Release Date: June 21, 2021
Three years ago, LCpl Bill Klobas showed up unannounced at the home of his daughter, Casey Byington, and proceeded to have what she calls “a meltdown” at her kitchen table. She had never seen him like this, and neither one would ever be the same after. In honor of National PTSD Awareness Month, this episode is the first in a two-part series following Rocket Man’s journey from Paradise to Charlie Ridge, and from the morass of despair to the fingerhold of hope.
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So, it was an instance unlike any other and that typically dad would, you know, call and plan when he was going to come visit. Of course, he comes see his granddaughter’s often so it wasn’t unusual that he came. But this time he came on announced. And so, immediately, I kind of had that red flag radar go up of like, whoa, something’s going on here, but I don’t know what yet.
You’re listening to Casey Byington. She joins me via zoom from her home in Boise, Idaho. Casey’s father is Lance Corporal Bill Klobas, who served in Vietnam in 1968 to 1969. The surprise visit she’s talking about from her dad took place three years ago. And it would turn out to be a major turning point in both of their lives.
[00:00:59] (CASEY) He stayed the night and then the next morning when I got the girls ready and sent them off to school and I was sitting down to start work. He just came into the kitchen area and just hysterically started sobbing. And talking about how he could not get some of these memories of Vietnam out of his mind. It was just emanating out of him. You know, just sobbing hysterically sharing that he feels like he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. Seeing my father who had always been so strong, you know, and every, every aspect of that word, just completely broken. And it just left me reeling. What do I do? I’m not a psychologist. I’m not a Vietnam veteran helper. I, you know, I have no clue what to do with this.
[00:01:59] (HOST) From that moment, sitting at her kitchen table, Casey began an emotional journey with her father that would reach back to the jungles of Vietnam, into the fog of war and the trauma of injury through the darkness of PTSD, face first into the bureaucracy of Veteran’s health care, and beyond. In today’s episode, we’ll bring you part one of that journey from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, founders of the wall. This is Echoes of the Vietnam War. I’m your host, Michael Croan, bringing you stories of service and sacrifice and healing from people who still feel the impact of that conflict nearly 50 years later.
[00:03:02] (HOST) This is Episode Seven, Rocket Man, part one. About three years ago, Bill Klobas showed up unannounced at the home of his daughter, Casey Byington, and proceeded to have what she calls a meltdown at her kitchen table. This was Casey’s first in your face contact with PTSD. But over the next three years, she would become something of an expert, maybe not medically, but in terms of understanding her father’s suffering, its effect on the rest of his family, and what it takes to get help from the federal government. In honor of PTSD Awareness Month, we’re dedicating this episode and the next one to the story of Bill and Casey. You’ll hear more from my Zoom conversation with Casey. And you’ll also hear from Bill who recorded a separate one on one conversation with Casey, for this podcast. The audio quality from that conversation between Casey and her father isn’t great. It’s a little distorted, and I don’t have the skills to fix it. But you’ll be able to hear Bill and Casey clearly above the distortion. For now, back to my conversation with Casey. What do you remember of your childhood? Did you was there any feeling at the time that you had that you know, something’s not normal?
[00:04:22] (HOST) You know, I have to say that I had an absolutely incredible childhood. When I think back to it, mom and dad were so present. I had three brothers. We had so many friends that we you know, we’d go to family barbecues, I called people aunt and uncle this and that that really weren’t blood related. They were just mom and dad’s great friends. You know, my dad was so supportive of everything and anything that we wanted to do as his children. You know, my oldest brother was really into skateboarding and he got us tickets to go see Tony Hawk. My second oldest brother love to BMX racing. Dad got him into BMX racing and every Saturday we were out on the track, it was anything and everything that we wanted to do he was supportive for. So, when you ask if I felt like it was normal, I did. But I also felt like looking back, like there were times that I felt like he wasn’t approachable, I guess would be the best way to sum it up, that there were times that it was like we need to just be quiet because dad’s dealing with some things right now.
(HOST) He had no idea what those things were.
(CASEY) No idea he didn’t even talk to mom about it. So, you know, the, it’s not she knew that he was struggling mentally. But she still to this day doesn’t really know the stories that I know. You know, he never, he never opened up about it.
[00:05:52] (CASEY) He grew up in Paradise, California, which is where I also grew up. He enlisted in the Marine Corps, he tells us because he got in a little bit of trouble with the law siphoning gasoline as a young teenager, and the judge told him that he could either go to Vietnam or he could go to jail. And faced with those choices, Dad chose to enlist in the Marine Corps. During that time as well. He also felt like the draft wasn’t far off. And so, he wanted to be a marine and he didn’t want to be drafted into the army.
[00:06:25] (HOST) So 17 year old bill colobus from Paradise, California became a United States Marine in 1968. And shortly thereafter, was sent to Vietnam, his first stop Da Nang.
[00:06:48] (BILL) The first place I went to Vietnam after Da Nang, they told me that I was going to be assigned to India Company, Third Battalion, seventh Marines, which at that time was on hill 65. So that’s where we went.
[00:07:08] (BILL) And we could actually look at Charlie ridge and triple canopy jungle that was on top of it. And it came down to like a double canopy and then single and start filtering out into these rolling type hills and then rice paddies. And I remember a company commander standing there talking to us, he said, before you guys came, we had some bad things happen, and we lost a few guys. And most of the guys we lost were from a platoon weapons team. And a weapons team usually consists of about 10 guys, but at that time, everything was we’re always short on guys. Our squads instead of 12 or 14 guys do a squad were usually six or seven weapons was same way four or five guys. And he said anyway, he said we had lost these weapons guys before you guys got here. So, I volunteered for rockets. Couple other guys, new guys that came volunteered for machine gun or what are Yeah, we will volunteer for weapons. Absolutely. We’re here to do whatever we are needed to do. So, we volunteered so I became a rocket man.
[00:08:32] (HOST) Bill’s experience in Vietnam was for the most part, probably similar to a lot of other marine corps infantry. Some of his most vivid memories are understandably the most difficult for him to talk about. Casey was kind enough to recount a few of the ones he has shared with her over the past three years.
[00:08:55] (CASEY) They were supposed to have 12 men and a platoon they often had six or seven. That was, that was what they were working with. Because so many people were being killed or injured on a daily basis that they were always, you know, short handed. So, Christmas Eve, they went out on an ambush, which was you know, day to day life for him it was ambushed by day, come back, get a little bit of rest and out again for an ambush, you know, every day.
[00:09:29] (CASEY) And so this particular one, they were out and they were coming back on a very small road to get back to their Hill, which was Hill 65 at the time. And he said that all of a sudden they started receiving some fire. The first person in line as they were walking was wounded. And so, you know, as they all drop to the ground, he says that he just remembers trying so hard to dig into the ground just three inches further, just, you know an inch further, just to get level with the ground to where these shots that were just firing consistently over his head didn’t hit him. You know what everyone was trying to do that. And he explains this so vividly. I feel like I’m there. And I feel like I’m touching that dirt and I’m smelling the rice paddy. And he’s talking through that. And he remembers that the radio man that they asked called back for help, and said, you know, we need artillery dropped, we’re, we’re being hit, we’ve taken wounds, we need help. And what they said back to them was that, sorry, it’s Christmas Eve. You know, we have a ceasefire on Christmas Day, we can’t send support. You guys are on your own. They were put out there to do this job. They didn’t want to do it. But they were put there to do it. And when they asked for help, they were told you’re on your own. So, he remembers, you know, just trying to get out of that rice field with his brothers as he calls them. And, you know, finally getting to a spot where they could get down a ditch into the water that was flowing through by this rice paddy and then being able to sneak back through the water. You know, luckily undetected, it was night. So, he said that, you know, oftentimes that was when the snipers would come out, night was a really scary time for them.
[00:11:34] (CASEY) But they were able to follow the water channel back to get to their Hill without any casualties. And you know, minimal wounds from that. As a, as a daughter, and as a civilian, I cannot wrap my head around what that was like for them. You know, and these are all 18, 19, 20 year old kids trying to understand the idea of calling in for support and not getting it, it just, it baffles me.
[00:12:12] (CASEY) Another one would be the night that his very dear friend Coco died. This is one that haunts my dad still to this day. He wakes up at night, sometimes screaming his name. So again, a night ambush. He was out with his weapons platoon and a few other guys. They set up a triangle. So, his friend Woalie(?), who has passed away, you know, was on the machine gun. And the machine gunner always has a support that helps to carry all of bullets for that machine gun. And then dad was sitting across from Woalie(?) and Coco was right in front of that and they were taking turns, sleeping, doing shifts on this night ambush. And my dad describes the it was raining so hard. You know, everything was just sopping wet. They were in the mud. He remembers putting his Poncho over himself when Coco said he would take the first shift and dad could rest. So, my dad lay down Coco was sitting on his knees. Woalie (?) detected movement. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone around. And so he opened up with a machine gun. The machine gun jammed the Vietnamese, you know, we’re able to start firing on them. And Coco was hit. I think the hardest part for dad is Coco kind of fell onto him because he was laying below him. And he just remembers, you know, blood everywhere. Just trying to comfort him because it was one of his very dear friends. But also, he’s still being shot at, you know. And so he had to pull a grenade pen and throw a grenade to take care of the enemy fire. And he said that, where they were in the jungles of Vietnam. He did have to put Coco into a body bag and carry him for a few days until somebody could come in. And so that story has been really hard for him.
[00:14:22] (HOST) From March to May of 1969 US Marines and ARVN troops fought to clear NVA units from the hills and valleys of Quang Nam Province, southwest of Da Nang in an operation known as Oklahoma Hills. The terrain which ranged from the steep gullies and ravines of Charlie Ridge, to the thick cover and dense undergrowth of Happy Valley made helicopter support difficult. On April 26, Bill and a few of his comrades were walking out of the jungle into the valley when they started to receive sniper fire. They could see a large boulder that would provide cover but they couldn’t get to it. So, the lieutenant decided to call Hill 65 and ask for artillery support to suppress the sniper fire.
[00:15:08] (BILL) And the radio man that actually that called the artillery was a guy named Ski(?). He was our radio man. So, he was with the lieutenant at the time this happened, and we were pinned down. So, we were on the ground trying to not get shot. The lieutenant told ski to call in Willie Peter (white phosphorus munitions), which is a spot around to make sure that we have the grid coordinates right on where the artillery is going. So, he called in a Willie Peter (?) round I heard a whistle over my head and land about 500 yards above me right at the edge of the jungle. That Willie Peter landed and exploded. Well, to the lieutenant, He decided that round landed about 50 yards above where the snipers were. So he told ski, the radio man pass the word drop 50 in fire for effect, which means the next round is going to be the high explosive. Drop 50 yards and fire for effect. By the time the word got back at the artillery was coming from somebody screwed up in a went from drop 50 yards to drop 500. So, the next round, I heard it, boom, boom. They’re about five miles from us. And then the next thing you hear is a screaming, kind of a whistling. And you can tell about where that round is going to land. Because being used to a lot of artillery being called in close to us. So, I knew I heard the boom, I heard the whistle and I thought, oh my god, it’s gonna hit me. I curled up all I can think of doing was curling up. And that’s the last thing I remember.
[00:17:06] (HOST) Bill’s comrades later reported that he was thrown about 30 feet through the air. When he hit the ground, they ran to him and found him unconscious, bleeding from his nose, ears, eyes and mouth. They pulled him to safety, secured the perimeter and called for a medivac which took about 30 minutes to arrive.
[00:17:37] (HOST) The next thing Bill remembers is waking up briefly aboard the hospital ship, the USS Sanctuary. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury or TBI. But unfortunately, that diagnosis didn’t exist in 1969.
[00:17:53] (BILL) I remember opening my eyes laying there. And it was like looking through a piece of visqueen or being three foot underwater and looking up toward the sky from underwater. And I remember doctor saying full body concussion. I remember those words from him standing over me. Two of them looking down on me and they were talking to one another. I remember those words full body concussion. It was all internal. That is a last thing I remember of anything until [unintelligible] Naval Hospital. couple months later.
[00:18:37] (HOST) Actually, Bill had slowly been making his way from hospital to hospital for four months. During that time, he was diagnosed and treated for everything from peptic ulcers to parasites. Decades later, his suffering would even be retroactively attributed to appendicitis, even though he’d had his appendix removed when he was a child. And all that time his TBI went unrecognized and untreated.
[00:19:09] (BILL) I was flown back to Treasure Island in San Francisco. from Hawaii. I spent maybe two or three days doing paperwork. They handed me $130 or 40 check that they owed me. And they told me to, to get civilian clothes, put them on and I had like an hour to get off the base.
[00:19:41] (BILL) After all that I’ve been through and everybody else was over there. It’s going to end by saying get some Levi’s and a T-shirt on you’ve got an hour to get off base. You’re no longer a marine. Man the anger came to me first, I thought my God,
[00:20:05] (HOST) Angry, injured, haunted and alone. Bill Klobas walks out of the Marine Corps and into 1969, San Francisco. He’ll bounce around for a bit, make some bad choices. Fall in love, finally started to imagine a bright future for himself. But his darkest days, it turns out, are still ahead.
[00:20:29] (BILL) They say, in Vietnam, you leave your soul there.
[00:20:35] (HOST) We’ll pick up his story after a short break. For a lot of people, it isn’t easy to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. So VVMF created The Wall That Heals an exact replica of The Wall at three quarter scale that travels to communities all across America. The Wall That Heals and the Mobile Education Center that travels with it will be in Champlain, New York, June 24 through 27 and Townsend, Massachusetts, July 1 through 4. For more 2021 tour dates and locations, visit VVMF.org. Like Bill Klobas, a lot of service members found that they left Vietnam, but Vietnam didn’t leave them. Nearly 3 million service members served in Vietnam and most returned home. But since then, 1000s of Vietnam veterans have battled PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and it has impacted their lives and the lives of their families to this day. Join VVMF as we promote national PTSD Awareness Day on June 27, by bringing light to the continuing toll of the war. To find out how you can sponsor a PTSD awareness candle and be the light in the dark visit vvmf.org.
[00:23:21] (HOST) It’s September of 1969 and Bill Klobas has been launched into civilian San Francisco with $140, the clothes on his back, a head full of bad memories, and a heart full of pain and anger. He is not welcomed home. And he is not thanked for his service.
[00:23:40] (BILL) The whole atmosphere was anti-Vietnam. Nobody wanted to talk about it. You couldn’t tell anyone when you were looking for a job that you had been in Vietnam, you made up stories to get jobs. They thought everybody returning from Vietnam was a psycho.
[00:24:02] (HOST) On top of that, Bill is also suffering from a traumatic brain injury or TBI. The result of friendly artillery fire during Operation Oklahoma hills, but at this point, his diagnosis is still decades away. Because he’s a native Californian, you might think Bill’s next move would be to call a family member.
[00:24:23] (BILL) I had basically not been in contact with any of my family for about 25 months. Oh, over two years, the whole entire time I was in boot camp in Vietnam, in the hospitals could not get in contact with a family member.
[00:24:42] (CASEY) Dad had a rough childhood. His dad had a problem with alcohol and was very abusive to his mom and to him and his siblings. And so his childhood was very, very rough.
[00:24:55] (BILL) And I basically slept either outside someone’s backyard or slept on someone’s couch that I knew or whatever. As time went on, I became more angry. And pretty soon, that’s all I was, was a ball of anger. And that’s how five years went. And I couldn’t believe that we will be treated this way.
[00:25:35] (BILL) So I was going down the wrong road real, real quickly. When I met your mom, Gail, when I met her, we kind of clicked her and I, and I fell in love with her real quickly, because I could see that she cared about me, and not about Vietnam does I still up to this day have not talked to her about a lot of things. But I knew that she cared about me. And at that time, that’s what I needed. And I fell in love with her. I didn’t want to be around anyone but her and naturally, she didn’t know what I had been through, or what I was thinking or anything going on with me much. Because you put on this mask around people. And the mask is that you’re happy, you’re smiling, you want to do this one good that you want to want to act the right way. And all you know, and mom kind of helped me see that. I had to, I had to start living some of that life. Or else I was going to destroy myself. And I knew that too. From when I met your mom, and we had Jesse, my oldest boy, that changed my whole life. He actually did, I could actually see that man, this is gonna’ be awesome. I’m gonna forget about all that hatred and all of that Vietnam. I’m going to forget about everything that’s been affected me, I’m going to be a dad, now I’m going to have a family.
[00:27:23] (BILL) We have Kelly My other son, born two years after Jesse. And then you were born two years after Kelly. And by then I’m thinking my God, this is it. You know, I felt like I had something to live for and something that was mine. I would be doing great, workin’. And while a little bit I know that all the horrors that I had seen and been through in Vietnam weren’t going away like I wanted them to, they kept coming back on like, maybe three to five or six year intervals.
[00:28:09] (BILL) I used to hate getting dark in bedtime because I knew when I was in this period of call it PTSD, that things that hurt me so bad in Vietnam that I saw things I helped you. It was always the same four or five dreams and they would always the same way. The same thing over and over and over and over. And this would go on for maybe three weeks.
[00:28:45] (BILL) And at times I’d have come home from work and I would just go in my bedroom, shut the door and put a pillow over my head and lay there. And I would just lay there and think why is this happening right now. It comes and it takes all of your excitement for life, all of your want for anything. It takes it away from you. That’s what depression is.
[00:29:18] (BILL) So, it would eventually I had to get up go to work. I had to do what I had to do.
[00:29:28] (HOST) What Bill had to do, through all of those recurring cycles of depression and despair brought on by his terrible memories and his injured brain was to build a career and along with his wife Gail raise four happy thriving children and lead a normal, happy life. Remember earlier when I asked Casey about her childhood, she described it as absolutely incredible.
[00:29:53] (CASEY) My brothers and I always say we are just so impressed that we had the life that we did and that he is as successful as he was knowing what we know now.
[00:30:06] (HOST) But you can’t outrun PTSD. And you can’t ignore a TBI, at least not forever. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you’ll end up breaking down at Casey’s kitchen table that day started out like any other until images from Bill’s past came banging on the door.
[00:30:32] (CASEY) When his latest PTSD meltdown happened, it was a lot of the memories that he was having were of burning down vills. There was a point in the war where the US government really became about body count. And they wanted to know, you know, is the body count of the dead Vietnamese higher than the body count of the US soldiers. And so, they would be required to walk into a vill after it had been destroyed, and count body parts. And he said, oftentimes, you know, this was grandmas and grandpas and young children, they would have to go in and find, you know, a leg here, a torso there, and try to piece together what that meant for body count numbers. Because that was what it really became about.
[00:31:28] (CASEY) When he had his latest breakdown with PTSD, it was with my niece watching cartoons with her
[00:31:35] (BILL) Me and Zaya from the first day she was born, we’re freakin tight. The reason I went to her house three days a week to watch cartoons, whether it’s because every time every time I walked into her house, she was so excited, Grandpa, Grandpa she’d run over to me and grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I mean, for me, that was so insanely awesome at the time. I’m sitting there watching cartoons with her, I looked over at her. And she realized I was looking at her. So she looked at me and this big smile on her face. All of a sudden, it was like swept over.
[00:32:33] (CASEY) When he looked at her, it was like his mind just started playing this movie reel of all these young, innocent children, Vietnamese children, and the guilt just washes over him.
[00:32:46] (BILL) I saw her one of the kids that I saw in Vietnam. I had to get up and leave her house and I told Terry, I gotta go. I went got my truck, and I drove up Sheep Creek. And I just parked in the bushes and cried for two or three hours, I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop these images in my mind. That’s what I knew at that point that this, this all, not only being the same as all the other episodes. This one, this was different. This was telling me that if I didn’t get professional help with this, to figure things out. It might be because I couldn’t live with that anymore. I couldn’t do it anymore. This was the last time I’m gonna let this come to me like this. And that’s when I came to your house the next day. I’ve got a wife, but me and mom don’t talk about that kind of stuff.
[00:34:17] (BILL) I knew that if I went to you that you would find a way to help me. I wasn’t looking for you to help me. I was looking for you to find a way.
[00:34:38] (HOST) Casey would find a way or rather, or rather she would make one by sheer force of will. She takes on the responsibility for her father’s mental health care. She takes on the VA to have his physical and mental issues connected to his service. And she takes on a two star general in the United States Marine Corps in an epic battle to have her father awarded the Purple Heart.
[00:35:09] (HOST) We’ll bring you all of that in our next episode, Rocket Man, part two, that’s in two weeks. Thanks for checking out the official podcast from the founders of The Wall in Washington DC. We publish an episode every two weeks, so be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like it, there are a couple of easy things you can do to help support it. One is to share it with a friend who might like it as well. Another thing that helps us tremendously if you leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts like Apple podcast or Spotify for example. You’d be surprised how much that little action helps new listeners find this. And as always, let us know what you think by emailing [email protected].
Full Interview with Casey Byington
Full Interview with Bill Klobas & Casey Byington
- VVMF Topic Page on PTSD – https://www.vvmf.org/topics/PTSD/
- Bill Klobas receives Purple Heart – https://www.idahostatejournal.com/news/local/idaho-veteran-to-receive-purple-heart-52-years-after-being-injured-in-vietnam-war/article_7eaa596a-ecbd-5a67-9ace-6ad58ce90cf7.html
- Bill Klobas receives Purple Heart – https://www.idahostatejournal.com/news/local/local-man-believed-dead-by-comrades-finally-receives-purple-heart/article_a9f47c38-ca40-5166-9140-8d1491b98604.html
- KTVB coverage of Bill Klobas receiving Purple Heart – https://www.ktvb.com/article/news/local/208/idaho-vietnam-veteran-receive-purple-heart-after-years-denial/277-35296fe3-dc37-4d8e-bd6e-32f18377fbec
- The Wall That Heals – https://www.vvmf.org/The-Wall-That-Heals/
- Full Interview with Bill Klobas and Casey Byington – https://youtu.be/R96xW–2Rjg
- Full Interview with Casey Byington – https://youtu.be/_Q1ETCERLWo
- YouTube Echoes of the Vietnam War Interview playlist – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLK63b6Cn53unMMj-yZYEch0RuYy1YN1zl