WASHINGTON — Leslie Sabo's Vietnam War ended in the flash of his own grenade, hurled at an enemy bunker in Cambodia to save surrounded comrades. Forty years later – and a dozen years after the long-lost paperwork turned up in military archives – he was honored by President Obama on Wednesday with the nation's highest award for gallantry.
Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Sabo's widow, Rose Mary, and said doing so helps right the wrongs done to a generation that served freedom's cause but came home to a brooding and resentful nation.
"Instead of being celebrated, our Vietnam veterans were often shunned," Obama said in a hushed East Room. "They were called many things when there was only one thing that they deserved to be called and that was American patriots."
Spec. Leslie H. Sabo Jr. of Elwood City, Pa., was serving with U.S. forces near the village of Se San in eastern Cambodia in May of 1970 when his unit was ambushed and nearly overrun by North Vietnamese forces.
Comrades testified that the rifleman charged up from the rear, grabbed an enemy grenade and tossed it away, using his body to shield a fellow soldier. And shrugging off his own injuries, Sabo advanced on an enemy bunker that had poured fire onto the U.S. troops – and then, pulled the pin on his own grenade.
"It's said he held that grenade and didn't throw it until the last possible moment, knowing it would take his own life but knowing he could silence that bunker," Obama recounted. "And he did. He saved his comrades, who meant more to him than life."
After the ceremony, Rose Mary Sabo-Brown told reporters, "I know a piece of cloth and a medal won't bring him back, but my heart beams with pride for Leslie because he is finally receiving tribute for his sacrifices and bravery," she said.
Not long after the battle, survivors from Company B, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division filed reports attesting to Sabo's heroism. But somehow the documentation was lost.
"The fog of war and paperwork that seemed to get lost in the shuffle meant that this story was almost lost to history," Obama said, adding that for decades, Sabo's family never knew of his valor.
But in 1999, Alton Mabb, another veteran from the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles" found the original paperwork at the National Archives while researching an article for the division's magazine. A few weeks later he asked archives personnel to send him copies and began the push to get Sabo recognized.
According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, before Sabo the medal had been awarded 3,458 times since it was first issued in 1863. There are fewer than 90 living recipients.
At the ceremony, Obama recognized Mabb for his persistence.
But the biggest applause – a cheering, standing ovation unusual for such events – went to two dozen survivors from Bravo Company who stood to acknowledge the president's homage.
"On days such as these, we can pay tribute," Obama said. "We can express our gratitude that there are patriots and families such as these."
Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.