She knew her late husband was finally getting the recognition he deserved, even if it was 42 years later. Spc. 4 Leslie H. Sabo Jr., a rifleman with the 101st Airborne Division during the Vietnam War, received the Medal of Honor on Wednesday during a White House ceremony.
Past recipients of the medal, the first lady and Sabo’s brother, George, joined Obama to honor the American hero. Sabo-Brown spent only 30 days with her husband before he died May 10, 1970, in Cambodia.
“This gathering of soldiers, past and present, could not be more timely,” Obama said. “We are moving to end the war in Afghanistan. After a decade of war, our troops are coming home. And this month, we’ll begin to mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, a time when, to our shame, our veterans did not always receive the respect and thanks they deserved – a mistake that must never be repeated.”
Sabo died in combat near the Se San River in eastern Cambodia when a large enemy force raided his platoon. He was credited with jumping in front of the line of fire to save a comrade and then threw a grenade into the enemy bunker. Although the grenade silenced the enemy’s fire, it also ended Sabo’s life.
For this, he was given the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry. Out of the 2.1 million military personnel who served in Vietnam , only 246 received this honor.
Sabo was an immigrant from Austria and was always taught the purpose and importance of war. When his then-fiancé begged him to ignore his draft notice, he explained that it was his duty to serve.
Mabb is a writer for the Screaming Eagle Association magazine and a Vietnam veteran of the 101st Airborne Division. During a research trip to the National Archives military repository in College Park, Md., Mabb discovered Sabo’s file. It showed that his unit had nominated him for the Medal of Honor, but nothing had happened.
“And so this veteran set out to find answers,” the president said. “Who was Leslie Sabo? What did he do? And why did he never receive the medal? Today, four decades after Leslie’s sacrifice, we can set the record straight.”
In 1999, Mabb worked with his Member of Congress, Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., to extend the statue limitations to receive the medal, which was then three years. In 2008, the limitations were eliminated, and Sabo was once again eligible.
During the ceremony, the president talked about Sabo’s life and how his loved ones remember him.
“They say that Les was one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. He loved a good joke,” the president said. “Rose said he was pretty good-looking too. That’s what I hear. As he headed out for Vietnam, he stopped at a shop and ordered some flowers – for his mom, for Mother’s Day, and for Rose, for her birthday.”
Sabo died on Mother’s Day, and his mother received the flowers he had ordered ahead of time.
“And, the day he was laid to rest was the day before Rose’s birthday. And she received the bouquet he had sent to her – a dozen red roses,” the president said. “That’s the kind of guy – the soldier, the American – that we celebrate today.”
As people who knew Sabo dried their tears, the president made sure to emphasize that veterans from all wars, even the more unpopular ones, should still be recognized.
“Instead of being celebrated, our Vietnam veterans were often shunned. They were called many things, when there was only one thing that they deserved to be called – and that was American patriots,” Obama said. “So yes, this Medal of Honor is bestowed on a single soldier for his singular courage. But it speaks to the service of an entire generation, and to the sacrifice of so many military families.”
Reach reporter Rebecca Burton at Burtonr@shns.com or 202-326-9866. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.