War, wounds, and hope—How Vietnam changed Ed Hark for the better
There are people who believe in one moment that can change the course of a life, in one instant when the path shifts from the expected to the unknown. The doctor places a tiny bundle in the arms of a man now called “Daddy,” or a driver looks down at her phone for a split second, not seeing the other car.
Corporal Edward “Ed” Hark Jr. knows his moment down to the minute. Sitting on his back porch with Rainbo, his twenty-year-old orange tabby, curled at his feet, Ed recounts the events of that fateful morning.
As a child, Ed wanted to be one thing when he grew up—a Marine. During World War II, his father enlisted in the Marines but was injured before starting boot camp. The 4–F label was the death knell that destroyed any hopes of Ed Sr. becoming a Marine. “He always talked about how he wanted to be a Marine,” Ed says. Wearing the crisp dress blues was a dream father and son shared, a dream the son determined would become reality.
Ed enlisted in the Marines in 1962 as a non-commissioned officer. “I was a grunt—a grunt Marine. It’s a fond term, a term of endearment,” says Ed. After boot camp, he spent two years aboard the USS Long Beach and was later stationed at Camp Lejeune.
Life was good. Ed had achieved his dream and made Dad proud. His beautiful new bride, Kathy, was expecting their first child, and Ed couldn’t wait to meet his daughter. But with the stroke of a presidential pen, peacetime became wartime. Chaos had erupted halfway around the world, and America was sending grunts to Vietnam.
Remnants of winter evaporated the moment Ed’s transport plane landed in Da Nang on December 1, 1965. Sweat poured down his face in the triple-digit heat and oppressive humidity, soaking his green fatigues and dripping on his polished boots. Welcome to Vietnam.
Ed was assigned to H Company, Second Battalion, Ninth Marines. As part of the weapons platoon, his job was to accompany other platoons on missions and operate M-60 machine guns and rocket launchers. They patrolled through dense jungle and rice paddies, encountering enemy forces nicknamed “Charlie” or the hidden surprises Charlie left behind.
A week after Ed landed in Vietnam, around his twenty-first birthday, he and Second Platoon were out on his first long patrol. Calm but alert, they made their way through a field toward a small tree line. It wasn’t so bad—that was, until they ran into Betty.
“The guy next to me tripped a booby trap—a bouncing Betty mine. It blew up and knocked me unconscious. I took shrapnel in the face and, fortunately, in my flak jacket and hands, but it nearly split the guy next to me in half,” Ed remembers. “That was very traumatic for me. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve got about another year of this.’”
But he didn’t.
On April 15, 1966, Ed and his fellow Ninth Marines helicoptered in to secure a military outpost. South Vietnamese soldiers had abandoned the ARVN Thirty-ninth Ranger outpost stocked full of weapons and munitions. As the helicopters spiraled down, the ground crawled with men trying to pick the outpost clean. The Marines landed without incident and secured the fort and remaining stockpile. Ed knew the likelihood of the Viet Cong coming back was high, but he wasn’t scared.
“When I was in the jungle with the Ninth Marines, I felt as safe as I was anywhere else in Vietnam,” explains Ed. “We were a good, sharp infantry unit that looked out for each other.”
Their skills and training were put to the test the next day, just a few hours before dawn. Scavengers had returned under a moonless sky. Approximately 250 Viet Cong surrounded the area and converged on seventy Marines.
All hell broke loose.
Mortar rounds and recoilless rifle fire bombarded the Ninth Marines on the exposed rice paddy. Barely fifty yards of open terrain separated the two sides. Ed and his buddy Bugsy fought alongside each other, knowing that they had to hold their perimeter at all costs. It was only a matter of time before someone got hit.
“Last thing I saw, I was popped up, shooting at this guy who was shooting at me, and then, BAM! The lights went out and spun me around,” Ed remembers.
The force of the impact stopped his watch and marked the moment his life changed—4:16 a.m. on 4/16/1966. Ed took a round to the face; it destroyed his left eye, left cheekbone, and a few teeth before lodging in the roof of his mouth. His right eye was hit, too. Ed was blind and still in the middle of a life-or-death battle.
Now unable to see his targets, Ed reloaded pistol and rifle magazines for Bugsy until they ran out of ammo. The firefight lasted a grueling two and a half hours, ending when U.S. air support arrived and evened the odds. Never once did the Viet Cong break the Ninth Marines’ perimeter, but the cost for Ed’s unit was heavy: ten dead, thirty-seven wounded.
Seeing the Light
Ed woke up in the hospital two days later, facing a dark reality—his left eye was gone. The loss of his sight in one or both eyes meant a medical discharge from the Marines. This was his dream career; what was he going to do now? How was he going to provide for his family? As waves of depression threatened to crash over him, his doctor offered a surprising take on Ed’s condition. “You lost your left eye, and your right eye got hit, too. We saved that [the right eye] for you. You’re as good as new.”
The doctor’s words sparked a change in Ed’s perspective. “That was the beginning of a good, healthy outlook about it,” says Ed. “I think I sort of held that, remembering all the tough times that I went through and the guys that didn’t get the breaks that I got.”
After being discharged, Ed spent thirty years working in the trucking industry. His ready smile and positive attitude haven’t diminished over the years. Now retired, Ed volunteers with the Marine Corps League, an organization that supports and assists Marines and their dependents in times of need.
Ed’s mission now is to be there for the Marines lying in a hospital, still reeling from the effects of their own life-changing moments, to let them know that they’re not forgotten and, maybe, to be the voice that shines light into their dark reality.