(WASHINGTON) -- Forty-two years after his selfless act of heroism during the Vietnam War saved the lives of his fellow soldiers, Army Specialist Leslie H. Sabo Jr. posthumously received the Medal of Honor Wednesday.
"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," President Obama said in a White House ceremony before presenting the nation's highest decoration for valor to Sabo's widow and brother.
Sabo, then 22, died on May 10, 1970, as his patrol was ambushed near a remote border area of Cambodia. The attack by North Vietnamese troops killed seven of Sabo's fellow soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division and would come to be known as the "Mother's Day ambush."
"Les was in the rear -- and he could have stayed there. But those fighters were unloading on his brothers," Obama said. "So Les charged forward and took several of those fighters out."
When an enemy grenade landed near a wounded comrade, Sabo used his body to shield the soldier from the blast as he tossed the grenade out of the way. Even though he had been wounded by automatic weapons fire, Sabo "did something extraordinary," Obama said. "He began to crawl straight toward an enemy bunker, its machine guns blazing."
"Les kept crawling, kept pulling himself along, closer to that bunker, even as the bullets hit the ground all around him. And then, he grabbed a grenade and he pulled the pin. 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. And he did. He saved his comrades, who meant more to him than life," Obama said.
Sabo's commanders nominated him for the Medal of Honor, but the request was somehow lost. "Four decades after Leslie's sacrifice, we can set the record straight," Obama said Wednesday.
"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. But they never knew. 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," the president said.
A campaign to correct the oversight began in 1999 when Tony Mabb, a researcher for the 101st Airborne Division Association's magazine, came across a thick file of Sabo's paperwork in the National Archives. Mabb contacted members of Congress, who worked to extend the statute of limitations for nominations for the Medal of Honor so Sabo's case could be reviewed. Nominations for the medal usually had to be made within three years of the incident.
After legislation was passed in 2008 that eliminated that hurdle, the Army's recommendation that Sabo should receive the Medal of Honor was forwarded to the White House in 2010. The White House announced in April that President Obama would posthumously award Sabo the medal.
The president Wednesday personally thanked Mabb for his determination to "right this wrong."
Sabo emigrated with his family from Austria as a toddler. He met Rose Mary Brown at a high school football game. They dated for two years and were married in 1969, after he received his draft notice.
The 30 days of Army leave he took before being deployed overseas were the only time he and his wife would spend together as a married couple before he was killed in action the following May.
Brown was visibly shaken Wednesday as the president, standing with his arm around her, presented her with her husband's Medal of Honor. As she wiped away tears, Obama leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Afterwards, an emotional Brown told reporters, "I know a piece of cloth and a medal won't bring him back, but my heart beats with pride for Leslie."
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