Vietnam War veteran to receive the Purple Heart, 51 years later

The Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Walla Walla VA Medical Center, will present the Purple Heart tomorrow to a disabled veteran who was severely injured during the Vietnam War over 50 years ago.

Pfc. Ron Esselstyn, of Pendleton, was a 22-year-old Army military policeman when he was struck in the head by a moving helicopter blade while attempting to engage a Viet Cong sniper in a rice paddy in Soc Tran Province on Aug. 27, 1965. He was promptly medevacked to a field hospital, where he was stabilized, and later transferred to Madigan Army Hospital at Fort Lewis, Wash.

Medically discharged from the Army, Esselstyn recovered from his wounds, completed his education and began a new career as a tax appraiser for Umatilla County. He even became a marathon runner. But he was never awarded the Purple Heart.

It’s not entirely clear why, but Esselstyn may have been considered ineligible due to a misunderstanding of Army regulations. Policy prohibits the Purple Heart from being awarded for wounds related to vehicular accidents, if the accident was not caused by enemy action, but 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. ODVA Operations Director Ed Van Dyke researched Esselstyn’s case and, in March, sent a letter on his behalf to the secretary of the Army.

The request was forwarded to the Army Awards and Decorations Branch, which determined Esselstyn was eligible not only for the Purple Heart, but four other medals he had never received.

Van Dyke will present the awards to Esselstyn during a ceremony at 4 p.m. tomorrow at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla, Wash. Esselstyn and his family will be in attendance, along with Medical Center Director Brian Westfield, state Sen. Bill Hansell and other dignitaries.

“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.”