EDINBURG, November 11 - Today is Veterans Day, a day we set aside to honor those who have served in America’s 100 wars.
We have been at war, sometimes fighting multiple wars at the same time, 54 percent of my life. If we add the proxy wars fought in Central America throughout the 1980s, the percentage increases to 61.
Our nation has spent 67 percent of its history at war with someone. During the War Between the States, the U.S. also fought wars with seven Native American tribes.
So much for the U.S. being a “peace loving nation.” As George C. Scott said in his soliloquy in the movie “Patton,” the U.S. is a warrior nation.
Recently, a Viet Nam brother, Spc. Leslie Sabo, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism during the Cambodian invasion, April, 1970. Though we never met, we served in Viet Nam at the same time, and in the same vicinity.
In many ways, our stories are similar, yet different. Sabo was drafted, whereas I went through Army ROTC. He married his high school sweetheart; I married my college sweetheart. We both married shortly before being deployed to Viet Nam, and had a month at home with our wives and family before deployment. His wife did not believe in the war, and begged him to ignore his draft call. But Sabo believed in the war; I opposed even before the 1965 invasion.
He was a Northern boy, from Pennsylvania; me, a Southern boy from Georgia. We were paratroopers. He was serving with the 101st Airborne when he was killed. I served with the 82nd Airborne in the States, and was an advisor to the South Viet Namese Airborne Division in Viet Nam.
Both of our units were part of the Cambodian invasion force. My battalion of the Airborne Division was the first to cross into Cambodia, though we actually had been operating just across the border off and on for months. But, by the time of the Cambodian invasion, my time in Viet Nam was up; and I was in the process of rotating home. Sabo found himself in intense combat, and therein lies a story of unimaginable heroism.
Sabo’s unit was ambushed by North Viet Namese (NVA) forces fighting from well fortified positions. The fighting was so intense, members of Sabo’s unit were running out of ammunition. Sabo ran from fallen paratrooper to fallen paratrooper, collecting their ammunition belts, and distributing their ammunition to those still able to fight.
All the while, he was firing at enemy soldiers, killing several. When NVA forces tried to flank his unit’s position, Sabo charged their position to draw fire away from his fellow paratroopers. In the process, a grenade landed near a wounded soldier. Sabo shielded the soldier’s body with his own, picked the grenade up, and threw it away. However, the grenade exploded before it was far enough away. Sabo was seriously wounded, but he saved his buddy’s life.
Wounded, he continued to fight. Locating an NVA bunker, Sabo crawled toward the bunker, taking multiple rounds from an NVA machine gun. Mortally wounded, he continued to crawl toward the bunker, and dropped a grenade into it, killing the enemy soldiers inside, and himself as well. Leslie Sabo was 22.
We would not know of Sabo’s story were it not for another Viet Nam brother, Alton Mabb, who discovered documentation of Sabo’s heroism 30 years after his death. At the time of his death, paperwork had been initiated to recommend Sabo for the Medal of Honor. Somehow, that paperwork “fell through the cracks;” and would have been lost to time were it not for Mabb.
“Fell through the cracks,” in many ways is apropos for characterizing what happened to Viet Nam veterans for many years. Thanks to several excellent movies - such as “Coming Home,” “Platoon”, “Gardens of Stone,” and, unfortunately, subsequent wars, Viet Nam veterans were rediscovered by the American people. We have been remembered, thanked for our service, honored, and often apologized to for how we were not welcomed home at the time.
Some Viet vets still are bitter, but we should not be - at least not about that.
“Fall through the cracks” in many ways also is apropos in characterizing how the health care needs of many of our Viet Nam, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are being, met inadequately, or not being met at all.
We should be disturbed about that. They deserve better care than many are receiving.
Spec. Sabo gave his life for the nation he loved, leaving his wife to mourn the loss of her high school sweetheart. While she is deeply grateful for his heroism and sacrifice finally being honored, as she said, “a piece of metal won’t bring back my husband.” No, but, hopefully, this Veterans Day, we will not just remember those who served heroically; we will be thoughtful of those who served who struggle with physical and mental wounds of war.
We should ask ourselves whether our country as served our veterans as well as our veterans served their country.
We also might ask ourselves why we keep fighting these damned wars; why we ask men like Leslie Sabo to sacrifice their lives; and why so many still are allowed to “fall through the cracks.”
Two paratroopers in the same vicinity at the same time - alike in many ways, but with one profound difference. One is dead. The other is alive. Why did one live when the other died? Survivor’s guilt.
Samuel Freeman is a political science professor based in the Rio Grande Valley. His “Left is Right” columns appear regularly in the Guardian.