As President Obama addressed thousands in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Monday, Rose Mary Brown watched from a folding chair, waiting for her turn to honor a generation of service members who didn’t receive the same thanks as those who came before or after them. When the time came, she would stand next to the president, so close he would wrap an arm around her back and together they would place a wreath against the black granite Wall.
In that moment, Brown said, she would think of the more than 58,000 names in front of her — and, in particular, of one belonging to a brown-haired man whose hand she held one night at a high school football game and decided she never wanted to let go.
His name was Leslie Sabo, but she called him Les.
She met him when she was 18, married him when she was 20 and buried him the day before her 21st birthday.
“He was the love of my life. Still is,” said Brown, 63, who remarried and then divorced. “I’ve kept his picture on my wall all these years.”
For the ceremony, which occurred on a cloudless, scorching day as the memorial turned 30, more than a dozen relatives of those lost were chosen to walk alongside high-ranking officials and place wreaths against the Wall. They came from across the country, each carrying with them a different story. One man spent a lifetime watching his father limp, only to eventually lose him to the war injury. Another man said goodbye to a little sister whose nature was to take care of others. Brown, who traveled from New Castle, Pa., lost a man who this month, at the insistence of his fellow soldiers, received the Medal of Honor posthumously.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recalled attending the May 16 ceremony as he told Monday’s crowd that now was the time to right past wrongs.
"The story of Les is in many ways the story of the Vietnam War,” Panetta said. “We forgot, and now we finally remember.”
The Memorial Day event, which followed a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, kicked off a national effort to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War and honor those who served. Over the next 13 years, the federal government plans to reach out and thank Vietnam veterans in their home towns — an effort that government officials acknowledge is long overdue.
“One of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam, most particularly, how we treated our troops who served there,” Obama told the crowd. “You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor. . . . You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened. And that’s why here today we resolve that it will not happen again.”
To much applause, Obama asked all Vietnam veterans to stand or raise their hands so he could say “those simple words which always greet our troops when they come home from here on out.”
“Welcome home. Welcome home. Welcome home,” he said. “Thank you. We appreciate you. Welcome home.”
On Monday, temperatures rose into the 90s, sending at least one person from the memorial and 13 from a nearby parade routeto the hospital. But the heat did not deter thousands of others from sitting in the sun for hours, many of them wearing heavy uniforms that spoke to their years of service.
Among the crowd was Frank Neary Jr., who said his father never talked about the war. “He was pretty much told, ‘Try to forget you were there, try to imagine it was someone else,’ ” he said.
But unlike others who returned home with invisible wounds, Frank Neary Sr., a Marine who enlisted at 17, had a tangible reminder. His left leg had been pierced by a sniper’s bullet and was 4 inches shorter than his right. Over the years, he would endure one surgery after another, and was scheduled for one in 2006 when he died in the hospital.
His name was one of the last added to the war memorial earlier this month. The younger Neary, of Shrewsbury, N.J, recalled the first time he saw it. He was taken aback by the “scale of loss,” he said: “The amount of stories that could be told, and that I only knew one of them, was humbling and breathtaking.”
He said he was honored to participate in Monday’s wreath-laying. Still, he can only imagine what his father, a man who carried the guilt of coming home when others didn’t, would think of it all.
“My father would probably say, ‘Forget all the pomp and circumstance — just buy me a beer,’ ” Neary said. “I think he would see it as more of a testament to everyone else on the Wall than a testament to him. That’s the way I think he would like it to be seen.”
David Klinker, 69, of Greenville, S.C., who also placed a wreath, said his sister Mary Klinker, one of eight women whose names are on the Wall, would be proud. “Proud of what she’d done and probably upset that she didn’t finish the job the way she wanted to,” he said.
Mary Klinker, an Air Force nurse, died in 1975 during Operation Babylift. She had volunteered to transport Vietnamese orphans destined for adoption in the United States and elsewhere. From what her brother knows about that day, a door flew open on the C-5A and the crash killed everyone on the lower deck of the two-level aircraft, including his sister. She was 28.
“This October she would have been 65 years old, which I can’t believe,” Klinker said. “I can’t think of her as anything but my little sister who I used to pick on.”
Brown said she has tried many times to imagine how Sabo would look now. But she can’t. In the photos she has of him, he wears thick- rimmed glasses and an inviting smile.
“They say love at first sight and that’s what it was for me,” she said. She first saw him at a football game with friends and introduced herself. By the end of the night, she said, they were a couple. “I just kept falling deeper and deeper.”
A year later they were engaged and a year after that he was drafted. They married during a weekend break in his training and spent one month together before he was deployed.
For decades, Brown knew only that Sabo died during combat. Then, several years ago, the men he fought alongside tracked her down and told her in full what happened: Sabo was killed while saving other soldiers during a North Vietnamese ambush that claimed seven other men.
Over the years, Brown said she has grown close to those men and knew that on Monday, wherever they were, they, along with the crowd, would be watching her. From the stories they’ve told her, she said, some came home to the label “baby killer” and others fell into drugs and homelessness. She said it’s about time they see the country’s gratitude.
“It should have been done a long time ago,” Brown said. “ But the ones I talked to said, ‘It’s over with. They’re welcoming us home now and that’s what matters.’ ”