Four decades later, Gilroy veteran honored for valor

Lying on the ground with gunshot wounds to the thigh and chest, Richard Esparza, 19, was stuck between a rock and a hard place as his squad was caught in an L-shaped ambush.

On one side, the North Vietnam army was firing rounds at any U.S. soldiers who were not dead already.

On the other side, shots from Esparza’s own company, which was trying to ward off the enemy and rescue the wounded, rang over Esparza’s head.

So the frightened and severely wounded Esparza – who had graduated from Gilroy High School less than a year earlier – played dead.

That is, until he heard his name being called out from his sergeant – who had finally worked his way to the area where Esparza was trapped.

“He said my name two times, but I didn’t want to answer because the enemy would start firing at me again,” said Esparza as he recounted the events of Sept. 13, 1968.

Nearly half a century later, the 64-year-old veteran is receiving a much-deserved Bronze Star with Valor. Now a resident of Tuscon, Arizona, Esparza will proudly return to his hometown of Gilroy to attend an awards presentation Tuesday at Gilroy’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post, located at 74 W. 6th St.

Wanting to follow in the footsteps of his father, Esparza’s career in the service launched shortly after he graduated from GHS in 1967. He was sent to basic training in Fort Lewis, WA, in October that year.

“I always wanted to be in the army, so I joined right away,” said Esparza, who signed up together with childhood friend, Concepcion Garcia.

Except Garcia – who later served in Vietnam in transportation, loading up the helicopters before they flew into battle – did not pass his physical. Esparza was on his own.

“We were real close. We just wanted to do things together. We had talked about going into the service together,” said Garcia, who recalled playing football with Esparza at Brownell Middle School during their adolescent years. “We’re still good friends. I’m planning to be there (when he receives his medal).”

Garcia was there when Esparza returned home on leave, and later saw his friend off at the bus stop before Esparza was shipped off to war in Vietnam.

“All I know is when he was on leave before he left, I told him, ‘Don’t be a hero and just do what they say,’” he said.

Esparza’s family spent as much time with their brother as they could before his military leave was up. During that time at home, Esparza married his high school girlfriend, Stella Ceballos. They are still married and have three children together.

“The entire family was very nervous, but he had the desire to go into the military,” said Quintana. “The war was going in the wrong direction, but we were very supportive. Our whole family is very close. We just wanted him to be safe.”

Except Garcia – who later served in Vietnam in transportation, loading up the helicopters before they flew into battle – did not pass his physical. Esparza was on his own.

“We were real close. We just wanted to do things together. We had talked about going into the service together,” said Garcia, who recalled playing football with Esparza at Brownell Middle School during their adolescent years. “We’re still good friends. I’m planning to be there (when he receives his medal).”

Esparza left for Vietnam on June 4, 1968, received two weeks of jungle training and was then assigned to the Charlie Company 4th Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. As for some of his first orders, Esparza said: “We had to go and pick up all the dead bodies. That broke me in real quick.”

When Esparza got shot Sept. 13, 1968, “the entire company retreated and left us there,” he remembers, vividly. “We were still fighting and then I just played dead. Then they came back.”

But Esparza’s sergeant – who had been calling out names of those missing from the scout unit – was hit by enemy and friendly gunfire before reaching Esparza to extract him from the kill zone.

So, with other U.S. soldiers still trying to push forward and help the wounded, Esparza picked up his weapon and supplied critical ground fire, helping his troops could reach him safely.

“After they called my name, I started shooting again. I had to keep the enemy down while they came to get us,” said Esparza.

Had some of the bullets aimed at his chest not deflected off his dog-tags and wallet in his top front pocket, the veteran acknowledges: he might not be here today.

“I was in a dead zone,” he recalled. “I was stuck in the middle. They got me out of there.”

Esparza – who had arrived in Vietnam just months earlier on June 4, 1968 – was rescued and whisked away to an awaiting helicopter along with his sergeant. The two were transported to a military hospital, where Esparza was treated for his wounds – only to be back into action 30 days later.

Esparza recalled his fresh stitches later breaking apart due to the humidity and rain. His wounds were still healing, too.

“After I got shot, I was really scared almost every day,” he said. “‘Would, or could I kill or be killed?’ That thought lasted the rest of my tour…I think that Friday, Sept. 13, 1968, forever changed my life and how I do things.”

It didn’t take long before Esparza found himself back in a military hospital after getting wounded by a grenade in January. The injured soldier then spent the next several months recovering before he was finally flown back to the United States, ending his tour in Vietnam on June 4, 1969.

Meanwhile in Gilroy, U.S. soldiers delivered a telegram to Esparza’s family home to inform them their son had been injured in action.

“That was a terrible evening for us when soldiers came to our mother’s door and said he was missing in action. That was very scary. It was a dark time. We had no idea where to turn,” recalled Esparza’s older sister Judy Quintana, the second oldest of seven siblings. “Our fear was that he had died in action. When you hear those words ‘missing in action,’ your immediate thoughts are, ‘He’s dead.’”

But Esparza, who had also contracted tuberculosis while in Vietnam, was alive and on his way back to the states.

The family, however, had no idea when he was getting back – or where he was going to be taken.

Quintana said the family contacted the Red Cross, which aided them in locating their brother.

“They came to the house and told us he had been shot. I remember crying and wondering if he was still alive,” said Charles, Esparza’s younger brother. “I was small, so no one would really answer me at that time. I remember tugging at my mom’s skirt asking if my brother was still alive.”

The family eventually learned of Esparza’s condition and awaited his return home.

In his year-long tour of duty, Esparza had been in more than 75 combat helicopter flights over hostile territory in support of American ground troops.

“I remember when he came home,” said Karen Gama, Esparza’s older sister. “We picked him up at the Greyhound bus station on Old Monterey Street in Gilroy. It was dark. It was so lonely out there in the middle of night.”

“We were shocked because he was so thin and he looked gaunt,” Quintana added. “He was just a different person when he came back. You could tell he had been through a lot.”

Esparza, who still suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), explained that he received a medical discharge from the army. The process was very informal as he just signed his paperwork, picked up his stack of medals and was sent on his way, according to Esparza.

And he had quite the stack: Including an Air Medal with two Bronze Stars; an Army commendation for valor for his flights into battle; two Purple Hearts for wounds received during combat operations; and a Bronze Star for meritorious service for his initiative, sound judgment and devotion to duty on the ground.

The latter honor, however, did not show a commendation for valor, which, at the time, went unnoticed. That is until Esparza, who spent 12 years in the National Guard beginning in 1982, made an official request to learn about the awards he had earned.

“They sent me a list of awards I received while in the army, and the Bronze Star with Valor was on there,” said Esparza, who was honorably discharged from the National Guard due to his continued complications with Tuberculosis.

But Esparza never received that award.

Now, more than 44 years later, the highly decorated Vietnam War veteran will be honored in front of family, friends and servicemen at the Gilroy VFW.

“I am so happy they’re finally recognizing him and getting that medal that he deserves. I am so honored to have him as my brother. My parents would be so happy,” said Gama. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“We’re all proud of him,” added Charles. “Very proud of him.”

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