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Medals Of Honor Recognize Harrowing Battle And A Dying Act

Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins receives the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House. He describes the battle that earned him the medal as the toughest he saw in three tours of duty in Vietnam.
Alex Wong
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Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins receives the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House. He describes the battle that earned him the medal as the toughest he saw in three tours of duty in Vietnam.

President Obama on Monday awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor, to two soldiers who served in Vietnam: Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins, who survived a harrowing battle and 18 body wounds; and Army Spc. 4 Donald P. Sloat, whose dying act saved his fellow soldiers.

In January 1970, President Obama said Monday, Sloat was on patrol with his squad in Vietnam.

"The lead soldier tripped a wire — a booby trap. A grenade rolled toward the feet of a 20-year-old machine gunner." That 20-year-old was Sloat. And as President Obama tells it, Sloat had a choice. The pin on the grenade had been pulled. It could explode at any moment.

"And at that moment [Sloat] could have run. At that moment he could have ducked for cover. But Don did something truly extraordinary. He reached down and he picked that grenade up," Obama said.

He turned to throw it, Obama said, "but there were Americans in front of him and behind him inside the kill zone. So Don held onto 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."

Sloat was killed, but everyone else survived. His body absorbed the worst of the explosion. But for years, his family thought he had stepped on a land mine. Sloat's mother, Evelyn, learned the real story late in her life, and Obama said she made it her mission to have his actions recognized.

Evelyn Sloat passed away nearly three years ago, Obama said, but "she always believed, she knew, that this day would come. She even bought a special dress to wear to this ceremony."

Donald Sloat's brother Bill accepted the award Monday in their absence.

Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins needed a little help getting on the ceremony stage. Adkins, 80, wore a decorated dress uniform and military boots as he accepted his Medal of Honor for heroism over four days he describes as the toughest battle he saw in three tours of duty in Vietnam.

"It was a horrible, horrible type of battle," he said at a press conference at Fort Benning, Georgia, earlier this month. He told reporters that after the battle, he reflected on what had happened.

"When they treated me for 18 body wounds, someone was looking after me, and at that period of time, it was not myself," he said.

It was March 1966, during Adkins' second tour as a Green Beret. He was at an isolated Special Forces camp when a large North Vietnamese force attacked.

"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 Monday.

And then, as they waited for rescue on a hilltop in the jungle, surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers, a tiger stalked them through the night.

"The North Vietnamese soldiers were more afraid of the tiger than they were of us. So they backed off some and we were gone," Adkins said.

The tiger must have been on their side, he figures. After receiving his award Monday, Adkins didn't want to talk about himself. Instead, he listed the names of the soldiers who were there with him.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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