Area soldier slain in Vietnam to be recognized

Tom Fontaine
| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 7:34 p.m.

Time stopped for Rose Mary Sabo Brown when her husband, Leslie H. Sabo, died in the Vietnam War.

"I've lived in the past for 42 years," said Sabo Brown, 62, of Hickory in Lawrence County.

But her outlook is changing. She's excited about the future — starting with Wednesday, when she will accept the prestigious Medal of Honor on behalf of her first husband in a White House ceremony. The nation's highest military decoration has been awarded to fewer than 3,500 people since the Civil War, including about 250 who served in Vietnam.

Sabo Brown will be joined at the White House by more than 125 people, including soldiers who were with Sabo when the Army rifleman, then 22, died while protecting them from an ambush in Se San, Cambodia, on May 10, 1970. He was assigned to Company B, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division.

The White House said Sabo charged enemy soldiers, killing several while drawing fire away from his comrades. During the firefight, he retrieved a grenade that had been thrown in his direction, threw it back toward enemy soldiers and then dived on a wounded comrade to shield him from the blast. Wounded, Sabo got up and continued charging, taking several gunshots. He crawled toward an enemy bunker and tossed a grenade into it, silencing enemy fire before dying.

"Many people rose to the occasion that day. I think Les's actions encouraged them," said James Waybright of Marietta, Ohio, a former captain who commanded Bravo company in Cambodia.

President Obama will present the medal to Sabo Brown and Brown's brother George Sabo, who lives in suburban Detroit.

"A piece of metal won't bring back my husband," Sabo Brown said. "But my heart beams with pride for Leslie because he's finally getting what's due to him. I will show it proudly for him for the rest of my life."

Plans are being made to honor Sabo in Ellwood City, where he grew up after coming to the United States from Austria at age 2. A ceremony will be held at the borough's summer festival, and local officials plan to erect a monument and rename the Ewing Park Bridge in his honor.

"He deserves it. Anyone who gives their life for their country deserves to be honored, but what he did went above and beyond," said Tim Brandt, 47, who lives next to the bridge in a neighborhood where streets are named for military generals John J. Pershing, Edmund Allenby and Samuel Beatty.

Carol Shoup-Sbarra, 64, of Ellwood City's Fifth Ward neighborhood where she and Sabo grew up together, agreed.

"It's a big honor, but it's tough," Shoup-Sbarra said, noting that her husband, Frank, also served in Vietnam about the same time and that her brother and Sabo were close friends. "It hits really close to home for me."

World War II veteran Frank Huzinec, 86, whose brother George was killed in that war, said Sabo's award is "something that everyone in Ellwood should be proud of."

'I had nightmares'

The story of Sabo's valor was almost lost to history.

In 1999, Tony Mabb of Jacksonville, a writer for the 101st Airborne Division's Screaming Eagle magazine, came across Sabo's thick military file in the National Archives while researching a story about the Vietnam War's Medal of Honor recipients.

"I was intrigued by all the paperwork and that it didn't go further than that," said Mabb, who triggeredwhat would become a 13-year process to obtain Medal of Honor recognition for Sabo.

Until Mabb found the file, Sabo Brown knew only that her husband had been killed in battle. After learning details, she said, "I had nightmares for days picturing him doing all that stuff."

His heroics shocked her — to an extent.

"I said, 'My Leslie? Are you sure you have the right person?'" Sabo Brown said. "He was just skin over bones and kind of dorky, always goofing around. But at the same time, he was the type of person who would give you the last dime in his pocket and the shirt off his back if you needed it."

'I never saw him again'

The couple met at a high school football game. Sabo Brown was a senior at Ellwood City's Lincoln High School; Sabo had graduated the year before, in 1966.

"I said, 'Wow, he's nice-looking,' " said Sabo Brown, who had never met Sabo but baby-sat his older brother's children.

The relationship quickly turned serious, and the couple became engaged on June 13, 1968. They planned to marry on Sept. 13, 1969. In between, Sabo was drafted and sent to Fort Benning, Ga., for training.

The military permitted Sabo to return to Ellwood City for the weekend to get married and then allowed him to spend all of October at home with his new bride. The couple traveled to New York City and spent the rest of the month in Ellwood City. A neighbor gave them her house for the month.

"We were together for 31 days. I never saw him again," Sabo Brown said, crying.

Sabo Brown said they wrote letters to each other almost daily. She grew worried when the letters stopped coming in May 1970. Her worst fears were realized on May 15, when two men arrived on her doorstep to inform her that Sabo was missing in action. Five days later, men returned to tell her that he had been killed.

"It's a sick feeling that never goes away," said Sabo Brown, who later remarried, had two children and then divorced her second husband.

Sabo Brown keeps a large collection of photos and other memorabilia of Sabo's life in the living room of her Hickory home. She calls it "the museum." She said it will remain — with one new artifact, a replica of the Medal of the Honor. The real one will be kept in a safe deposit box.

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