Sen. Doug Jones honors the life and service of Command Sergeant Major Bennie G. Adkins

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Contributed by the office of Sen. Doug Jones

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama honored the life and service of Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins, an Alabama resident who received the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony in 2014 for acts of heroism during the Vietnam War. Adkins was buried at Arlington National Cemetery last Wednesday after passing away from COVID-19 complications in April.

You can read Jones’ tribute, which was submitted into the Senate record yesterday, below. 

JONES: Mr. President, it is with sadness and humility that I ask this body to pause for a moment to remember and honor a great American and a citizen of my home state, Command Sergeant Major Bennie G. Adkins, who died of complications related to the COVID-19 virus on April 17, 2020. He was laid to rest with full military honors this morning after a funeral service in the chapel at Arlington National Cemetery.

Command Sergeant Major Adkins, known to friends and family as “Bennie,” received the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony on September 15, 2014, for acts of heroism during the Vietnam War. Although Bennie was recommended for the Medal of Honor at the time, he was instead given the next-highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross. In 2002, the Army began reviewing Distinguished Service Cross awards for possible upgrades, and finally, forty-eight years later, President Obama bestowed a well-deserved Medal of Honor upon Bennie Adkins.

Mr. President, as you know, the Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest medal for valor in combat. According to a statute passed in 1918, the President is authorized to present this award to “each person who, while an officer or enlisted man of the Army, shall hereafter, in action involving actual conflict with an enemy, distinguish himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” Other legislation authorizes the award within the other military Departments as well.

In the history of this country, the Medal of Honor has been awarded 3508 times. Fewer than 70 of those recipients are still alive today.

 I point this out because I believe that when these heroes leave active duty and come home to live among us in our communities, their very presence in our midst lifts us all up. They inspire and embolden countless other acts of courage and sacrifice, both great and small, many of which we’ve seen in the recent weeks and months our nation and our world have been battling the very virus that took Bennie Adkins’ life.

So it is with gratitude and a deep sense of loss that we remember this extraordinary man.

The facts of the events that led to Bennie Adkins’ recognition bear mention. However, as President Obama said when presenting Bennie with the Medal, “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.”

I will, therefore, attempt to summarize, combining information from the citation that accompanied the award, media accounts of the events, and quotes from Bennie’s memoir.

When Camp A Shau was attacked by a large Viet Cong force early on March 9, 1966, then-Sergeant First Class Adkins rushed through intense hostile fire to man a mortar position. Although wounded himself by incoming fire, Bennie briefly relinquished his mortar to a comrade and ran through exploding mortar rounds in order to drag several wounded Americans to safety. During the battle, Bennie later recalled, bullets hit and killed one man he was carrying on his back. At another point, Adkins, a former baseball catcher, caught a North Vietnamese hand grenade in mid-air and flung it back at the enemy.

Over the course of four days, Bennie repeatedly exposed himself to hostile fire while rescuing and helping evacuate his fellow soldiers, retrieving additional munitions, and repelling repeated waves of attacking enemy soldiers. Bennie suffered 18 wounds – including to an eye and his torso – but managed to kill an estimated 135 to 175 enemy troops.

Because of his efforts to carry a wounded soldier to an extraction point rather than leave him behind, Bennie and his group were unable to reach the last evacuation helicopter. Running extremely low on ammunition, he returned to the mortar pit, gathered additional ammunition, and ran through intense fire back to the communications bunker. After being ordered to evacuate the camp, Adkins and the remaining small group destroyed all signal equipment and classified documents, then fought their way out of the camp and into the jungle, where they evaded the pursuing North Vietnamese Army for two days.

 Their escape was aided by the sawed-off shotgun Bennie carried as a sidearm and by the unexpected intervention of an Indonesian tiger. Trapped in the jungle, the group’s radio damaged in the battle, Adkins managed to rig his shotgun as an antenna, enabling him to communicate their location to friendly forces. As the group endured a second night in the jungle waiting for help to arrive, the tiger, which had been hunting nearby, frightened off the enemy, giving Adkins and the others an opportunity to create a makeshift landing pad for a rescue helicopter the next morning.

 The Medal of Honor citation concludes, “Sergeant First Class Adkins’ extraordinary heroism in close combat against a numerically superior hostile force was in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”

Extraordinary indeed. Remarkable as those details are, the facts of Bennie’s post-service life are equally worthy of note.

Bennie and his wife Mary were married for more than 60 years – until she passed away in 2019. They don’t give medals for that, but I know from observing my own parents’ 60-plus years together that, no matter who the couple are, that kind of dedication, loyalty, and commitment are special.

 After 20 years of service in the Army, Bennie retired and went back to school. He earned three degrees from Troy University – a bachelor’s in finance and two master’s degrees – and opened his own accounting firm in Auburn. Then, Bennie began deploying his charisma, his wit, his way with people, and his resources to help others pursue their goals through education.

 For several years, Bennie taught night classes at Alabama’s Southern Union Junior College and Auburn University, as well as GED classes at the local jail. Later, he established The Bennie Adkins Foundation, which to date has provided about 50 educational scholarships to noncommissioned Special Forces officers.

 Bennie’s dedication to the service of his country and to his fellow Americans never waned. For many years he traveled extensively, in what he described as his fourth career, “trying to instill patriotism in our young people.” And according to President Obama in 2014, “the first thing you need to know is when Bennie and I met in the Oval Office, he asked if he could sign back up. His lovely wife was not amused.”

 I know that for Bennie’s family and his community, this is a loss impossible to describe or to measure. My wife Louise joins me in sending our sincerest condolences to Bennie’s daughter Mary Ann Adkins Blake (David), to his sons Michael Adkins (Christine), and Keith Adkins (Jaime), and to his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

 To paraphrase his Medal of Honor citation, Bennie Adkins’ extraordinary life reflects great credit upon himself, his family, and his country. May he rest in peace and may God bless the United States of America.

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