Obama awards Vietnam War-era rifleman a posthumous Medal of Honor

<i>This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.</i>

President Obama awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor to a Vietnam-era warrior Wednesday, commemorating his bravery as well as a generation of veterans often forgotten, even shunned, by the nation they served.

Obama presented the medal to the widow of Spc. Leslie H. Sabo Jr. in a televised ceremony from the East Room of the White House, 42 years after he gave his life to save his comrades from a North Vietnamese ambush in Cambodia.

“He saved his comrades who meant more to him than life,” Obama said at the ceremony, also saluting other Vietnam War veterans. Members of Sabo’s unit, Bravo Company, were in attendance and received a standing ovation.

Obama used the occasion to praise veterans, whose situation has been a concern of his administration. First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, have made improving the lot of returning veterans one of their causes.

“This gathering of soldiers, past and present, could not be more timely,” Obama said. “As a nation, we’ve ended the war in Iraq. We are moving towards an end to 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 the thanks they deserved -- a mistake that must never be repeated. And that’s where I want to begin today, because the story of this Medal of Honor reminds us of our sacred obligations to all who serve,” the president said.

Sabo, of Ellwood City, Pa., was a rifleman in Company B, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. His widow, Rose Mary Sabo-Brown, and his brother, George Sabo, attended the White House ceremony.

In 1970, Sabo’s platoon was surrounded by the North Vietnamese near Se San in eastern Cambodia. Sabo, who was 22, is credited with grabbing an enemy grenade and tossing it away, then pulling the pin on his own grenade and attacking an enemy bunker even though he knew it would cost him his life.

“When American forces were sent into Cambodia, Bravo Company helped lead the way,” Obama said. “They were moving up a jungle trail. They entered a clearing. And that’s when it happened -- an ambush. Some 50 American soldiers were nearly surrounded by some 100 North Vietnamese fighters. Said Les’ comrades: ‘The enemy was everywhere’ -- in bunkers, behind trees, up in the trees, shooting down. And they opened up on them.

“Les was in the rear -- and he could have stayed there. But those fighters were unloading on his brothers. So Les charged forward and took several of those fighters out. The enemy moved to outflank them. And Les attacked and drove them back. Ammo was running low. Les ran across a clearing to grab more. An enemy grenade landed near a wounded American. Les picked it up and he threw it back. And as that grenade exploded, he shielded that soldier with his own body,” Obama recounted.

Sabo’s honor was delayed when the paperwork was lost in 1970 and did not resurface for three decades. In 1999, Alton Mabb, another veteran of the 101st Airborne, found the paperwork while researching an article at the National Archives and pushed for the recognition.

“Leslie Sabo left behind a wife who adored him, a brother who loved him, parents who cherished him, and family and friends who admired him,” Obama said. “For decades, they never knew their Les had died a hero. The fog of war, and paperwork that seemed to get lost in the shuffle, meant this story was almost lost to history.

“And so today we thank that Vietnam vet who found Les’ files in the Archives and who was determined to right this wrong,” Obama said.

[For the Record, 11:57 a.m. May 17: A previous version of this post stated that Medal of Honor recipient Spc. Leslie H. Sabo Jr. was a member of Company D, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. He was a member of Company B.]


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