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A veteran's story with a lot of heart

George Betzold came back from Korea a different man than he was when he left. More assertive. More willing to speak his mind.

It was a good thing.

"I went in as an extremely quiet, shy person," Betzold said. "I came home a person who expresses his opinion when the time is right."

Betzold was changed in other ways, too. By the shrapnel that lodged near his spine while he was eating a tin of peaches. That injury ended his tour overseas after six months, earned him a Purple Heart and that to this day makes it hard for him to do any job that requires him to lean over for an extended period.

"Like doing the dishes," Betzold's wife, Phyllis, jokes.

Betzold, a lifelong Farmington resident whose great-grandfather settled in the area in the 1850s, was a 23-year-old farmer when he was drafted in January of 1951. He took a physical at Fort Snelling, then spent 14 weeks of basic training at Fort Riley, Kan. After a couple of weeks at home he flew to Japan then spent what he describes as the worst two or three days of his life on a troop ship to Korea.

"They stack you five or six high on canvas bunks," Betzold said. "Half the people were sick. It was hot."

Betzold arrived in Korea in mid-May. He didn't know much about where he was or what he was doing. He just did what he was told. The company he joined was at about 40 percent strength, having lost a lot of men in a push north.

Betzold was injured for the first time on July 13, though he considers it minor enough that he at first skips over it when telling the story of his time in Korea. He was "someplace I shouldn't have been," he said, and ended up hit in the left jaw by a piece of shrapnel the size of a BB.

Betzold still has an issue of the Dakota County Tribune that carries a story about the injury. The story reprints excerpts from a letter he wrote to his parents."I suppose I better tell you I got a little scratch," Betzold wrote.

Betzold continued pushing north after that. There was some fighting, but most of it was done from a distance. It wasn't the kind of dramatic, close-quarter battle portrayed in movies or on TV, he said.

"It was just an attempt to show the Chinese and the Koreans that we were serious about staying there," Betzold said. "We would go out four or five miles and sit on a hill. If nothing happened, the next day we'd go out again."

He and another soldier shared a pup tent and slept in the dirt. They would provide cover fire for other soldiers. They sat around and waited for someone to tell them what to do.

Purple Heart

Betzold wasn't fighting at all when he got the injury that sent him home. He was eating. It was Oct. 24 and Betzold had just gotten his rations. He had eaten his meal and was opening the can of peaches he always saved for last when a shell came in. The injuries he suffered weren't terrible by themselves. But one jagged, quarter-sized piece of shrapnel lodged itself close enough to his spine doctors in the field were not comfortable taking it out. He was brought by helicopter to a mobile army hospital, and from there to a hospital ship that brought him to Japan.

Betzold received his Purple Heart in Japan, though he doesn't remember any ceremony. He has a customs slip that shows he shipped the medal home.

The medal stuck to a piece of purple construction paper in the scrapbook Phyllis has put together is not that medal, though. Nobody's quite sure where the original Purple Heart is. Maybe a grandchild took it to school and lost it. Maybe Betzold put it away somewhere safe and forgot where.

Sharing his story

That fits with Betzold's attitude about his service. He takes pride in his service, but he doesn't dwell on it. Until a couple of years ago, when Phyllis started putting together what Betzold calls his funeral book, he didn't think about it much at all. The medal was nice, but it's meaningful to Betzold mostly as a reminder that he'd been a part of something bigger than himself.

"All the old guys would tell you (the medal) is all right but it wouldn't buy you a cup of coffee," Betzold said.

Betzold will talk more about his war experience as part of Farmington Middle School's annual Veteran's Day event. He started attending the event 10 years ago as a way to pay tribute to other soldiers. But this year he'll be in the spotlight himself. This year's Veteran's Day event, to be held Nov. 7, will honor Purple Heart winners and former prisoners of war.

When he gets a chance Betzold will talk to students about growing up in Farmington. About his experiences in Korea. And about the way his service changed his life.

And gave him an excuse for getting out of doing the dishes.