WASHINGTON, (May 16, 2012) -- President Barack Obama paid tribute today to a man who died defending his fellow soldiers 42 years and six days ago, and who the commander-in-chief said represents a generation's honorable and undervalued service.
During a White House ceremony, the president awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry, recognizing Army Spc. Leslie H. Sabo Jr., a rifleman with the 101st Airborne Division who was killed in eastern Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Sabo's widow, Rose Mary Sabo-Brown, accepted the award. His brother, George Sabo, also attended the ceremony.
Sabo is credited with saving the lives of several of his comrades in Company B, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry, when his platoon was ambushed near the Se San River in eastern Cambodia on May 10, 1970. Sabo shielded a comrade from an enemy grenade and silenced a machine-gun bunker before he was killed.
"Some 50 American soldiers were nearly surrounded by some 100 North Vietnamese fighters," the president said, adding that other soldiers there that day remembered the enemy as "everywhere -- behind trees [and] up in the tress, shooting down."
Obama said, "Les was in the rear, and he could have stayed there. But those fighters were unloading on his brothers."
The president described Sabo's last moments: "Despite his wounds, despite the danger, Leslie did something extraordinary. He began to crawl straight toward an enemy bunker with machine guns blazing [he] kept crawling, closer to that bunker, even as bullets hit the ground all around him. Then he grabbed a grenade, and he pulled the pin."
Sabo's fellow troops have said he held the grenade as long as he could, "knowing it would take his own life, but knowing he could silence that bunker," Obama said. "And he did."
The day he died, Sabo was 22 years old, part of a campaign in Cambodia aimed at preventing North Vietnamese forces from launching Attacks into Vietnam from there. The Army told his Hungarian immigrant parents, his brother, and his bride of eight months, all waiting for his return to Pennsylvania, that he had been killed by an enemy sniper while on guard duty.
"Leslie Sabo left behind a wife who adored him, a brother who loved him, and parents who cherished him," the president said. "But for decades, they never knew that Les had died a hero, this story was almost lost to history."
Though Sabo's leaders recommended him for the Medal of Honor after that day's fighting, the paperwork was never processed, Obama noted. Instead, another 101st Vietnam veteran, Alton "Tony" Mabb, discovered the award packet in 1999, during a visit to the National Archives.
Mabb sought to find answers, Obama said, and the result is that "Today, four decades after Leslie's sacrifice, we can set the record straight."
And this month, he noted, the nation will begin to mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.
The end of that war, the president said, was "a time when, to our shame, our veterans did not always receive the respect and the thanks they deserved, a mistake that must never be repeated."
Vietnam veterans returning from war were called many things, Obama said, but there was "only one thing they deserved to be called: American patriots."
The commander-in-chief then called for Sabo's comrades from Bravo Company to stand and be recognized. A group of mostly suited, largely gray-haired, middle-aged men rose in response. The audience, including First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and several military service leaders, senators, representatives and friends of the Sabo family then stood in a prolonged ovation for the veterans.
Obama said Sabo's medal was "bestowed on a single soldier for his singular courage, but it speaks to the service of an entire generation."
The president said the families of those who serve also sacrifice.
"We see the patriotism of our families who give our nation a piece of their heart," he said. "On days such as this, we can pay tribute."
Obama stood with his arm around Rose as they listened to the reading of the citation, and kissed her cheek after presenting her with the framed medal.
The nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor is awarded for risk of life in combat beyond the call of duty. Sabo's medal is the 247th awarded, and the 155th presented posthumously, for action during the Vietnam War.