Dropping out of college put him at the front of the line to get drafted to serve, he said. But once there, he realized he could flourish. He joined the Army’s elite Special Forces, advanced to become a command sergeant major, the Army’s second-highest enlisted rank, and earned numerous college degrees after retiring from Army life in 1978. Pursuing education and jobs helped him to adjust to life after the military and put him on a path to success, he said.
Adkins, 80, spoke to reporters Tuesday alongside actor and veterans advocate Gary Sinise at the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference in Washington. The retired soldier, dressed in a crisp gray suit and tie and wearing his Medal of Honor, received the nation’s top award for combat valor Sept. 15 after a decades-long wait. He is credited with leading Special Forces comrades through a bloody week-long battle in Vietnam in 1966 despite being wounded numerous times.
The veteran spoke little about his experience in Vietnam on Tuesday, other than recalling that protesters threw garbage at his vehicle after he returned from a deployment. Instead, he and Sinise promoted #BuiltbyVets, a social media campaign backed by Get Skills to Work, an initiative in which Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Alcoa, General Electric and other companies are working to get military veterans into modern manufacturing jobs.
Adkins earned a bachelor’s degree from Troy State University one year after leaving the Army, and then master’s degrees in both education and management. He established an accounting company in Auburn, Ala., and also taught classes at Southern Union Junior College in Alabama and at Auburn University.
Adkins, who has been married for nearly 59 years and is a grandfather of six, said having a strong family network helped him transition out of the military. He joked that the women in his classes when he returned to college “weren’t quite as pretty” as they had been when he was floundering at 18.
Mary, his wife, sat a few rows back in the crowd. Adkins teased her from the stage.
“I believe it’s close to 59 years, but she wants me to check the numbers,” he said of the length of their marriage. “She says she’s only 59.”
Sinise, the Get Skills to Work celebrity spokesman, famously played Lieutenant Dan Taylor, an infantry officer in Vietnam, in the movie “Forrest Gump.” He said that while he did not serve in the military, he cares deeply about soldiers and veterans. The best photos of veterans showcasing their own work will be featured in a video narrated by Sinise and released on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.