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Medal of Honor Ceremony for Specialist Leslie Sabo Jr.

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Pentagon Hall of Heroes, Thursday, May 17, 2012

Thank you very much and good afternoon.  It’s great to see so many people who’ve turned out for this ceremony.  I want to obviously welcome the family.  It’s an honor for us to have you here at the Pentagon.  I think that one of the things that impressed me is that the Sabo brothers both had good taste because they both married Italians…and I know what that means.

To the leadership of the Pentagon, thank you for being here.  Ladies and gentlemen, those who served in the military, we welcome you as well.  It’s a real privilege to able to be here today to help pay tribute to Leslie Sabo.  He was truly a remarkable soldier who displayed the kind of incredible courage and bravery, uncommon valor, that a very special few in history have shown in battle throughout the years.  He was and is a true American hero, who paid the ultimate price but also made the ultimate difference by saving the lives of his brothers-in-arms. 

All of us are grateful to Specialist Sabo.  Grateful for his legacy of service and sacrifice that still burns brightly in the millions of men and women who serve our nation in uniform today, and grateful to see him finally being honored this week with the recognition that he obviously so richly deserves. 

I want to join General Odierno and Secretary McHugh in extending a particularly warm welcome to those who fought alongside Les Sabo and obviously, again, to his family for being here. 

I’d like to recognize and thank all of those, particularly those in the 101st Airborne Division who are here and who understand what battle is all about, and understand better than all of us what that special sacrifice is all about, what Les Sabo did on the battlefield is all about.  As Secretary McHugh and others have mentioned, it’s a testament to the enduring bonds of Army kinship that it was a fellow Screaming Eagle and Vietnam veteran who began the campaign to re-open the Medal of Honor process for Les more than ten years ago.

Specialist Sabo’s life encompassed three continents and a sweeping arc of history.  His story is in many ways the American story of the 20th century. 

Les was born in Austria right after World War II, to parents who had left Soviet-occupied Hungary and who were making their way to the United States.  They joined millions of immigrants, including my own parents who left Italy a decade earlier, to pursue the dream: the dream of giving their children a better life. 

That dream moved the Sabo family to settle in western Pennsylvania, surrounded by coal mines and steel mills.  Called an “average guy,” as John mentioned, by high school classmates, Les played basketball and joined the bowling club, went to work at a steel mill, and as I said, married an Italian girl – Rose Buccelli.  In short, Les was living the American dream. 

But Les had learned the lessons of service and sacrifice at a young age from his immigrant parents.  When his family’s adopted country called him to serve in April 1969, he answered that call, he put on the uniform of the United States of America, most importantly, the United States Army.  In an instant, he went from average to exceptional. 

He joined the storied 506th Infantry Regiment – the same unit that had led the way in liberating his native continent from the grip of fascism two decades earlier. 

Deploying to Vietnam, Les found himself, as Ray mentioned, in the thick of a very tough fight.  And within five months, he had his encounter with destiny.

Yesterday at the White House and today here at the Pentagon, we’ve heard the stories of how, in the middle of the Mother’s Day Ambush, Les’s decisive and selfless actions saved the lives of so many of his comrades-in-arms.  Yet no words can fully capture the meaning of his sacrifice.  Only the generations of people who will walk the earth because of what Les did that day can fully convey the importance of his courage and bravery.

It has taken over 40 years to correct this wrong.  And nobody has said this, but frankly, I think we owe the Sabo family an apology for a citation that somehow got lost.  When these things happen, and as Secretary, it’s the kind of thing that scares the hell out of me every day, you know that some of this is due to the fog of war, some of this may very well be due to a very big bureaucracy.  But when someone is a hero, when someone puts his life on the line for others, and does what Les Sabo did, that sacrifice must never be lost.

Les, like millions of Americans, ventured across the Pacific at the direction of the country that he loved.  Like thousands of them, he never came home again.  Even as the Vietnam generation, and it’s my generation, one in which I served during the Vietnam era in the Army.  As that generation ages, this country will never forget their service and their sacrifice. 

On Memorial Day, I’ll have the opportunity to visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington along with the President of the United States and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war. 

We will always remember and carry in our hearts the more than 58,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen whose names are inscribed on that dark wall for eternity. 

From the brutal battlefields of the civil war, to the trenches of World War I, to the battles of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan, we have marked our heroes with the Medal of Honor.  The strength of this nation, and it’s something I see every day, depends on men and women in uniform who are willing to put their lives on the line.  And the heart of the nation depends on those heroes who are willing to make those very special sacrifices that allow this country to always be safe.

May God bless Les Sabo, May God bless his family, and may God bless all of our men and women in uniform who carry forward his legacy of courage and heroism.

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