President Obama on Monday awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration, to two soldiers who served in Vietnam, including one who was killed in action.
Army Specialist Four Donald Sloat was killed in action at age 20 while conducting a patrol in Vietnam. On Jan. 17, 1969, a soldier triggered a hand grenade trap placed in his squad's path. He picked up the grenade to throw it away, but realizing the detonation was imminent, he shielded the blast with his own body and is credited saving the lives of three soldiers.
Sloat's brother, William Sloat of Enid, Oklahoma, accepted the medal on his behalf.
Army Command Sergeant Major Bennie Adkins, who joined the Army in 1956 at the age of 22, was deployed three times to Vietnam. During his second tour in 1966, he showed conspicuous gallantry when he and 16 other Green Berets came under heavy attack. Five of the Green Berets were killed and 12 were wounded, including Adkins, yet Adkins led days of nonstop combat. He was even stalked by a tiger before being rescued.
Both Sloat and Adkins displayed "gallantry above and beyond the call of duty," Mr. Obama said from East Room of the White House.
Normally Medal of Honor must be awarded within a few years of a display of exceptional gallantry. However, Mr. Obama noted, "Sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the fog of war or the passage of time."
Donald Sloat was so determined to serve his country, Mr. Obama noted, that he tried to enlist maybe as many as seven times before he passed the physical. Initially, he couldn't pass because of high blood pressure. Once in service, Sloat "became known as one of the most liked and reliable guys in his company," Mr. Obama said. He was recognized for bravery twice before that fateful day when a member of his squad set off a grenade.
"In that moment he could've run... he could've ducked for cover, but Don did something truly extraordinary," Mr. Obama said. He reached down and grabbed the grenade. He turned to throw it, "but there were Americans in front of him and behind him... so Don held on to that grenade, and he pulled it close to his body, and he bent over it... The blast threw the lead soldier up against a boulder, men were riddled with shrapnel... but everyone else survived."
For decades, Sloat's family only knew that he was killed in Action. Once his mother learned the full story of her son's sacrifice, she made it her mission for it to be properly recognized. She passed away three years ago, "but she always believed, she knew, this day would come," Mr. Obama said.
The president praised Adkins for the exceptional bravery he showed over four days of combat in 1966. He "performed so many acts of bravery, we actually don't have time to talk about all of them," Mr. Obama said.
Adkins was part of a Special Forces Team on a mission to advise and train the South Vietnamese when their remote outpost was attacked. They were outnumbered 10 to one, and Adkins was injured, yet he dashed outside the camp's perimeter to retrieve desperately needed ammunition that had been dropped by parachute in the middle of a minefield.
"I had a South Vietnamese soldier with me, and this soldier was hit real hard so I picked him up on my shoulder... and carried him back to the camp," Adkins told CBS News. "And while I was carrying him back to the camp, the North Vietnamese shot and killed him and wounded me a little through his body."
After 38 hours of nonstop combat, helicopters finally arrived to help the survivors. Adkins went to retrieve a badly-wounded soldier, but when he returned, the helicopters were gone. Adkins led four other survivors for hours. They fought off the North Vietnamese, as well as a tiger that stalked them overnight.
By the time they were rescued, Adkins had killed an estimated 175 enemy combatants. When they boarded the helicopter to evacuate, Adkins found a machine gun and kept firing on the enemy.
"In Bennie's life we see the enduring service of our men and women in uniform," Mr. Obama said, noting that Adkins served for more than two decades in uniform, earned two Master's degrees and taught adult education classes, among other accomplishments.
Adkins and his wife Mary Adkins, who reside in Opelika, Alabama, were both present for Monday's ceremony.