POCATELLO — Al Moreno and most everyone else with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment had assumed Bill Klobas was fatally wounded on April 26, 1969, when he was injured by friendly fire while engaging the enemy in Vietnam.
Moreno was so surprised that he dropped the phone when he got a call from out of the blue several months ago from the lance corporal he used to call Rocket Man.
“Oh my God! Rocket Man, is that you?” Moreno asked Klobas skeptically.
That phone call was the first step in a seven-and-a-half-month process that culminated Friday morning with Moreno, now a 71-year-old Swan Valley resident, receiving his Purple Heart Award in Pocatello, 52 years past due.
The twist of fate that reunited the two Marines came when Klobas chose to watch a YouTube video about Operation Oklahoma Hills — the clear-and-search operation in which he was wounded — and noticed a five-year-old comment Moreno had posted below.
Moreno was writing a book on the topic and encouraged others from the company to contact him to offer insights.
Richard “Ski” Czerniejewski was the radio man who called for a medevac when Klobas was found bleeding from his eyes, ears and mouth, with a full-body concussion, after being thrown by the force of the impact of a 155 mm artillery round. Both Moreno and Czerniejewski offered eye-witness testimony that enabled Klobas to receive his prestigious award, despite the fact that official records documenting Klobas’ heroics had been lost.
“They all thought Dad died that day when he was hit,” Klobas’ daughter, Casey Byington, said following his Purple Heart presentation at the Pocatello Vet Center, 1800 Garrett Way. “He never returned to his company. He was in different hospitals for five months until he came back stateside, so they thought he died that day.”
The Purple Heart is the nation’s oldest military award, given to soldiers killed or wounded in service. During the Vietnam era, Byington said traumatic brain injuries weren’t understood. The diagnosis has since been added as a qualifying medical condition for the award. Byington said her father still has trouble remembering things as a result of the injury and has been displaying signs of early onset dementia.
Byington noticed her father had never received the Purple Heart while reviewing his Veterans Administration claims file. Klobas told her not to worry about it when she brought the fact to his attention.
“She called me the next day and said, ‘I’m going for your Purple Heart and I’m not stopping until you get it,’” Klobas said during an emotion-filled speech at the awards ceremony, attended by several Marines, friends and family members, including, his daughter and sons, his grandchildren and his wife, Dale.
Klobas also spoke about the shoddy treatment he and other soldiers received from the public after returning home from Vietnam. Klobas said it was hard to handle “everyone turning their heads on us” and being shunned, having been beside young comrades who were taking their last breaths.
“The only way I knew how to deal with it was to get away from everything government that I could get away from, and everything in general,” Klobas said, fighting back tears.
Marine Corps League Commandant Jim Van Osdol offered basic and understated words of congratulations to Klobas as he presented the soldier with the Purple Heart: “Bill, long overdue. Semper Fi Marine.”
To Klobas, the significance of receiving the award is mostly in what it means to others.
“This is for my daughter. This is for the veterans I fought with that didn’t come home. It’s not for me,” Klobas said.
Byington said her father is a true American hero, and she’s proud of him. She said the process of getting the award forced him to recall events he’d tried to erase from his mind.
“It means absolutely everything to me to see him honored today,” Byington said.