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Rose Mary Sabo-Brown tearfully accepts the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on behalf of her late husband, Army Spc. Leslie Sabo Jr. Sabo was killed in Cambodia in May 1970 saving the lives of his fellow soldiers, but paperwork errors delayed his award for more than four decades.

Rose Mary Sabo-Brown tearfully accepts the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on behalf of her late husband, Army Spc. Leslie Sabo Jr. Sabo was killed in Cambodia in May 1970 saving the lives of his fellow soldiers, but paperwork errors delayed his award for more than four decades. (Rick Vasquez / Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON - Forty-two years after his death in Cambodia, Army Spc. Leslie Sabo Jr. was fully recognized as a hero this week.

Sabo, a 22-year-old immigrant who gave his life saving his fellow soldiers, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony Wednesday. President Barack Obama said the recognition was long overdue, a byproduct of lost paperwork and government bureaucracy.

"Today, four decades after his sacrifice, we can set the record straight," he said. "Despite his wounds, despite the danger, Les did something extraordinary … He saved his comrades, who meant more to him than life."

Accepting the award for Sabo was his widow, Rose Mary Sabo-Brown. The pair were married just 30 days before he left for east Asia, while he was on leave from the Army.

She said she was "deeply honored" by the ceremony, because "he is finally receiving tribute for his sacrifices and bravery."

Sabo was born in Austria in 1948 and came to the U.S. with his family when he was 2, fleeing the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. He grew up in Ohio and worked at a steel mill before being drafted in 1969.

According to Army records, Sabo's unit -- Company B, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division -- was sent into Cambodia in May 1970 on a secret mission to prevent North Vietnamese forces from staging attacks into Vietnam.

The men had taken a village in Se San and were pushing out from there when they were ambushed by North Vietnamese troops.

Sabo's company commander, Jim Waybright, told Army officials recently that while some soldiers froze, Sabo sprung into action. He charged an enemy position, killing several fighters, then turned to assault the flanking force.

Waybright said Sabo's actions drew fire away from the other members of the company, allowing them to regroup. When a grenade landed near a wounded soldier, Sabo tossed it back and fell on the man to shield him from the blast.

The explosion peppered Sabo with shrapnel, but he still returned to the fight. He charged another enemy bunker, sustaining more serious injuries, before lobbing a grenade among the North Vietnamese fighters at close range. The blast killed the enemy and Sabo. He was one of eight U.S. forces killed that day, but witnesses said the number would have been much higher if not for his heroics.

Commanders submitted Sabo's name for the Medal of Honor shortly after the firefight, but Army officials said that paperwork was lost until 1999. Friends and family have spent the last decade pushing for the belated recognition.

Obama called Sabo's honor an opportunity to recognize all Vietnam veterans, many of whom received a harsh reception from anti-war activists upon their return home. The president announced he'll honor those veterans at a ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial Wall on Memorial Day.

He also recognized Sabo's friends and family, and their still-lingering grief.

"Today is a solemn reminder that when an American does not come home from war, it is their families who bear the burden for a lifetime," he said.

Sabo is the 249th servicemember to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in Vietnam. Only 54 of those men are still alive.

shanel@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @LeoShane


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