aerospace industry.
Over the next twenty years, Karasek traveled the world for his career, spending an average of 40 weeks per year on the road. He racked up over a million miles on American and United Airlines.
In 1997, Karasek returned to Vietnam with a friend right after the North had opened up to foreigners.
“It was beautiful country,” he said. “The vast majority of people were friendly or indifferent to us. The Con Thien area that was bombed so heavily in the war had reverted to rice paddies again, but the areas of the jungle that were sprayed with Agent Orange — there wasn’t a single tree growing there. That was sad to see.”
Karasek lives near his son in Sandpoint, where he is an avid reader, enjoys listening to indie radio stations and riding his bike around in the summer.
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