Adkins, 80, was one of two Vietnam War soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House. The other went to the family of Spec. Donald P. Sloat, who was killed on Jan. 17, 1970, while shielding a grenade to protect his fellow soldiers. He was just short of his 21st birthday.
The decision to award the medal to the soldiers so many years after the fact required special congressional approval.
“Normally, this medal must be awarded within a few years of the action. But sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the fog of war or the passage of time,” Obama said. “Yet when new evidence comes to light, certain actions can be reconsidered for this honor, and it is entirely right and proper that we have done so. And that is why we are here today.”
The details of each case are a reminder of the intense fighting that U.S. troops faced during the Vietnam War.
Adkins was an infantry operations and intelligence sergeant in a detachment with the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group on March 9, 1966, when his camp was attacked by a large North Vietnamese force, Army officials said. He and several other soldiers were wounded by enemy mortar rounds, but he ran through explosions to drag several others to safety.
The battle continued for 38 hours, and Adkins braved enemy fire numerous times to retrieve ammunition, help transport U.S. casualties to an airstrip for care and shoot back with a variety of weapons. He and a small group of fellow soldiers eventually destroyed classified documents at the camp and evacuated it. They carried a wounded soldier to an extraction point, a move that left them unable to reach the last helicopter evacuating U.S. soldiers from the area.
Adkins, a 32-year-old sergeant first class at the time, led the remaining U.S. soldiers into the Vietnamese jungle for the next four days, evading not only enemy fighters but a tiger. Remarkably, the jungle cat may have played a role in Adkins and other soldiers escaping alive.
“It turns out that tiger might have been the best thing that happened to Bennie … during those days because, he says, ‘The North Vietnamese were more scared of that tiger than they were of us,’ ” Obama said, drawing laughter during the ceremony. “So the enemy fled. Bennie and his squad made their escape. And they were rescued, finally, the next morning.”
In all, it is estimated that Adkins killed 135 to 175 enemy fighters in the battle and its aftermath while being wounded 18 times.
Sloat, a machine gunner, was on a foot patrol in the Que Son valley when the lead soldier in his squad triggered a trip-wire attached to a booby trap set up by enemy fighters. A grenade rolled down a hill toward Sloat, and he picked it up looking for a place to hurl it before it detonated. Realizing there was no way to do so without wounding fellow soldiers, he pulled the grenade into his body, absorbing the blast and saving their lives.
“The blast threw the lead soldier up against a boulder,” Obama recalled. “Men were riddled with shrapnel. Four were medevaced out, but everyone else survived. Don had absorbed the brunt of the explosion with his body. He saved the lives of those next to him.”
Sloat’s award was accepted by his brother, Bill. For decades, his family knew only that the specialist was killed in action, and thought he had stepped on a landmine, Obama said. His mother, Evelyn, made it her mission to have her son’s actions recognized when she learned about them, but she died three year ago, he added.
“But she always believed — she knew — that this day would come,” the president said. “She even bought a special dress to wear to this ceremony.”
The ceremony had lighter moments, especially when Obama recounted his interactions with Adkins in recent days. The grandfather of six asked the president if he could sign back up, and Mary, his wife of 58 years, “was not amused,” the president quipped.
“A couple years ago, he came here to the White House with his fellow veterans for a breakfast we had on Veterans Day. He tells folk he was the only person he knows who has spilled his dessert in the White House,” Obama said, drawing laughter. “And I just have to correct you: that makes two of us.”