Retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins and Army Spc. 4 Donald P. Sloat were awarded Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military valor, for actions in Vietnam.
President Barack Obama presented the medals yesterday during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Adkins was present to receive his medal and Sloat’s was awarded posthumously. Dr. Bill Sloat, Donald’s brother, accepted it on his behalf.
In early 1970, an American squad in Vietnam set out on patrol, Obama related. He narrated what happened that day : While marching down a trail past a rice paddy, shots rang out and splintered the bamboo above the squad’s heads. The lead soldier had tripped a wire — a booby trap. A grenade rolled toward the feet of a 20-year-old machine gunner.
In 1966, on the other side of Vietnam, deep in the jungle, the commander in chief related of Sloat, a small group of Americans were crouched on top of a small hill. And it was dark and they were exhausted; the enemy had been pursuing them for days. And now they were surrounded, and the enemy was closing in on all sides, he said.
Sloat stood above that grenade, and Adkins, who fought through a ferocious battle, found himself on that jungle hill.
“Normally, the Medal of Honor 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,” the president 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.”
The president then detailed each of their acts of heroism.
Spc. 4 Sloat
Sloat grew up Coweta, Oklahoma. “And, he grew big — to over 6-foot-4,” the president said. Sloat loved football, and played for a year at a junior college. Then he decided to join the Army. But when he went to enlist, he didn’t pass his physical because of high blood pressure. “So he tried again, and again, and again. In all, he took the physical maybe seven times until he passed — because Don Sloat was determined to serve his country,” Obama related.
In Vietnam, Sloat became known as one of the most liked and reliable soldiers in his company. “Twice in his first months, his patrol was ambushed,” the president said. “Both times, Don responded with punishing fire from his machine gun, leaving himself completely vulnerable to the enemy. Both times, he was recognized for his bravery. Or as Don put it in a letter home, ‘I guess they think [that] I’m really gung-ho or something.'”
One morning, Sloat and his squad set out on patrol, “past that rice paddy, down that trail, when those shots rang out. When the lead soldier’s foot tripped that wire and set off the booby trap, the grenade rolled right to Don’s feet. And at that moment, he could have run. At that moment, he could have ducked for cover. But Don did something truly extraordinary,” Obama said.
“He reached down and he picked that grenade up,” he continued. “And he turned to throw it, but there were Americans in front of him and behind him — inside the kill zone. So Don held on to that grenade, and he pulled it close to his body. And he bent over it. And then, as one of the men said, ‘all of a sudden there was a boom.'”
The blast threw the lead soldier up against a boulder, the president said. Men were riddled with shrapnel. Four were medevaced out, but everyone else survived.
“Don had absorbed the brunt of the explosion with his body,” the president said. “He saved the lives of those next to him. And today, we’re joined by two men who were with him on that patrol: Sgt. William Hacker and Spc. Michael Mulheim.
“For decades, Don’s family only knew that he was killed in action,” Obama continued. “They’d heard that he had stepped on a landmine. All those years, this Gold Star family honored the memory of their son and brother, whose name is etched forever on that granite wall not far from here. Late in her life, Don’s mother, Evelyn, finally learned the full story of her son’s sacrifice. And she made it her mission to have Don’s actions properly recognized.
“Sadly, nearly three years ago, Evelyn passed away. But she always believed — she knew — that this day would come,” Obama concluded.
Command Sgt. Maj. Adkins
Adkins makes his home in Opelika, Alabama, where he tends a garden or sails his pontoon boat out on the lake, the president began. “He’s been married to Mary for 58 years and is a proud father of five, grandfather of six. At 80, he’s still going strong,” Obama said of Adkins.
In the spring of 1966, Bennie was just 32 years old and a sergeant first class, on his second tour in Vietnam. He and his fellow Green Berets were at an isolated camp along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A huge North Vietnamese force attacked, bombarding Bennie and his comrades with mortars and white phosphorus, Obama related.
“At a time, it was nearly impossible to move without being wounded or killed. But Bennie ran into enemy fire again and again to retrieve supplies and ammo,” the president narrated “To carry the wounded to safety. To man the mortar pit — holding off wave after wave of enemy assaults. Three times, explosions blasted him out of that mortar pit and three times, he returned.” narrated.
“I have to be honest. In a battle and daring escape that lasted four days, Bennie performed so many acts of bravery we actually don’t have time to talk about all of them,” Obama said.
On the first day, Bennie was helping load a wounded American onto a helicopter. An enemy soldier jumped in the helicopter and aimed his weapon directly at the wounded soldier, preparing to shoot. “Bennie stepped in, shielded his comrade, placing himself directly in the line of fire, helping to save his wounded comrade,” the president said.
At another point in the battle, Adkins and a few other soldiers were trapped in a mortar pit, “covered in shrapnel and smoking debris,” Obama said. Their only exit was blocked by enemy machine gun fire. “So, Bennie thought fast,” the president said. “He dug a hole out of the pit and snuck out the other side. As another American escaped through that hole, he was shot in the leg. An enemy soldier charged him, hoping to capture a live POW and Bennie fired, taking out that enemy and pulling his fellow American to safety.”
By the third day of battle, Adkins and a few others had managed to escape into the jungle. “He had cuts and wounds all over his body, but he refused to be evacuated,” Obama related. “When a rescue helicopter arrived, Bennie insisted that others go instead. And so, on the third night, Bennie, wounded and bleeding, found himself with his men up on that jungle hill, exhausted and surrounded, with the enemy closing in. And after all they had been through, as if it weren’t enough, there was something more — you can’t make this up — there in the jungle, they heard the growls of a tiger.
“It turns out that tiger might have been the best thing that happened to Bennie,” the president continued. “[Bennie] says, ‘The North Vietnamese were more scared of that tiger than they were of us.’”
Obama added, “So the enemy fled. Bennie and his squad made their escape. And they were rescued, finally, the next morning.”
In Adkin’s life, the president said, “We see the enduring service of our men and women in uniform. He went on to serve a third tour in Vietnam, a total of more than two decades in uniform. After he retired, he earned his master’s degree — actually not one, but two — opened up an accounting firm, taught adult education classes, [and] became national commander of the Legion of Valor veterans organization.
“Bennie will tell you that he owes everything to the men he served with in Vietnam, especially the five who gave their lives in that battle,” the president continued. “Every member of his unit was killed or wounded.”
Obama added, “We’re joined by some of the men who served with Bennie, including Maj. John Bradford, the soldier that Bennie shielded in that helicopter, and Maj. Wayne Murray, the soldier Bennie saved from being captured.”
David Vergun (DOD-Army News Service)