'That Charisma:' Son of Medal of Honor Recipient Bennie Adkins Remembers Hero Father

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Retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins
FILE -- Retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins tells a joke before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel inducts him into the Hall of Heroes during a ceremony at the Pentagon, Sept. 16, 2014. (Sean Hurt/U.S. Navy)

Medal of Honor recipient Bennie Adkins faced his last battle against an invisible enemy called COVID-19 with the same resilience and determination that had seen him through three tours of combat as a Green Beret in Vietnam, his son said Saturday.

His father had other ailments before he was taken ill with coronavirus, "and the fact that as sick as he was at age 86, [he] lasted three weeks was pretty remarkable," Keith Adkins said in a phone interview with Military.com.

Adkins, a retired Army command sergeant major, had spent all but his final two days intubated in an intensive care unit, said Keith Adkins, a doctor at the East Alabama Medical Center (EAMC) in Opelika, Alabama, where his father died Friday afternoon of complications from coronavirus.

Bennie, as he was known to all, began to feel ill after returning from a visit to family in his native Oklahoma, Keith Adkins said. He checked into EAMC, but his chest X-ray looked good and he was released.

Two days later, the symptoms worsened. He re-entered EAMC on March 26, and was alone and isolated from family, as were other patients seriously ill from COVID-19 at the hospital, until the last two days.

Related: Medal of Honor Recipient Bennie Adkins Dies of Coronavirus at 86

Even though he had been on staff at EAMC for more than 20 years, Keith Adkins said he did not visit his father "out of respect to everyone else" suffering from the infection and in isolation.

"I tried to honor everyone else" who was in the same circumstances, he said.

In the last two days, he and his older brother, Michael, and younger sister, Mary, were able to visit Bennie and say their farewells, Keith said.

There are no immediate plans for services during the current restrictions on large gatherings.

"We're not sure what's going to happen with all the quarantining and social distancing," he said. "Right now, we're just going to put things on hold."

Adkins said he had already heard from several other Medal of Honor recipients who wanted to share their condolences over the loss of a beloved comrade, but declined to disclose their names out of concern for their privacy.

Eventually, when the restrictions lift, Bennie Adkins and Mary Adkins, his late wife of more than 60 years, will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery, Keith said.

Bennie Adkins was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2014 by President Barack Obama, 48 years after his heroic actions in a three-day battle against swarming North Vietnamese regulars in Vietnam's A Shau valley.

He displayed at the White House ceremony the innate sense of humor he used to put others at ease, and sometimes deployed as a shield against disclosing details of battles too painful to remember.

Obama diverted from his prepared remarks to tell the audience that "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."

His Green Beret buddies had lobbied for years to have Adkins' Distinguished Service Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Congress ultimately passed a bill to lift the statute of limitations for the award.

"He was at the point where he didn't think it would ever happen. He was proud of his Distinguished Service Cross and what he did while he was in Vietnam, and never really looked back on it," Keith said.

His father also kept to himself the grim details of what he had experienced, and what he had done in combat to survive.

Growing up in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Keith Adkins said his father "just never really talked about the whole Vietnam part of it."

When pressed by people he met, or even by his own family, Bennie would sidestep questions by telling a funny story about some of the bizarre things that happen in war -- events that seem unbelievable to a civilian but ring true to a combat veteran.

One of his stories had to do with a strange resupply mission to Camp A Shau before the battle in which he would earn the Medal of Honor.

His father was "in charge of procuring a lot of food for Camp A Shau, and one time they made a supply drop" by helicopter, Keith Adkins said. To Bennie's amazement, "they had a live steer they were going to drop and they had run out of parachutes."

His father told the helicopter crew to drop it anyway, rationalizing the steer was destined to be slaughtered when it reached the ground.

The crew did make the drop. "He got in a little trouble over that," Keith said.

The thing that will stay with Adkins most about his father, though, was his way with people.

"He had that effect on a lot of people and quality about him that I've always been envious of," the son said. "He could walk in a room and it didn't matter your station in life -- he could automatically connect with you in a fraction of a minute.

"He just could, he had that power and that charisma and the ability to connect. I've always been envious of that."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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