WASHINGTON (May 15, 2012) -- Rose Mary Sabo-Brown vividly remembers May 15, 1970, as the worst day of her life. It was the day she learned that her new husband, Spc. 4 Leslie H. Sabo Jr. of the 101st Airborne Division, wasn't coming home from Vietnam.
He was missing in action, the Army told her, explaining that they didn't know anything else yet. But Rose Mary knew. She knew in her heart he was dead.
"I felt it," she said, adding that she had already known something was wrong. "I didn't get a letter that whole week. From May 10 on I didn't get a letter. I said, 'Something happened. Something happened. He's not writing.' He was already dead."
After an agonizing five days, the Army confirmed it: Leslie had been killed by enemy fire, May 10.
The Army told his parents and his brother George that Leslie had been shot by a sniper while guarding an ammunition dump somewhere in Vietnam.
Rose Mary and the Sabo family mourned. They went to his funeral and tried to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, never knowing that there was more to the story -- never knowing that Leslie had actually been killed in Cambodia, or that he had died a hero, or that his commanders had recommended him for the Medal of Honor.
Leslie wasn't even born a citizen of the country he died for. At the end of World War II, fleeing the Soviet army and communism, his parents and his brother had escaped from their native Hungary to Austria, where Leslie was born in 1948.
"My dad kept waiting for the Russians to leave Hungary and wound up understanding that they weren't leaving," George remembered. When he and Leslie were 6 and 2, respectively, the family packed up and immigrated to the United States, where their father, who had practiced law in Hungary, went to night school at the age of 43 and became an engineer.
The family patriarch upheld a strict moral code and stressed discipline and patriotism. He was proud to be a newly minted American citizen (although he insisted they speak Hungarian at home), and he taught his sons that they had a duty to their adopted country.
Leslie was goofy, a jokester, and loved to bowl and shoot pool. He was also a good kid, his brother remembered. "He just never gave my parents any trouble. He always did the right thing. Not that he was a saint, but he just never got into any kind of real trouble. He always listened to my parents, even in his teenage years, which is a tough time for boys. He never really caused any problems, never had a car accident, never got traffic tickets."
Rose Mary had fallen in love with Leslie the day she met him at a high school football game. She was a senior and he had just graduated. She knew she was "going to be with him for the rest of … my life as soon as I met him. I don't know. Something clicked for both of us."
Leslie showed up to meet her parents dressed in a long black trench coat and tattered jeans, and her father asked where she found him, but he soon won them over as well.
After about a year and a half of college at Youngstown State University in Ohio, Leslie left school, uncertain what he wanted to do in life. Unfortunately, that meant the university was required to send his name to the selective service board. He was drafted less than six months later, almost certainly headed for Vietnam.
Rose Mary, then his fiancée, begged him to ignore the draft notice, but Leslie refused. He explained that his family had fled communism and it was his duty to stand against it, to fight for the country that had given them so much. He understood, more than many Americans, the reasons behind the war and had talked about it with his brother many times.
"I felt and understood the rationale at that time portrayed by our politicians, that you have to stop the communists somewhere in Asia," George recalled. "So I was not anti-Vietnam in the intellectual sense, but when it came down to my brother going to Vietnam, I wasn't good with it. But … at that time, in our minds, the right thing was to serve your country, and if you have to go to Vietnam, you go to Vietnam and God will take care of you. That's kind of the way he and I both felt.
"We were all very, very nervous about him going to Vietnam, but he seemed to accept the fact that that's what he was supposed to do. … We were also very proud of him."
Besides, Leslie quickly decided that he actually liked the Army, his brother said, noting that "even as a (private first class), he liked the discipline, he liked the camaraderie."
The only problem was that Leslie was supposed to get married Sept. 13, 1969 -- right in the middle of his advanced individual training. The Army let him go home for his wedding, but he had to return the next day, and couldn't take his new bride on a honeymoon until he received 30 days of leave in October. They went to New York City, a trip Rose Mary said is still her happiest memory, and they had a month to be newlyweds, to live as husband and wife.
She missed him terribly after he deployed, writing him two or three letters a day about normal life. "I would write and tell him 'I did this today and I did that. I had to go to work.' I'd hear a song that reminded me of him and I'd write some of the words to the song in there."
While Leslie was almost as faithful a letter writer, writing letters to Rose Mary every other day and his family about once a week, he didn't want to worry them. So he was upbeat, never talking about combat or missions, never mentioning the primitive conditions he was enduring out in the field. Instead, Rose Mary remembered, "He talked about his buddies and how close they all became."
Her father wouldn't let her watch most of the stories about Vietnam on the evening news, but a close family friend had been killed in action, so she knew how bad it was -- Leslie's letters were her lifeline. She would actually sit outside and wait for the mailman.
The letters stopped when he left for Cambodia with the rest of Company B, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The "Currahees" were attached to the 4th Infantry Division for a secret mission: Stop North Vietnamese units from using Cambodia as a staging point to attack American and South Vietnamese troops. But on May 10, 1970, the unit walked into a devastating ambush near the Se San River in eastern Cambodia.
In the ensuing bloodbath, Leslie shielded a comrade from a grenade and continued fighting despite his injuries, helping cover his fellow Soldiers' evacuation before he was killed.
The news of his death was devastating.
"We took it badly," George remembered. Leslie's death was especially hard on their mother, who had already lost a 1-year-old son to World War II bombings. "Now she loses another son in another war 35 years later. So it was really hard on her. My father … took it extremely hard. … Because the war was all around Hungary in the 40s, he understood the horror of war, and then to lose a son … it (shook) my dad pretty hard."
Rose Mary admitted that although she remarried (and eventually divorced), she was never truly happy again. "I never stopped loving him. Sometimes it feels like yesterday I lost him, but I'll never forget him and I'm very proud of him," she said, as her emotions overcame her.
Her brother, who was already in the Army and was close friends with Leslie, made things worse when he volunteered for duty in Vietnam, in part to avenge his friend's death, so Rose Mary worried she would lose her brother, too.
Leslie's funeral, which Rose Mary barely remembers, was the day before her birthday, and that morning she had a special delivery: a dozen red roses from her husband. For a brief, heart-pounding moment, she thought there had been a horrible mistake. If he was sending her flowers, he must be alive.
"I looked at my escort," Rose Mary remembered, "and threw the flowers at him. I felt bad after I did that, and I said, 'You've got a lot of explaining to do.'" Leslie, however, had ordered the flowers (and Mother's Day corsages for both of their mothers) months earlier, before he deployed. "That's the way he was. He was very thoughtful, very kind, very loving."
She never forgot her true love, and 32 years later, armed with a new computer, Rose Mary went looking for more information. She posted a message on VirtualWall.org, and got a reply from one of Leslie's battle buddies three months later. He put her in touch with others from their unit, and little by little, she learned the truth about her husband's death.
"I said, 'My Leslie?' Because if you knew my husband, he was a clown," she explained, "always joking around and as skinny as can be, and he was even skinnier in Vietnam. I'm going 'My Leslie? Are you sure you've got the right person?' Because the Leslie I knew would give his life to anybody. He would. He would give you the shirt off his back … but the Leslie I knew was (also) a clown, always joking around. I never pictured him to be like that. I was overwhelmed with pride. I said, 'Wow. That's awesome.'"
"Understanding my brother, I'm not surprised," George said, explaining that Sabo's discipline, love for his country and for his fellow Soldiers meant that when he had to choose between running and staying safe and standing and fighting, he fought. "He was the least selfish, (least) self-centered person I've ever known. He was always thinking about other people. … So his ability to overcome fear … (and) stand (his) ground and try to fight to keep the rest of the guys safe doesn't surprise me."
They were at once proud and overwhelmed, sad and angry. They should have known of Leslie's sacrifice long ago, Rose Mary said, and the Army should never have lost his Medal of Honor recommendation. "I didn't know who to be upset with. … I was mad, but I'm glad it's happening now. The (anger) is gone."
Learning that Leslie would finally receive the Medal of Honor in a May 16 White House ceremony was thrilling. "It was a very emotional day," Rose Mary said of the day President Barack Obama called her and told her the good news. "A very, very emotional day. I couldn't even sleep that night. And when I woke up the next morning … I went, 'Now wait a minute, did I dream this? Is it really real?' I just couldn't believe it happened. I'm very, very happy about it. It's sad and happy. It feels wonderful.
"I couldn't be more proud of him," she continued. "As the days go on, I keep thinking, 'It's coming, it's coming.' I can't wait. I cry myself to sleep at night. Every day I look at his picture and I go, 'You're finally getting what's due you.'"