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Colfax veteran led 20-year career in U.S. Air Force

Robert Van Elsen shakes hands with Brigadier General Thomas G. McInerney on Feb. 5, 1983, in Okinawa, Japan. Van Elsen was recognized as the Most Outstanding Enlisted Person in the Air Force in Okinawa by the USO.
Robert Van Elsen shakes hands with Brigadier General Thomas G. McInerney on Feb. 5, 1983, in Okinawa, Japan. Van Elsen was recognized as the Most Outstanding Enlisted Person in the Air Force in Okinawa by the USO.

Oftentimes the entire direction of a person’s life can be altered by the smallest of details or the slightest of decisions.

For Robert Van Elsen, it was all a matter of which door he walked through first.

Robert graduated from Colfax High School in 1965. The Vietnam War was well underway and a lot of his classmates were quickly called up by the draft. Robert had a save-all though. His dad’s position in Maytag secured him a scholarship, which he used to attend the State College of Iowa, now the University of Northern Iowa, so he was free from the draft.

After a year at school, Robert knew that something was wrong. He felt that he was wasting his scholarship, that he had no more right to be home than any of the other men he knew.

While visiting his brother in Des Moines, he decided that it was time for him to enlist. He went to the Federal Building, determined to sign up for the military then and there.

“I didn’t plan on going into the Air Force. I just wanted in the military. It could’ve been the Navy or the Army too,” Robert said. “The first door that I ran into was the Air Force, so that’s where I went.”

That’s how he kicked off a 20-year military career that would segue into a long civilian career in education; a chance of running into the right door.

Robert performed well on his entry tests, and after reporting for basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, he was given the choice of what job he would carry out for the Air Force.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Robert said. “They recommended electronics, and I just went with it.”

So, upon successful completion of his basic training, Robert was off to advanced training in electronics at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss.

His training regimen would go for the next year, carrying him through April of 1967 as he became proficient with the radar systems for various military aircraft.

Near the completion of his training, he was allowed to take a brief trip back home to Colfax, and while he was there, he fell in love with Connie Polson.

“I was almost done and I had my orders for my next deployment, so I asked how she would like to go to Hawaii when I proposed.”

She said yes, but Hawaii was not in their future.

Two weeks before he was supposed to deploy, orders were passed down that he was going to Okinawa on an 18-month tour of duty instead, and he would not be able to bring a new wife.

He talked it over with her, asked if she would want to wait until he got back instead, but after hashing it all out the two were married on April 17, 1967, just three days before he shipped out.

The next several years of their lives were a whirlwind of changes as Robert continued to get moved around, alone more often than not. When he could’ve satisfied his commitment to the Air Force and left with an honorable discharge, he decided to stick it through and pursue a career.

He worked in Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Hawaii and locations around the United States throughout the years, flew a total of 78 combat missions over Vietnam despite not being a part of the regular crew and packed up and moved his home 34 times throughout his life.

After seven years of electronics in the Air Force, having worked on more than 10 different models of aircraft, Robert was given the opportunity to go to a field training detachment, where he would teach new enlisted airmen how to run radar.

The final 13 years of his career were spent as an instructor. He spent the last six of those in Japan, his first deployment abroad in which his family was able to accompany him.

He wanted to stay in the service for another five to 10 years, but he decided when his deployment was up in Japan the time was right for him to retire from the Air Force and launch his civilian career.

He was discharged 20 years, 1 month and 27 days after his date of enlistment on July 1, 1986, at which point he launched a civilian career that would have him move around nearly as frequently.

Despite never having graduated from college himself, Robert thrived in education after his years instructing younger airmen on radar and electronics. He worked with the National Education Center on different campuses across the country, was the dean of students at Brown College in Minnesota, served with ITT Tech in a number of roles, including campus president in Houston, retired and then came back out of retirement for more.

When asked if he has any regrets, the answer is a resounding “no,” aside from perhaps wishing that he had stayed in the military even longer.

“I got into the Air Force completely by chance. It happened to be the first door that I came to. I was a scared young boy, ashamed of what I’d done with my scholarship, not sure what to do, just a confused 19-year-old,” Robert said. “The Air Force put my head on straight, gave me a purpose, gave me a skill that was extremely good to me all my life, and it led to a career after the military. Would I recommend it? Absolutely.”

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