On April 13, 1968, First Lt. Richard Estrada ran toward enemy fire to save a fellow comrade and was killed in action. Fifty-one years later, his service and sacrifice is being memorialized.
Estrada served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War and rose through the ranks due to his enthusiasm for his work.
Before his service, Estrada grew up in Bridgeport, Nebraska, where he worked at the Texaco station. From a young age, Estrada showcased his strong work ethic and perseverance as he strove to be the best at whatever he did.
At the age of 16, Estrada posted one of the best times in the nation after finishing a 50-mile run in 9 hours and 39 minutes.
The contest was sponsored by the radio station KOLT as a physical fitness interest boomed across the country. The marathon attracted 175 runners, according to a January 1963 Star-Herald article.
The run began in Scottsbluff at 7 a.m. as light snow fell and the sun crested over the horizon. Estrada led the pack as the runners entered Mitchell and never fell off through the finish line. As Star-Herald staff reporter John Oster interviewed Estrada as he ran along Highway 92, Estrada said he just “wanted to see if I could do it.”
The route took the runners through Mitchell and into Morrill on Highway 26 before they headed south on State Spur 226 to State 92, east on 92 to Mitchell Pass and Gering, north through Scottsbluff and 16 times around the Bearcat Stadium track.
With a parade of cars following the runners along the route, traffic remained bumper to bumper behind Estrada. As the runners headed down West Overland and Avenue I, the community was there cheering them on. Throughout his nine-hour quest, Estrada only ate a couple candy bars to give him energy.
Entering the home stretch, his friends ran the final laps around Bearcat Stadium and offered him a jar of honey. As he crossed the finish line at the track, he was cheered on by nearly one thousand spectators.
Before he was able to catch his breath, he was hoisted up onto the shoulders of spectators and taken to a whirlpool machine in the stadium dressing room to treat his tired muscles. He was one of 15 runners who finished.
Estrada’s test of perseverance rivaled the Marines record. The Marines record for marching time on a 50-mile march was held by Lt. Martin Shimek, who carried a 25-pound pack in 9 hours, 53 minutes. If resting periods were included, it took Shimek almost 24 hours to complete.
After proving to himself he could finish a 50-mile run, his next test sent him overseas to fight in the Vietnam War. Estrada served in the Army’s B Battery, 2d Battalion, 77th Artillery, 25th Infantry Division.
Artillery Commanding Colonel Gordon Sumner Jr. interviewed Estrada when he volunteered to join the artillery division. In a letter to Estrada’s wife, Bonnie, Sumner said, “I was particularly impressed by his willingness to undertake the difficult task as forward observer with our infantry.”
Shortly afterward, Lt. Falkher Heard Jr. met with him and on April 12, 1968, Heard promoted Estrada to first lieutenant in the field.
“He was in high spirits, seemed enthusiastic about his work, and was doing an outstanding job as a forward observer,” Heard wrote to Bonnie.
While on a combat operation in the Republic of Vietnam on April 13, 1968, Estrada died while saving a fellow soldier. That was his mom’s birthday.
According to a letter by adjunct general Clarence Riser, the unit came under heavy enemy fire. One soldier was seriously wounded and lay only a few feet from an enemy bunker. As Estrada passed in a vehicle, he jumped out and ran toward the injured man. Running through enemy fire, he reached the soldier and started administering first aid until a medic arrived. Once help arrived, Estrada offered covering fire before he was killed by a burst of enemy automatic weapons fire.
“His valorous actions were responsible for saving the man’s life and the successful completion of the mission,” Riser said.
For his bravery and devotion to duty, Estrada was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
To Donald Estrada of Omaha, who is Estrada’s older brother, the medals don’t mean much because of the loss of his brother, but he is deserving of those stars.
“We were the three musketeers and to see one of us not alive is hard,” Donald Estrada said. “But, he was exceptional at being a soldier in the Army. To be recognized for anything is rewarding to see for my younger brother.”
Estrada’s name will be one of several soldiers’ names included on a Chicano/Mexican-American Military Service Veterans memorial being placed at the Guadalupe Center. The unveiling ceremony will be Monday, Nov. 11 at 11:30 a.m. in Scottsbluff.