‘You are and forever will be my hero’; Vietnam vet receives award 52 years in the making
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POCATELLO — It has been more than 52 years since Lance Cpl. Bill Klobas was struck by a 155 mm artillery round, propelling him 40 feet and requiring his medical evacuation.
Klobas sustained the injuries on April 26, 1969, as part of the Operation of Oklahoma Hills during the Vietnam War. Although the injuries occurred decades ago, Klobas was never recognized for them — in part because doctors didn’t understand the ailment at the time, and because the injuries weren’t the result of enemy fire.
But on Friday, after more than a half-century, the retired marine was finally recognized and awarded the Purple Heart Medal in recognition of his injury. He received the honor during a ceremony at the Pocatello Veterans Center Friday.
“I would like to, if I could dedicate this to the veterans that I was with in Vietnam that I haven’t seen or talked to in 52 years,” Klobas said fighting back tears.
The Purple Heart Medal was created in 1782 by General George Washington as the The Military Badge of Merit, according to Military Order of the Purple Heart Southeast Idaho Commander Miguel Dominic.
During World War II, its meaning was changed to recognize injury or death caused by enemies in battle.
That was among the reasons Klobas, now 71, was forced to wait so long to be recognized — he was not injured by the enemy.
Klobas was struck by friendly fire, something that was not recognized within the criteria of the Purple Heart for decades. In addition, Klobas’ injury, brain trauma, had no basis of diagnosis during the Vietnam War era.
Dominic told EastIdahoNews.com that he is not personally privy to any other service member being forced to wait more than five years, much less five decades, before receiving the Purple Heart.
“In this case, (traumatic brain injury) and (post-traumatic stress disorder), back then during the Vietnam era, they didn’t recognize that as meeting the criteria,” he said. “Along the way, the Purple Heart criteria changed to include friendly fire and (traumatic brain injury).”
Even with the inclusion of friendly fire and traumatic brain injury, the cause and effect of Klobas’ injury, there were still hoops to jump through to have Klobas receive his honor.
“I was actually hit twice,” Klobas said. “Once on a hillside in Vietnam and once about three years ago. And the one three years ago, I’ve got to say, was much worse than the one in 1969.”
The second hit, Klobas’ daughter Casey Byington explained, was, what he called “his final meltdown” from PTSD. After considering suicide, he sought assistance from the Pocatello Veterans Center and director Darshan Soske, whom he credits for saving his life.
Just over six months ago, in searching through her father’s VA files while aiding in his treatment, Byington discovered that the Purple Heart had never been attached to Klobas’ service record. He told her not to worry about it, that she had enough on her plate helping him through treatment.
“She called me the next day and said, ‘I’m going for your Purple Heart, and I’m not stopping until you get it,'” he said through a smile.
“It was a lot of lost records that we were dealing with, because, as you can imagine, in 1968 and 1969 they didn’t have the best record-keeping,” Byington told EastIdahoNews.com.
The USS Sanctuary, the boat to which Klobas was medevaced, was decommissioned in 1975. All files, including medical, were purged at that time.
In the case of missing medical files, Byington explained, two eyewitnesses must provide an account of the injury. That proved difficult as well, as the surviving members of Klobas’ unit had believed for decades that he had died that day in Vietnam.
“When my dad found Al Moreno, one of his comrades, he literally dropped the phone and was like, ‘is this some kind of sick joke, Bill died on the battlefield,'” Byington said.
Byington is unable to put into words what it means to her and her family that her father has finally been honored for the service he provided and the injury he sustained doing so. “For us, it means the world. It’s like a small piece of closure.”
For her father, though, there is some confusion.
Upon returning, having just spent months in medical facilities being treated and watching fellow service members die, Klobas came home to a country that shunned him. He was spat on, ridiculed, and kicked out of restaurants. So it is difficult to wrap his head around those same people now wishing to honor him.
That is why this honor means so much to the Swan Valley resident.
Klobas sobbed as Byington pinned the medal to his chest. He tried to address the crowd of 30 or so, including his emotional support dog Bentley, who was whining, no doubt feeling the emotions of her owner and friend.
He was finally able to muster himself following a simple encouragement from Jim Van Osdol, Pocatello Marine Corps League Commandant.
“Bill, this is long overdue,” Van Osdol said quietly. “Semper Fi, Marine.”
Klobas thanked Soske and the Pocatello Veterans Center. He thanked Van Osdol and Dominic for their kind words. But mostly, he thanked his daughter, Byington, for her poise in pursuing the designation he deserved.
“You are and forever will be my hero,” she said.