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'Truly extraordinary': Medal of Honor awarded to 2 soldiers for actions in Vietnam

More than four decades later, two soldiers on Monday received the Medal of Honor for their actions during the Vietnam War.

Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins, who was recognized for his actions during 38 hours of close-combat fighting against enemy forces March 9-12, 1966, received the nation's highest award for valor from President Obama.

Spc. Donald Sloat was killed in action Jan. 17, 1970, when he smothered an enemy grenade, saving at least three of his comrades. His brother, Bill Sloat, accepted the award on his behalf.

"Today we honor two American soldiers for gallantry above and beyond the call of duty," said President Obama during the ceremony.

He also acknowledged that America's Vietnam veterans often did not receive the recognition they deserved.

"Our Vietnam veterans were patriots and are patriots," he said. "You served with valor, you made us proud, and your service is with us through eternity. So, no matter how long it takes, we'll continue to express our gratitude for your extraordinary service."

Spc. Donald Sloat

During Monday's ceremony, Sloat was honored first.

Just 20 years old but standing at 6 feet, 4 inches tall, Sloat played football for a year at a junior college before deciding to join the Army in March 1969, Obama said.

He failed the physical seven times because of high blood pressure, but took it "until he passed," Obama said.

Just six months after enlisting, Sloat was assigned as an M60 machine gunner with 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, in Vietnam.

There, Sloat's company operated out of Fire Support Base Hawk Hill, south and southwest of Danang.

The soldiers covered coastal lowlands and mountains and jungle, and they regularly suffered casualties from enemy snipers and booby traps.

Sloat became known as one of the most liked and reliable soldiers in his company, Obama said.

On Jan. 17, 1970, Sloat's squad was conducting a patrol that served as a blocking element in support of tanks and armored personnel careers from a sister unit in the Que Son valley.

As the squad moved up a small hill in file formation, the lead soldier tripped a wire attached to a hand grenade booby trap.

"The grenade rolled right to Don's feet," Obama said. "In that moment, he could have run. In that moment, he could have ducked for cover. But Don did something truly extraordinary. He reached down, and he picked that grenade up."

Sloat tried to throw the grenade away, but there were soldiers in front of and behind him, Obama said.

"Don held on to that grenade, and he held it close to his body," the president said.

Sloat absorbed the grenade's blast.

"The blast threw the lead soldier up against a boulder, men were riddled with shrapnel, four were medevaced out, but everyone else survived," Obama said.

Sloat is credited with saving the lives of his fellow soldiers, but for many years, his family thought that he had stepped on a landmine.

"Late in her life, Don's mother Evelyn finally learned the full story of her son's sacrifice," Obama said. "She made it her mission to have her son's actions properly recognized."

Sadly, Evelyn Sloat died nearly three years ago, Obama said, "but she always believed, she knew, this day would come."

CSM Bennie Adkins

Adkins, who served three tours in Vietnam, was drafted into the Army in 1956 at the age of 22.

In March 1966, he was a sergeant first class on his second deployment to Vietnam, and he was an intelligence sergeant with Detachment A-102, 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces at Camp "A Shau," according to the Army.

Adkins and his fellow soldiers operated out of an "isolated camp along the Ho Chi Minh trail," Obama said.

In the early morning hours of March 9, 1966, the camp came under attack by a large North Vietnamese force.

Adkins rushed through intense enemy fire and manned a mortar position defending the camp, according to the Army. He continued to fight, even after being wounded from "several direct hits from enemy mortars," according to the Army.

When Adkins learned several soldiers were wounded near the center of camp, he turned the mortar over to another soldier, ran through exploding mortar rounds, and dragged several comrades to safety.

As the hostile fire subsided, Adkins again exposed himself to fire, this time to sporadic sniper fire, to carry wounded comrades to a more secure position at the camp dispensary.

"Bennie ran into enemy fire, again and again, to retrieve supplies and ammo, to carry the wounded to safety, to man the mortar pit, holding off wave after wave of enemy assaults," Obama said.

Explosions knocked Adkins out of his position in the mortar pit three different times, and each time he returned to fight, the president said.

"Bennie performed so many acts of bravery we don't have time to talk about all of them," Obama said.

When Adkins moved a wounded soldier to an airstrip for evacuation, he and his team came under heavy small arms fire from members of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group who had defected to fight with the North Vietnamese, according to the Army.

Despite the overwhelming force, Adkins moved outside the camp to evacuate a seriously wounded American and draw fire away from the aircraft.

Later, when a resupply air drop landed outside of the camp's perimeter, Adkins again moved outside the wire to get the much-needed supplies, according to the Army.

The next morning, the enemy launched its main assault, and within two hours, Adkins was the only defender firing a mortar weapon, according to the Army.

When all the mortar rounds were expended, Adkins began firing his rifle at the enemy even as they infiltrated the camp and assaulted his position.

"Despite receiving additional wounds from enemy rounds exploding on his position, Adkins fought off relentless waves of attacking North Vietnamese soldiers," according to the Army.

Adkins then withdrew to regroup with a small element of soldiers at the communications bunker. There, he single-handedly eliminated numerous insurgents with small arms fire, almost completely exhausting his supply of ammunition.

Braving intense enemy fire, Adkins returned to the mortar pit and gathered critical ammo to bring back to the bunker.

When the order came to evacuate the camp, Adkins and a small group of soldiers destroyed all the signal equipment and classified documents before digging their way out of the back of the bunker and fighting their way out of the camp.

When a rescue helicopter arrived, Adkins "insisted others go instead," Obama said.

Adkins rallied the remaining survivors and led the group into the jungle, where they evaded the enemy – and a tiger, "you can't make this up," Obama said – for 48 hours until they were rescued by helicopter on March 12, 1966.

During the 38-hour battle and 48 hours of escape and evasion, Adkins fought with mortars, machine guns, recoilless rifles, small arms, and hand grenades, according to the Army. It's believed he killed 135 to 175 enemy fighters while sustaining 18 different wounds.

Adkins served with the Special Forces for more than 13 years. After his three tours in Vietnam, Adkins served at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and the jungle school at Fort Sherman, Panama.

He retired from the Army in 1978.

Adkins went on to earn a bachelor's degree and two master's degrees, all from Troy State University.

He established the Adkins Accounting Service Inc. in Auburn, Alabama, where he served as its chief executive officer for 22 years. He also taught night classes at Alabama's Southern Union Junior College and at Auburn University.

Adkins' previous awards include the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star Medal with one bronze oak leaf cluster and V device, the Purple Heart with two bronze oak leaf clusters, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Special Forces tab, and the Master Parachutist Badge.

In Adkins, "we see the enduring service of our men and women in uniform," Obama said. "He went on to serve a third tour in Vietnam and more than 20 years in uniform. He has earned his retirement, despite what he says."

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