Korean War Veteran Don Van Elzen, 91, lives a happy and healthy life. He enjoys fishing, going to church, eating apples and serving his country.
It was in 1978 that Van Elzen’s parents planted 2,200 apple trees with the opening of Van Elzen Apple Orchard in Kimberly, Wis. His niece says that families who lived in the area didn’t consider the fall season complete until they visited the apple orchard at least once.
For Van Elzen, this meant that apples consumed his entire life—that is, until the Army drafted him in 1950, during the Korean War. At 23, he served as a patrolman with the 2nd Infantry Division.
He remembers one specific night during the war when he and his men were attacked. He sustained a hand wound; a friend who had been sleeping next to him died. Van Elzen spent ten days recovering on a hospital ship; later, he developed an adverse reaction to penicillin that left him bedridden another three and a half weeks.
He returned to the Battle of Bloody Ridge. There, he trekked through gunfire over a rough terrain to transport his unit’s wounded, including one soldier who had lost limbs, feeling sorry and guilty for needing help.
Despite the war and getting injured in combat, Van Elzen enjoyed his 21 months in the Army. But he was even more excited for what he planned after.
He met a woman named Rita on a blind date a few months before deploying. They wrote each other back and forth throughout Van Elzen’s tour in Korea, and after he returned home, he proposed to her with a ring he bought in Japan. He popped the question while they were waiting at a stop sign.
A tight-knit family
By 1976, the couple had 10 children. On their 60th anniversary, the couple revealed their secrets to a long and happy marriage: strong shared faith, accepting things as they come, and a tight-knit family.
That tight-knit family includes 10 children, 34 grandchildren and 40 great-grandchildren and counting. Rita died in 2016.
In December 2018, Van Elzen’s family watched him receive several military service medals he didn’t know he had earned, including the Presidential Unit Citation, the National Defense Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, and the Korean Service Medal.
We honor his service.
Writer: Rachell Heimann
Editor: Michaela Yesis
Fact Checker: Brett Raffish
Graphics: Brett Blandford