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Coronavirus Victims: Vietnam War Hero Bennie Adkins

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins had a long and storied military career. He was drafted into the Army, served three tours in Vietnam, and in 2014, he received the Medal of Honor for his heroism. The Alabama native died last month from complications of the coronavirus. Kyle Gassiott of Troy Public Radio has this remembrance of the 86-year-old.

KYLE GASSIOTT, BYLINE: When Bennie Adkins sat on a stage at the White House ready to receive the Medal of Honor, President Barack Obama confessed that he had a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

GASSIOTT: That's because during that 1966 battle in Vietnam's A Shau Valley, Adkins not only fought the enemy and braved mortar rounds to get supplies and save fellow soldiers, he also evaded a hungry 400-pound Indonesian tiger that he says was stalking the camp. When the 38-hour battle was over, Adkins had been wounded 18 times from sniper fire and mortar rounds. It's estimated that he killed between 130 and 170 North Vietnamese in close combat before evacuating the camp carrying a wounded soldier to safety. After receiving the Medal of Honor, Adkins was often called a hero and a celebrity, labels he deflected.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENNIE ADKINS: I'm not the celebrity. It's those other 16 American soldiers that were with me that are the celebrities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Command Sgt. Maj. Retired Bennie Adkins received the Medal of Honor from President Obama.

GASSIOTT: In recent years, Adkins could get crowds of people at big college football games in Alabama on their feet, a big change from the way he was treated as a returning soldier coming home from the Vietnam War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

B ADKINS: My second trip coming back to this country, I arrived and they threw garbage at the truck while I was going to the airport.

GASSIOTT: Wanting to keep other soldiers from experiencing similar treatment, Adkins set up a foundation dedicated to easing their transition to civilian life and funding their education, something his son Keith Adkins says he was passionate about for fellow soldiers and his children.

KEITH ADKINS: He never pushed us in any way other than education. You do whatever you want, but you need to get an education. And I think he was more proud of that than anything else with us.

GASSIOTT: Keith Adkins says he heard that many people believed his father, who had fought so hard in life, would prevail again over the coronavirus. Keith said we did as well. Bennie Adkins died in the hospital where his son is a surgeon.

For NPR News, I'm Kyle Gassiott Montgomery, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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