Rose Mary Sabo will lay a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial this weekend. Her husband, Leslie Sabo, died in that war 42 years ago, just a few months after she married the boy she met at a high school football game in Ellwood City, Pa., in 1967.
"He was a jokester and a clown," she recalls. "But Les would give you the shirt off his back and the last dime in his pocket."
Leslie Sabo was drafted after high school. Lots of people his age marched against the war, but Les didn't try to get deferred. His family had fled the communist crackdown in Hungary; he wanted to serve the country that welcomed them.
Rose Sabo wrote letters to Les in Vietnam about songs that reminded her of him. She says Les wrote, "about his buddies and how close they all became."
Leslie Sabo was killed in May 1970. He was 21. The Pentagon said only that Leslie Sabo had been killed by enemy fire. He received a Bronze Star.
But 32 years later, a researcher found scores of pages about Leslie Sabo that had somehow been overlooked. They were written by fellow soldiers in the 101st Airborne to recommend Les Sabo for a Medal of Honor.
They said they had been surrounded by a much larger North Vietnamese force on a reconnaissance mission in Cambodia. Leslie Sabo, already wounded, crawled forward to hurl a grenade back at their attackers, and shield his men with his own body. Then he set off his own grenade to blow up the enemy, and took the full force of that blast, too.
It took 10 years for the accounts of that day to be investigated and verified. Rose Sabo says she read the papers line by line and wondered, "My Leslie? He was such a clown. But the Les I knew would give his life to anybody."
"Sometimes I ask, 'Why did you have to be a hero?' But I know who Les was. He put everybody before himself."
She says some of the men who survived have told Rose Sabo they feel guilt because Les gave his life to give them a chance to live. They've gotten married, had children, careers, grandchildren — hopes, joys and sorrows. Life.
"I tell them, 'Don't,'" she says. "'You would have done the same thing.'"
President Obama called Rose Sabo a couple of weeks ago to say he was giving the Medal of Honor to the man she loved, 42 years after he gave his life.
Rose Sabo said she told the president, "Sir, it is an honor to talk to you." And the president of the United States told her, "No, ma'am. The honor is mine."
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