Release Date: July 5, 2021
LCpl Bill “Rocket Man” Klobas left Vietnam in 1969, but Vietnam never left him. Nearly 50 years later, his daughter Casey is fighting like hell to get him the care he needs and the benefits he deserves. In the conclusion of this two-part series, Casey also takes on the U.S. Marine Corps over the Purple Heart that her father earned but never received.
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[00:00:06] (BILL) Me and Zaya from the day she was born, were freakin’ tight. Every time I walked into her house she was so excited Grandpa, Grandpa right over to me and grabbed me. And we’re gonna let go.
[00:00:26] (HOST) Lance Corporal Bill Klobas, known to the guys in his unit as Rocket Man. If this is the first time you’re hearing his voice, I suggest going back to Episode Seven, for part one of his story.
[00:00:41] (BILL) I’m sitting there watching cartoons, with her and she looked at me in this big smile on her face. And all of a sudden it was like sludge hammer hit me over the head.
[00:00:58] (HOST) Bill is recounting a PTSD episode from about three years ago. It wasn’t his first he had been dealing with PTSD and with depression since returning from Vietnam in 1969. But this time, it drove him to desperation. And that desperation drove him to the kitchen table of his daughter, Casey Byington.
[00:01:17] (CASEY) There was a point in the war where the US government really became about body count, they would be required to walk into a vill after it had been destroyed and count body parts, you know, a leg here, a torso, grandmas and grandpas and young children and try to piece together what that meant for body count numbers.
[00:01:43] (HOST) 47 years later, Bill is watching cartoons with Zaya, his granddaughter and Casey’s neice. When those images suddenly come rushing back, I saw her one of the kidsm in Vietnam.
[00:02:02] (CASEY) It was like his mind just started playing this movie reel of all these young, innocent children.
(BILL) I couldn’t stop these images in my mind.
(CASEY) 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.
[00:02:34] (HOST) But Bill sought out his daughter for a reason. She’s relentless, and she would need every bit of her tenacity to get him the help he needed. In this episode, we’ll conclude the story of Rocket Man with Casey’s full frontal assault on the bureaucracies that stood between her father and the peace and recognition he deserves medical attention for his traumatic brain injury, which hadn’t even been diagnosed yet. Psychological care for the PTSD brought on by memories he didn’t talk about to anyone for 47 years, connecting all of that to Bill’s service in Vietnam. Caey wills these things into existence.
(BILL) I call up my last hope, of normal life.
(HOST) And then, just on account of principle, Casey picks a fight with the United States Marine Corps.
(HOST)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 sacrifice and healing from people who still feel the impact of that conflict. Nearly 50 years later.
[00:04:12] (HOST) This is Episode Eight, Rocket Man, part two. When Bill Klobas walked out of the Marine Corps and into 1969, San Francisco, he felt set adrift.
[00:04:28] (BILL) I remember walking off the base at Treasure Island and these guys in the duty of the Guard Station said “Have a good one man.” I said “yeah, I yeah.”
[00:04:45] (HOST) Bill just spent nearly six months hospital hopping his way home from Vietnam, where he had been hit by an artillery round in a friendly fire incident during Operation Oklahoma hills. Guys in his unit say he was blown 30 feet through the air. And when they got to him, he was bleeding from the ears, eyes, nose and mouth. They had him medivaced out of that valley and never saw him again. Based on his condition at the time of his dust off, and the fact that he never returned to his unit, they assumed that he died of his injuries. In fact, he had sustained a traumatic brain injury or TBI, which would not be diagnosed or treated until decades later.
[00:05:32] (HOST) In the meantime, Bill bounced around for a little bit, and then fell in love and got married. Eventually, he and his wife Gail had four children. Bill worked steadily raised a family with Gail and never spoke about the things he had experienced in Vietnam. Like so many of his comrades, he left Vietnam but Vietnam hadn’t left him.
[00:05:59] (BILL) I was doing pretty good for quite a while I was gonna’ want to carve a lot of artwork, because I liked doing it, and it kept my mind occupied. And I was doing some pretty nice stuff. And I was kind of proud of myself for what I was doing. And without being able to help it, I start thinking about the same things again, and I start feeling really guilty. And that leads to depression. So, all of a sudden, I’m going from thinking everything’s okay, and, and everything’s gonna’ be great now. I’m right back again. Right back there, again, to the horrible shit that happened. And there’s nothing I can do about it, it won’t leave my mind.
[00:07:01] (HOST) Bill suffered in silence for decades, kept it from his family, from his friends. And because he felt so mistreated by his government, he wasn’t about to turn to it for help.
[00:07:11] (BILL) The first time somebody mentioned the VA to me, I told them, you know what, you can take the VA and stick it where the sun don’t shine. I don’t want nothing from any of those people. Government military, nobody
[00:07:31] (HOST) Bill’s PTSD episodes recurred every few years. And he still had that undiagnosed TBI. But he just kept marching. Eventually, in the early 1990s, he and his family moved from California to Idaho. More than 20 years after his tour and his injury, he wanted medication. So, he connected with a VA outpatient clinic in Pocatello about 100 miles from where they lived.
[00:07:58] (BILL) So I had a caretaker and he or she would see me twice a year. They would do blood tests, cardiogram they would do this and that no one talks though it was strictly medication, strictly medication. In 93 or 94 when I happened, episode comes the same thing again. But this time, it was a lot more intense.
[00:08:31] (BILL) I called my caretaker in Pocatello. And I said, I need to talk to somebody set me up for a psychiatrist. I went down and I was able to talk to her. Mostly crying my eyes out because the emotion was so much when I was going through one of these things that was unbelievable. I got to meet with her five times. And she prescribed me a pill called Zoloft. It’s an anti-depression medication, started taking Zoloft. And actually, a couple months later, I started feeling a little better.
[00:09:16] (HOST) That sense of relief enabled Bill to continue functioning in a way that to anyone looking in from the outside seemed pretty normal. The Zoloft helped him keep the depression at bay. But eventually band aids work their way loose and wounds are exposed. And that’s exactly what happened three years ago. Which brings us back to Casey’s kitchen table.
[00:09:37] (CASEY) All I knew is that when he left the next day, I couldn’t not follow up with this there. I couldn’t just sit with this. You know it was eating at me if like he came to me and I know that he came to me wanting something. I didn’t know what at the time. But I just knew that something had to be done and it had to be done fast and he had called his VA primary care doctor and asked for some help asked to talk to somebody. And she had sent him the one 800 number, you know the suicide hotline number and made him an appointment that was three weeks out and told him that was the earliest they could see him at the time, which just absolutely disgusted me because it was like you’re not understanding the urgency.
[00:10:22] (HOST) Still reeling from everything she had just seen and heard. And not knowing where to turn, Casey called her younger brother, Brian, she told him about their father’s meltdown, about the three-week wait for an appointment. And Brian agreed, they needed to do something right away.
[00:10:39] (CASEY) And so he and I ended up hiring a psychologist in Idaho Falls, which was close to dad’s area. She agreed to see him the next day because we just said, you know, this is urgent, like he needs this now. And he went to her a couple of times, but he immediately knew that it wasn’t the right fit. Because there’s something about talking to what he called a civilian psychologist that just cannot handle the war stories, you know. So, that was when I just started pressing really, really hard. And what I mean by that is, you know, 15 phone calls a day, if that’s what it took to his primary care doctor, and I said, I want him seen now. I want him into somebody. I don’t want you to tell me three weeks, I don’t want you to tell me tomorrow. I want it today. And eventually, I guess what happened is I broke her down, and she connected us with the Vet Centers.
[00:11:39] (HOST) Bill was enrolled in a 12-week outpatient program for veterans suffering from PTSD. In the meantime, in order to make sure that any further treatment was covered, Casey knew she would need to connect Bill’s suffering to his service.
[00:11:53] (CASEY) I got his C-file. I started digging for anything, anywhere that I could find that would piece together the story of his service time, but also of his injury. And I was like, Okay, how do I find comrades from Vietnam? From 1968 that will remember serving with my father. You know, and honestly, it started with a couple of Google searches. I Facebook searched his India Company three, seven, and lo and behold, they had a Facebook group. So, we found him that group, we found him Al Merino. And Richard I don’t know, say his last name, because I won’t say it right. But his name is “ski” that they were the two comrades that were surfing with him the day he was hurt. And so we were able to connect to them. And they were able to kind of talk through some of the dots, if you will, of dad’s missing story and help piece things together for us.
[00:12:56] (HOST) Armed with newly unearthed details about that April afternoon in 1969, Casey thought that having Bill’s injury service connected would be easy. It wasn’t.
[00:13:12] (CASEY) One of the hardest things for my dad is having an injury that no one can see. You know, if you have a, an arm blown off or a leg blown off, during combat, it’s obvious to the common civilian, you know what’s wrong. But dad’s is internal, and it’s all in his head, as far as brain injury. And so that’s definitely been really difficult for him to try and explain over and over, you know, what happened and why it’s caused so much damage. If they deny that, then it’s basically like them saying to him, you’re not really suffering, or you’re not suffering enough. And that in my mind is just, again, just I’m baffled by that. Like, who gets to decide sitting in a cubicle somewhere in Washington DC, that my dad’s not suffering enough? So yeah, you know, it’s, it’s been a very long journey. It’s been three years. And we still we’re on appeal number four for his benefits working with the Disabled American Veterans the DAV as his advocate. I’d like to say that I like a challenge, but this challenge has been exceptionally daunting. And I am ready for it to you know, be done and have some light at the end of the tunnel.
[00:14:40] (HOST) This process is so burdensome. A lot of people just give up after the first denial. But after three years, Casey and Bill are on their fourth appeal, and they’re still battling. It’s exhausting. So where does she get the energy to fight on a second front this time? Against the United States Marine Corps. She’s motivated by principle, and the principle at stake this time, is the Purple Heart that her father earned but never received. While the battle for benefits is long and tedious, the fight for Bill’s purple heart will last only seven months. But it is brutal.
[00:15:20] (CASEY) I was called a liar. I was told that the eyewitness statements that I had submitted that were by the way notarized were false, that I had made them up.
[00:15:36] (HOST) We’ll take a short break. And when we come back, the Marine Corps picks a fight with the wrong woman.
[00:15:46] (CASEY) I’ve been raised to never give up and to if I know that something is right to stand up for what I believe in.
[00:16:39] (HOST) Here at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, we wish everybody could come and visit The Wall in Washington, DC. But we know that not everybody can get to The Wall and so we bring The Wall to you. The Wall That Heals is an exact replica of the one in DC at three quarter scale, and it travels to communities all across America. The Wall That Heals and the Mobile Education Center that travels with it will be in the beautiful town of Nahant, Massachusetts, July 15 through 18. For more 2021 tour dates and locations, visit vvmf.org. Our little podcast is growing up fast. Last week we passed 3000 listens, and we’re really grateful for your support. Some of you I know are wondering, what else can I do to help Echoes grow, well I have a couple of ideas. First, you can share it with a friend who might like it as well. Another thing that you can do and it helps us out just way more than you could imagine is 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 when you do that, how much it helps new listeners find us. So, help us spread the word. And in the meantime, let us know what you think by emailing [email protected].
[00:18:12] (HOST) Casey Klobas has spent the last three years saying to it that her father gets the care that he needs, that he receives the benefits he has earned, and that he makes healing connections with comrades that help him realize he isn’t alone. On top of all of that, she’s working with her congressional delegation to rewrite the rules so that the path will be smoother for those who come after her. All this while fulfilling the roles of devoted wife, mother, and career professional. So, what she doing in her spare time? Well, for the past seven months, Casey has been in a pitched battle with the US Marine Corps over a Purple Heart medal for her father. You might think that her argument is bulletproof, and that this will be a fairly straightforward process. You would be half right.
[00:19:00] (CASEY) We filed for my dad’s purple heart in September. They denied it on March 2nd. The thing that was missing from his records in their mind was proof that he was treated by a medical officer and not just a nurse after his injury. He was treated on the USS Sanctuary which was decommissioned in 1970. And they purged all of the records except the deathlogs when that happened. So dad’s records were missing. So that’s what then started us on the mission of trying to find comrades for eyewitness accounts.
[00:19:44] (HOST) Eyewitness accounts were critical to Bill and Casey’s efforts, but Bill’s last contact with anyone from his unit was on the day they choppered him out in April of 1969. One day, while doing some research on operation Oklahoma hills Bill found a 10 minute documentary on YouTube. As he was trying to press the button for full screen mode, he accidentally hit the show comments button instead. There, among the comments was one from Al Marino, who was working on a book about his time in the Marines, and wanted to talk to anybody who had been involved in the operation. He had included his phone number, so Bill called him. As it turns out, Marino had been one of the first Marines to reach Bill after he was injured. He was an eyewitness. And not only that, but Marina was still in contact with the radio man who called in Bill’s medivac. It was Richard Shurnesky, called ski by his buddies. by an incredible stroke of accidental luck, Casey, and Bill now had the two eyewitnesses they needed. And boy, were those guys surprised to hear from Rocket Man.
[00:20:54] (CASEY) They did not think there was any way that he could live after what they saw happened to him. You know, so nobody ever knew that he actually survived that. I started calling supervisors, colonels, majors, I even talked to the Major General Greg Olson, who is over the United States Marine Corps, and I just said, you know, I’m not some person who applied for this lightly. I’ve done my homework, I’ve done the research, this needs to happen for my father.
[00:21:32] (HOST) Even with two eyewitness accounts in hand case, he was still running into brick walls. Trouble was the missing records. case, he had found bills C-file, which was complete, but that’s not what the Marines were looking at.
[00:21:46] (CASEY) They didn’t look at my father’s complete military record, when they denied it on March 2nd, they looked at his National Archive record, and not his C-file record. And some of his doctor notes and records from 1969 were not in the file from St. Louis. And I knew that because as they were talking to me about things, you know, they kept saying things that I was like, Wait, you’re not looking at the right page, you’re not looking at the right page, you can’t be looking at the right thing. And it wasn’t until I started talking to the colonel in the office, that he said to me, are you making up documents? Casey, are you like pulling these out of a shoe box in your garage, none of this is in your dad’s file.
[00:22:32] (CASEY) They thought that I was falsifying documents to get my dad his Purple Heart. That was so, I don’t know, you can say a lot of things. But when you when you try to demean my character. That was one of those points where I was just like, I cannot believe you just said that to me.
[00:23:02] (CASEY) And it wasn’t until I could sit down with the general and say, I’m looking at my dad’s C-file. What are you looking at? And they said, you know, the file from St. Louis that I said, those are not the same, you don’t have all of the pieces. So, I had to then send them my dad’s C-file, which is his complete record. But again, I just stop and think how many other veterans have been denied their award, because they weren’t even looking at their full file? And how many of those veterans Got that no, and just walked away with it? Because they didn’t know how to reply to that, you know, because when they told us No, and I asked to speak to a supervisor, it was not pretty. I was treated very, very poorly by that office. I was told that the eyewitness statements that I had submitted that were by the way notarized were false, that I had made them up. I was told that by the supervisor before she hung up on me. I would be lying if I didn’t say there were days that I just curl up into the fetal position and throw the white towel out and say I’m done. I can’t do another day of this. I can’t prove to another doctor that this happened to my dad. I can’t you know, I definitely have those moments of weakness of like, what is this all for?
[00:24:41] (CASEY) But here we are, you know, and I feel so much closer to my dad today than I have ever felt like my life and I have always been Daddy’s little girl, his only daughter. My father has always been a hero in my eyes. You know, before I knew any of the details of his service time, I feel like you know, this is my chance to really be in his corner. And to really help him, you know, realize that asking for help was a brave thing to do. And if that can help one other veteran who’s suffering in silence right now reach out and ask for help. This was all worth it. You know, if one other veteran applies for an award in the awards branch, and they look at their claim in a different light because of what we went through, then it was all worth it. Whether dad gets his recognition or not.
[00:25:50] (HOST) It was the fourth of May when I recorded my interview with Casey, and she was expecting any day, the results from the latest board review of Bill’s Purple Heart appeal. Two days later, on May 6, I got an email from Casey with the subject line. “We did it.” I opened it and it said, Michael, I received official word today that dad is being awarded the Purple Heart for his service. I am overwhelmed. Casey
[00:26:30] (HOST) Lance Corporal Bill Klobas received his Purple Heart and an official medal ceremony on Friday the 18th of June
(BILL) “I want to say thank you.”
[00:26:46] (KTVB NEWS) That’s Bill Klobas of Swan Valley finally receiving a Purple Heart on Friday. 52 years after he was hit by friendly fire in Vietnam back in 1969.
(CEREMONY LEADER) This is to certify the President of the United States of America has awarded the Purple Heart established by General George Washington at Newburgh, New York, August 7, 1782. Presented to Lance Corporal Bill L. Klobas, the United States Marine Corps for wounds received in action on 26 April 1969 in Vietnam, given under my hand in the city of Washington, the sixth day of May 2021. Summoned by the Commandant of the Marine Corps [unintelligible].
[00:27:34] (KTVB NEWS) Too long, for sure. More than 1.8 million service members have been presented with the Purple Heart since it was created in 1782. Now, there’s one more.
[00:27:52] (HOST) I don’t think that if I were any one of your three brothers, I would mess with you.
(CASEY) I’ll be sure to pass that along.
[00:28:32] (HOST) Big thanks to Casey for reaching out to us with Bill’s story and for recording the interview with her father. And also, to KTVB, Boise’s Channel 7. Thank you for checking out the official podcast from the founders of The Wall in Washington, DC. We’ll see you in two weeks.
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
- Disabled Veterans of America – https://www.dav.org/
- 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