Secretary of Defense Speech

Medal of Honor Ceremony for Command Sergeant Major Adkins and Specialist Sloat


Good afternoon.

Thank you all for joining us today to honor two remarkable remarkable Americans who exhibited the highest valor during their service in Vietnam:  Command Sergeant Major Bennie Adkins, who is here today with his wife Mary, his children, and grandchildren; and Specialist Four Don Sloat, who lost his life fighting for our country, and who is represented today by his brother William, sisters Kathleen and Karen, and extended family.

I welcome you all.  I’m very proud of you.  This whole country is very proud of you.  I think President Obama made that very clear yesterday in a very special recognition at the White House when you were awarded the Medal of Honor, and Doctor [Sloat ] your brother was awarded and you received on his behalf, so thank you and your family very much.

I’d also like to welcome those of you here to acknowledge these two special Americans, also those who served in battle with these men.  We’re very proud of you, we’re grateful for your service, for what you have done for our country, and what you mean to all of us.  You witnessed first-hand courageous actions…certainly, the courageous actions of the two we honor today…but you too exhibited tremendous bravery on the battlefield. 

Last month marked 50 years since the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, and the escalation of the Vietnam War … a conflict that would affect the lives of millions of Americans – ending tens of thousands of lives of those Americans much too soon, leaving others with visible and invisible wounds of war, and leaving far too many selfless warriors without the dignity, the respect, and appreciation they deserved when they all came home.   

We still have not made things right for many of these Vietnam veterans. But today we have the opportunity to correct the record for two of them. Many of you are familiar with their stories of heroism, which again, the President described yesterday at the White House.  But they bear repeating. 

Over the 38 hours that his base camp was under fire, Sergeant Major Adkins repeatedly put himself in harm’s way to move his wounded comrades to safety, gather urgently needed supplies, and recover the fallen.  He almost single-handedly repelled enemy forces when they launched their main assault, firing all the ammunition left in the camp.  And when he missed the evacuation helicopter in an attempt to carry out a wounded solider, he led the survivors into the jungle and evaded capture for another two days.

In doing so, Sergeant Major Adkins displayed a level of bravery that saved lives, and showed the enemy that American soldiers have the will to fight…they had the will to fight until the very last bullet.  As he said recently, recalling that experience with understated humility, “It was not my day to die.”

While Sergeant Major Adkins’ ordeal spanned days and days, Specialist Sloat’s lasted one instant – but it was no less heroic.  A grenade rolled toward him, tripped by a fellow soldier while they were on patrol in the Que Son Valley.  Specialist Sloat had a split-second choice to make – and less than four months into his tour in Vietnam, and not even a year since enlisting in the Army – he made a selfless sacrifice to protect his brothers.  Said a rifleman on patrol with him that day, “I was only five to eight feet behind Don when the grenade went off … his act saved my life and the life 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.  At our best, we aspire to the altruism, the dedication, and the bold courage that Specialist Sloat embodied that day.  By honoring him and Sergeant Major Adkins on this day, we hope their stories will inspire a new generation of leaders.

We honor these two soldiers for the remarkable valor they exhibited on the battlefield, for reminding us of the awesome power of the human spirit, and for symbolizing the fearless determination of the American soldier.  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.”  

May God bless these two soldiers, their families, and all the men and women in our Armed Forces who – day in and day out – personify the ideals of our great nation.

Thank you very much.