WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel honored two “remarkable” Americans today as he led the induction of the Army’s two most recent Medal of Honor recipients into the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes here.
Retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins, and Army Specialist Four Donald P. Sloat -- who received the medal posthumously and was represented by his family -- were enshrined during the ceremony a day after President Barack Obama presented the duo with the nation’s highest award for valor.
The defense secretary was joined in honoring the inductees by Army Undersecretary Brad R. Carson, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, and Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, as well as the two Medal of Honor recipients’ families, friends and fellow Vietnam War veterans.
“We’re very proud of you,” Hagel said. “This whole country is very proud of you, and I think President Obama made that very clear yesterday in a very special recognition at the White House. So thank you and your family. Thank you very much.”
Honoring Vietnam veterans
Before inducting the two Medal of Honor recipients, the defense secretary, who served in Vietnam as an Army infantry noncommissioned officer, acknowledged the Vietnam veterans present who “served in battle with these men.”
“We’re very proud of you,” he said. “We’re grateful for your service, what you have done for our country and what you mean to all of us.
“You witnessed, firsthand, courageous actions,” Hagel continued. “Certainly the courageous actions of the two we honor today, but you, too, exhibited tremendous bravery on the battlefield.”
Last month, he said, marked 50 years since the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the escalation of the Vietnam War -- a conflict that would result in the deaths of tens of thousands of American service members.
The Vietnam War left other service members with visible and invisible wounds of war, Hagel said, and leaving far too many selfless warriors without the dignity, respect and appreciation they deserved when they all came home.
“We still have not made things right for many of these Vietnam veterans,” he said. “But today we have the opportunity to correct the record for two of them.”
Acts of heroism
Many in the audience were probably familiar with Adkins’ and Sloat’s “stories of heroism, which again, the president described yesterday at the White House,” Hagel said.
Yet, the two soldiers’ stories bear repeating, he added.
Hagel described then-Sgt. 1st Class Adkins’ actions over the course of 48 hours as he “repeatedly put himself in harm’s way to move his wounded comrades to safety, gather urgently needed supplies, and recover the fallen.”
Adkins “almost singlehandedly repelled enemy forces when they launched their main assault, firing all the ammunition left in the camp,” the secretary said.
When Adkins missed the evacuation helicopter in an attempt to carry out a wounded soldier, Hagel said, “he led the survivors into the jungle and evaded capture for another two days.”
In doing so, Hagel said, Sergeant Major Adkins displayed a level of bravery that saved many lives and showed the enemy that American soldiers have the will to fight until the very last bullet.
The defense secretary quoted Adkins himself as he recalled his experience “with understated humility” -- “‘It was not my day to die.’”
Hagel noted while Adkins’ ordeal spanned “days and days,” Sloat’s lasted “one instant, but it was no less heroic.”
“A grenade rolled toward him, tripped by a fellow soldier, when they were on patrol in the Que Son Valley,” he explained.
“Specialist Sloat had a split-second choice to make,” Hagel said. “And less than four months into his tour of duty in Vietnam, and not even a year since enlisting in the Army, he made a selfless sacrifice to protect his brothers.”
Hagel quoted a soldier on patrol with Sloat that day, “‘I was only five to eight feet behind Don when the grenade went off. His act saved my life and the lives of others.’”
“That decision to put the greater good above self -- to sacrifice the one for the many -- reflects the core values of our military,” Hagel said.
The defense secretary noted Sloat’s action leads other Americans to “aspire to the altruism, the dedication and the bold courage that Specialist Sloat embodied that day.”
By honoring Sloat and Adkins, Hagel said, “we hope their stories will inspire a new generation of leaders.”
The two soldiers are being honored, he said, “for the remarkable valor they exhibited on the battlefield [and] for reminding us of the awesome power of the human spirit and for symbolizing the fearless determination of the American soldier.”
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Hagel quoted former President John F. Kennedy.
“As President Kennedy once said, ‘A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors. The men it remembers,’” the secretary said.
“May God bless these two soldiers, their families,” Hagel said, “and all the men and women in our armed forces who, day-in and day-out, personify the ideals of our great nation.”