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Ellwood City, Pennsylvania
Eric Poole is a reporter and columnist for the Ellwood City (Pa.) Ledger, a small newspaper nestled near the Ohio state line in the heart of Steelers Country. He has a wife, a son and a daughter (so there will be some daddy stuff on this blog). A former steelworker and retired rugby player, Poole has a wide range of interests, which was reflected in the 2008 Pennsylvania Newspaper Association awards, when Poole won first-prize honors for best columns and best special project. His upcoming book, "Company of Heroes," due out March 17, 2015, from Osprey Publishing, tells the story of Vietnam War hero Leslie Sabo and his comrades. Sabo was awarded the Medal of Honor May 16, 2012, in a White House ceremony.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Mr. (and Mrs. and Gareth) Poole Goes to Washington

You know, there is a shoe repair shop in the Pentagon. Go ahead. Ask me how I know that. So I’m walking through the Pentagon last week when my shoe falls apart. The sole just rips off from the heel and it’s flapping against the floors as I go through the halls. The shoe, by the way, was rented along with my suit. I don’t own a suit of my own because I clean up well, but not very often. As I’m flapping through the hall, we’re walking past soldiers, ranked sergeant or higher, at each hallway junction holding a little sign, leading us in the proper direction, because the Pentagon is a big place. And each time I passed one of these soldiers, he said, “You know, we’ve got a shoe repair shop here?” Actually, that’s not surprising as you might think. Unlike the White House or the capitol building, the Pentagon isn’t in Washington D.C. It’s in Arlington, Virginia, and most amenities aren’t within walking distance. Actually, from some places in the building, an exit isn’t within walking distance.
So to meet the needs of those working in the world’s largest office building, there is a veritable mall inside the Pentagon. They have a CVS pharmacy, a Redbox video rental location and several other shops, including a shoe-repair place. Considering that most of the people working in the Pentagon are uniformed military, whose career prospects depend at least in part, on the condition of their footwear, there should be a shoe repair shop on the premises. So after the fourth or fifth time one of the soldiers said, “You know, we have a shoe repair shop here?” I decided to get the thing fixed. As outsiders, we weren’t allowed to go anywhere alone, so they broke off a Special Forces major to escort me to the shoe repair shop. A freaking Green Beret. This guy probably led commando raids in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can imagine the conversation when he got home from work that night: “How was your day, honey?” “I had to escort some schmuck to the shoe repair shop.”
I was in the Pentagon – a secure building that restricts entry only to people who have business there. Or by invitation, and I was invited. My wife, son and I were among more than 100 people who turned up last week in Washington D.C. to attend the Medal of Honor award to Vietnam War hero Leslie Halasz Sabo Jr. Sabo, who was killed on May 10, 1970, might have prevented what would have been the largest mass killing of U.S. troops since the Malmedy massacre during the Battle of the Bulge. He was recommended immediately for the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest award for combat valor, but the paperwork went missing until 1999, when 101st Airborne Division veteran Tony Mabb found Sabo’s file in the National Archives and began pressuring to have the investigation reopened. He served in Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment – the same regiment that included Easy Company of “Band of Brothers” fame during World War II. I’m the author of Sabo’s biography, “Forgotten Honor,” which earned my invitation to the once-in-a-lifetime experience of attending ceremonies in the White House and Pentagon. As a prelude to the May 16 ceremony at the White House, I rented a business suit – and the aforementioned matching shoes – because I clean up well. Just not very often. I, my wife, Dawna, and son, Gareth – we left our 4-year-old daughter, Calista, with a babysitter because we deemed her too young to sit patiently through the ceremonies -- set off through multiple levels of security that gave us the right to be in the same room as the President of the United States.
After going through the first two, of four, levels of security, we waited in line to get into the White House with Ben Currin, a soldier who served alongside Sabo in Vietnam, and U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (pictured above), a Democrat who represents the Denver suburbs in Congress. Perlmutter used some of his office’s discretionary funds to help some of Sabo’s comrades and family members with air fare and the $224-a-night cost of staying in the Sheraton National Hotel near the Pentagon, which served as staging area and a reunion venue for the veterans of Bravo Company. After the perfunctory introductions, Perlmutter said, “You look familiar,” and rifles through a handful of papers he was holding before producing a photocopy of this article. Currin, who stayed in the Army after Vietnam and was a team leader in the Army’s elite Golden Knights parachuting team, chatted with Perlmutter about the 1988 AFC Championship Game Currin and his team jumped into Mile High Stadium, then home of the Denver Broncos, as we enter the White House. We go into the East Room – where the president traditionally makes public indoor White House speeches and announcements. The address is typically eloquent for Obama, who mentions the shabby treatment Vietnam veterans received when they returned home. Fittingly, the ceremony’s longest and loudest applause is reserved for the more than two dozen veterans of Bravo Company seated immediately to the president’s left.
Then the president invited us to dine at a reception in the White House’s East Wing by saying, “I hear the food’s pretty good here.” And the food was good, if you like fancy dining. I stayed toward the Oriental chicken skewers and beef medallions-on-a-stick. Like most of the other 100-plus guests, I initially go for the champagne until I see the bottle of Yuengling Light at the open bar. As a Yuengling – but not usually Yuengling Light – drinker, I realized that the opportunity to have my brand of beer at the White House comes along, by my count, twice in a lifetime. Once when I had my first glass and then five minutes later when I had my second glass. Because I don’t always drink light beer, but when I do, I pay for it with my tax dollars.
The White House ceremony marked the third time I’ve been at the same event with a president, fourth if you count fictional presidents. I was closer to Obama than I was to Clinton, further away than I was from Bush. And further away than I was from Josiah Bartlett – there’s a close up of the back of my head in the opening shot of “20 Hours In America,” the Season Four opener for “The West Wing.” Barack and Michelle met with Rose Sabo-Brown, Leslie’s widow, and George and Olga Sabo, Leslie’s brother and sister-in-law, and I heard second-hand that Michelle cried when she heard Leslie’s story. For me, though, the highlight was getting the chance to reacquaint myself with the Bravo Company veterans, some of whom came home only because of Leslie’s sacrifice. One of the best parts of Leslie Sabo’s story is that he helped bring his comrades together – the unit started having reunions about 10 years ago, after Mabb found Sabo’s file and began contacting the Bravo Company veterans. Mabb’s inquiries coincided with an expanded growth of the internet. Bravo Company veteran Rick Clanton set up a web site that reconnected the soldiers who gathered last week in Washington, D.C. I was at Bravo Company’s 2009 reunion and the interviews I did there formed a large part of my book. Most of them are retired now, having spent the last four decades working, living and raising children in a country that had little or no respect for their sacrifice. On Wednesday night, between the White House and Pentagon ceremonies Bravo Company held a ceremony of its own to recognize Sabo along with the other 17 men the unit lost between Jan. 1 and May 10, 1970. The other two ceremonies, featured – for the most part – politicians who never knew the men of whom they spoke. Wednesday night’s flag ceremony featured the words of men speaking of the friends and comrades, whom they knew and lost. Impressive men, all.
During both ceremonies, the military provided us with several escorts, none of whom were ranked lower than sergeant. My wife and I were talking to a couple of lieutenant colonels who said being named to the honor contingent was a coveted duty – even the uniformed military don’t meet the commander-in-chief every day. On Sept. 11, 2001, one of the lieutenant colonels was working in the Pentagon when it was clobbered by a terrorist-piloted passenger jet. The other one was stationed just outside the Pentagon. For the most part, they served a ceremonial purpose, a reminder of the reason all those people in suits were there. At the Pentagon ceremony, they also were human GPS, keeping we outsiders on the correct path. The Pentagon ceremony was, personally, a little more gratifying than the White House ceremony had been. In sequence, Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta referred to my book during their speeches. Panetta had the line of the day, though. He said that Leslie and George Sabo had good taste because, “both of them married Italian girls.” Rose Sabo-Brown is the former Rose Buccelli – her father, Carmen, earned a Silver Star during World War II. George married the former Olga Nocera. The thing Panetta didn’t realize when he said that is, if you live in Ellwood City and you refuse to consider going out with Italian girls, you’re cutting your dating pool at least in half. For some people, following Odierno, McHugh and Panetta might have been a rough trick. But George Sabo delivered a heartfelt speech about his family and his brother, and upstaged three of the U.S. Army’s highest-ranking officials. Sabo thanked a long list of people he credited for the Medal of Honor award – modesty prevents me from providing a complete list. But if you get to the end of the 45-minute ceremony linked above, you can hear what he said about me.
While my shoe is being repaired after the ceremony, I’m strolling around the Pentagon dining room with only one shoe on during a post-ceremony reception. After a few minutes, I went back to get the shoe, accompanied this time by a sergeant from the Army’s public affairs office. On the way back, she said, “So what’s your connection to the Sabo family?” “I wrote Leslie Sabo’s biography.” “Oh,” she said. “You’re Eric Poole.” A few minutes later, a defense department employee entered the dining hall with an armload of my books, which were distributed to members of the Sabo families. Two of those copies were autographed by the President, Gen. Odierno and Army Secretary McHugh and distributed to Rose Sabo-Brown and George Sabo. Seeing that was really cool, but one thing occurred to me – those might be the only two books in existence whose value would decrease if they were signed by the author.