By Wesley Juhl
WASHINGTON – Two heroes from the Vietnam War were recognized this week for bravely saving lives more than 40 years ago.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins and Spc. 4 Donald P. Sloat were awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry in a White House ceremony, and the men’s names were placed on the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes on Tuesday.
But why did it take so long for these outstanding soldiers to be recognized with the U.S. military’s highest award for valor?
“Normally, this medal must be awarded within a few years of the action,” President Barack Obama said in the White House’s East Room on Monday. “But sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the fog of war or the passage of time.”
For 35 years, Sloat’s family believed he stepped on a landmine, and when his mother, Evelyn, later learned on the Internet what happened, she made it her mission to have Sloat’s actions recognized.
She devoted herself to campaigning for her son to receive the medal. She bought a special dress to wear the occasion, but she died about three years ago.
Adkins found his advocate for the commendation at home in Opelika, Ala.
Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Don Turner, 80, noticed Adkins while he was hosting a veterans event. Turner said Adkins was wearing a host of Army medals and joked that someone had stopped at a costume store on their way to the event.
An Opelika city administrator introduced them and told Turner some of Adkins’ story – Adkins never talked about it – and the two became fast friends.
Turner tracked down Adkins’ battle file, and devoted the next six years to making sure he got the Medal of Honor.
Turner said the president told Adkins he didn’t know why he hadn’t received the award sooner. Both men showed a great deal of heroism in battle and saved the lives of numerous fellow soldiers.
Sloat, from Coweta, Okla., tried to join the Army several times before he was accepted. He kept failing his physical exam due to high blood pressure, Obama said Monday.
When Sloat finally made it in, he quickly distinguished himself with his swift response to two ambushes by enemy forces.
A month before his 21st birthday, on Jan. 17, 1970, Sloat and his company triggered a grenade trap while marching on a small hill in the Que Son valley. Sloat grabbed the grenade, as if to throw it away. But when he realized it was about to blow, he used his body to shield fellow squad members from the blast, saving at least three lives and sacrificing his own.
Sloat’s awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with two Bronze Service Stars, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal and a handful of others.
But he never received the Medal of Honor, and neither did Adkins.
Adkins’ story reads like the plot of an unbelievable action movie.
Adkins, from Opelika, Ala., served three tours in Vietnam. During his second, at the age of 35, Adkins and his Special Forces unit defended their camp through 38 hours of close-combat fighting against enemy soldiers in the spring of 1966.
When the camp fell, Adkins led the surviving troops into the jungle, where they evaded enemy soldiers for 48 hours before they were rescued.
When the encounter was finally over, Adkins had fought with every type of weapon and saved numerous lives. Army officials said he killed an estimated 135 to 175 enemy troops by himself, despite sustaining 18 different wounds.
Like Sloat, Adkins earned a host of commendations from his time in Vietnam. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal and more than a dozen others.