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Medal of Honor recipient Bennie Adkins, known for Vietnam heroics, dies of coronavirus

Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins talks to reporters after his Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House, Sept. 15, 2014.

RICK VASQUEZ/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 17, 2020

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WASHINGTON — Medal of Honor recipient Bennie Adkins, who was given the nation’s highest military honor for heroically fighting off enemies and saving wounded soldiers in Vietnam, died April 17 from complications caused by the coronavirus.

Adkins, who was 86, was hospitalized March 26 at the East Alabama Medical Center in his hometown of Opelika, Alabama. He was admitted to the intensive care unit and put on a ventilator after experiencing respiratory failure. He died April 17 according to a message posted to his foundation’s Facebook page. He is one of thousands of Americans to die from the virus since late February. 

Adkins is credited with killing 135 to 175 Vietnamese in a nearly four-day battle while being wounded 18 times and helping fellow soldiers to safety. For those acts, former President Barack Obama presented Adkins with the Medal of Honor in 2014.

“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 during the ceremony.

Adkins was born in Waurika, Oklahoma, and drafted into the military at age 22 in 1956, during the early years of the Vietnam War. He volunteered for Special Forces and deployed three times to Vietnam between 1963 and 1971.

He was awarded the Medal of Honor for acts of valor during his second tour in Vietnam in 1966. At the time, he was a sergeant first class serving with detachment A-102, 5 th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1 st Special Forces. Adkins was an intelligence sergeant, and his unit was responsible for tracking enemy movements.

Early on the morning of March 9, 1966, hundreds of North Vietnamese descended on their camp, Camp A Shau, which was also pounded with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Adkins rushed through the intense enemy fire to man a mortar position to repel the attack, his Medal of Honor citation says. Despite being wounded by shrapnel, Adkins ran through mortar fire to reach wounded soldiers and drag them to safety.

Enemy forces launched their main attack the following day. Within hours, Adkins was the only soldier left firing mortars. When he was out of rounds, he used a recoilless rifles, small arms and hand grenades to fight off intense waves of attacking Viet Cong, the citation says. He ran back and forth from a mortar pit to a bunker through enemy fire through the battle, gathering ammunition.

He and a small group of other soldiers destroyed their signal equipment and classified documents and then escaped by digging through the back of the bunker and fighting their way out of camp. Adkins led the men through the jungle until they were rescued by helicopter on March 12.

He exhibited “extraordinary heroism and selflessness,” the Medal of Honor citation reads.

“We were not going to be prisoners of war, whatever we had to do,” Adkins said in a 2015 interview with Stars and Stripes.

Adkins and Katie Jackson, an instructor at Auburn University, co-authored a book in 2018 titled, “A Tiger Among Us: A Story of Valor in Vietnam’s A Shau Valley.” The book details Adkins’ military experiences and his life after the Army. Jackson said she sat for multiple interviews with Adkins, collecting about 20 hours of tape to use for the book.

“I think what probably struck me is that he wasn’t interested in bragging — it wasn’t about him,” Jackson said. “It was almost a challenge to get him to talk about himself. To talk about his own accomplishments was really hard for him to do.

Also apparent was his resilience, she said.

“He not only survived the battle and a number of other close calls in his years of service, but he came back to a time when Vietnam veterans were discriminated against,” Jackson said. “That’s when he began to realize he wasn’t going to have opportunities, job wise, when he retired. His further education became important to him.”

Following his tours in Vietnam, Adkins held other jobs with the Army, including as a trainer at the jungle warfare school at Fort Sherman, located at the northern end of the Panama Canal. He retired from the Army as a command sergeant major in 1978.

Adkins obtained a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees after his military service. Later in life, he was inspired to help other retired servicemembers with college. He created the Bennie Adkins Foundation to provide educational scholarships to Special Forces soldiers to aid their transition from military to civilian life.

Adkins and his wife, Mary, settled in Opelika. He established his own accounting firm and operated it for 22 years. He also taught classes as an adjunct instructor at Auburn University and Southern Union Junior College in Wadley, Ala.

He and Mary, who were married more than 60 years, had four sons, a daughter and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Mary Adkins died in February 2019.

Jackson, who also lives in Opelika, a town of about 30,000, said the community regarded Adkins as a celebrity. The town’s meeting center was named in honor of Adkins, and he was a regular presence in Opelika’s parades. Adkins spoke about his military experience to the townspeople, from church and military groups to kindergarten classes. When he received the Medal of Honor in 2014, the town celebrated Adkins as a hero.

“He was somebody people knew and loved,” Jackson said. “When you meet Bennie, you wouldn’t have ever thought he was this warrior. He’s such a gentleman, and very low-key — a rather quiet and distinguished guy. I think a lot of people were just amazed.”

Bennie Adkins was known as an animated storyteller who loved to crack jokes. For years, he traveled across the country speaking about his military experiences.

“My fourth career is traveling and trying to instill patriotism in our young people,” he told Stars and Stripes.

After Adkins was hospitalized, his family was unable to see him because of visitor restrictions put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Before he died, Jackson said she had been in contact with his children, who were thankful for the medical staff treating him.

“He is certainly a hero, but he is also in the hands of heroes at this point,” Jackson said. “They’re willing to put their own lives on the line to take care of him, and that’s not lost on the family at all.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

Army Command Sergeant Major Bennie G. Adkins accepts the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on Sept. 15, 2014.
MEREDITH TIBBETTS/STARS AND STRIPES