WALLA WALLA, Wash. – More than 50 years ago, PFC Ron Esselstyn of Pendleton was attempting to engage a Viet Cong sniper in a rice paddy in Soc Tran Province, Vietnam. He was struck in the head by a moving helicopter blade and was severely injured. Esselstyn was taken to a field hospital where he was stabilized and later transferred to Madigan Army Hospital at Fort Lewis, Wash.
Esselstyn recovered from his wounds, completed his education and began a new career as a Umatilla County tax appraiser. He even became a marathon runner. However, he never received a Purple Heart for his injury in combat.
That changes today at 4 p.m. Esselstyn will receive the Purple Heart as well as four other medals the U.S. Army determined he earned and never received. The ceremony at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla will be attended by numerous dignitaries as Esselstyn is handed the medals he earned so long ago.
It’s speculated that the Army may have considered ineligible for the Purple Heart due to a misunderstanding of regulations. Policy prohibits it from being awarded for wounds related to vehicular accidents if the accident was not caused by enemy action. That was not the case here.
“Whatever the reason, ODVA Director Cameron Smith learned of the issue after meeting Esselstyn at a Veterans Day event last year. He assigned ODVA Operations Director Ed Van Dyke to research the case and in March sent a letter on his behalf to the secretary of the Army.
The Army Awards and Decorations Branch determined Esselstyn was entitled to a total of five medals.
“I think it’s just a shame that an Army veteran who was wounded while serving his country had to wait 50-plus years to get his Purple Heart,” Van Dyke said. “I have a soft spot in my heart for those guys.”