On March 11, 1966, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins and his squad of Green Berets found themselves atop a hill, in the dark, in the middle of a jungle in central Vietnam.
They had endured days of battle with North Vietnamese troops off the Ho Chi Minh trail. Adkins was wounded and exhausted, and the last rescue helicopter had already left. With enemy soldiers closing in on them, the troops heard something in the jungle: the growls of a tiger. The Vietnamese retreated, and Adkins and his comrades were rescued the next morning.
On Monday, nearly 50 years after Adkins helped his squad escape from that hilltop, President Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, and posthumously awarded one to Army Spc. Donald Sloat, who died in the Vietnam War.
“Sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the fog of war or the passage of time,” the president said, noting that the medal is typically awarded within three years of the acts of bravery. Legislation to make an exception and award both men the medal was passed in Congress last year.
“In a battle and daring escape that lasted four days, Bennie performed so many brave acts that we actually don’t have time to talk about all of them,” Obama said during a ceremony at the White House.
After his camp came under attack, Adkins ran repeatedly through enemy fire for three days, manning the mortar pit, gathering supplies and ammo for the unit as it came under siege, and dragging wounded Americans to safety. When a North Vietnamese soldier attempted to climb onto a helicopter evacuating a wounded soldier, Adkins shielded the American’s body from the enemy’s gun.
At one point, trapped in a bunker by heavy machine-gun fire, Adkins tunneled his way to safety.
In all, Obama said, Adkins was credited with killing as many as 175 enemy troops during the four-day siege.
He went on to a third tour of duty in Vietnam, and retired in 1978, after more than 20 years of service.
After standing to receive the medal from the commander in chief, Adkins, now 80 and wearing a well-decorated black dress uniform and shiny boots, turned to the crowd and saluted.
His wife of 58 years, Mary Adkins, dabbed her eyes as she sat in the audience.
Adkins is now the 79th living recipient of the Medal of Honor, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Obama also honored Sloat, who was killed in action on Jan. 17, 1970.
On that day, Sloat was patrolling an area when the lead soldier tripped a hand grenade booby trap.
The grenade rolled down the hill to Sloat’s feet, who knelt to pick it up, intending to throw it away.
But when he realized it was about to explode with American troops ahead of and behind him, Sloat threw his 6-foot-4-inch frame over the live grenade, killing himself but saving three soldiers.
For decades, Obama said, Sloat’s family had no idea about his bravery. They were told he had stepped on a land mine. Decades later, his mother, Evelyn, heard the whole story and began a campaign to have her son awarded the Medal of Honor. She died three years ago.
“She always believed – she knew – that this day would come,” Obama said. “She even bought a special dress to wear to this ceremony.”
His brother, Dr. William Sloat of Enid, Okla., accepted the honor on his brother’s behalf, mouthing the words “thank you” as he stood next to the president.
“Over the decades, our Vietnam veterans didn’t always receive the thanks and respect they deserved,” Obama said. “No matter how long it takes, no matter how many years go by, we will continue to express our gratitude.”
There have been 259 soldiers, including Sloat and Adkins, honored for their bravery during the Vietnam War, according to statistics from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
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