Representatives Lucas and Rogers, Secretary of Defense Hagel, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, Sergeant Major of the Army Chandler, Assistant Secretary Shyu, Medal of Honor recipient LTC Ronald Ray, Medal of Honor recipient MAJ Drew Dennis Dix, Medal of Honor recipient 1LT Brian Thacker, Military Service Members, DoD Civilians, Family, and Friends.
We are here today to induct Specialist Four Don Sloat and retired Command Sergeant Major Bennie Adkins into the Hall of Heroes. It is now, as Secretary Hagan mentioned, almost fifty years -- half a century -- since those acts of valor we recognize today. But time has not dimmed the bright glow of these men's bravery, and age has not yet plumbed the full depths of our nation's gratitude. And if today's ceremony is, well, a little belated, it takes nothing away from the inspiration we draw from our two recipients, whose names will join the sacred roll, a fraternity forged in fire alongside names we also honor today, if only in silence.
It is fitting, and of personal interest to me, if perhaps only coincidental, that CSM Adkins and Specialist Sloat have one obvious fact in common, in addition to both possessing uncommon valor. CSM Adkins, although he now calls Alabama his home, hails from Waurika, Oklahoma, a small town, about 2,000 people today, not far from the Texas border, in southwestern Oklahoma. As its name suggests, Waurika was originally a Native American community, part of the Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche Indian reservations.
SPC4 Sloat enlisted from Coweta, Oklahoma, itself part of the historic Creek Indian tribal territory, and a community I know well, as it not far from my own hometown of Claremore, Oklahoma. Coweta is a larger place than Waurika, perhaps around 10,000 people today, but was no doubt much smaller back when SPC4 Sloat was roaming its playing fields. The Vietnam War would claim 8 of Coweta's young men -- 8 - more per capita than any community in the entire nation.
Of course, CSM Adkins and SPC4 Sloat do in fact share something more than the mere happenchance of their birthplace. They share something, something we celebrate today, something we label "heroism", although such a single word, noble as it is, seem inadequate to capture the rare qualities of such remarkable men. Maybe it is impossible to define an ineffable thing like heroism, and instead we should only describe its particular manifestations and focus, too, on that which we can fully understand, its consequences. Perhaps, perhaps we can learn more about heroism by asking not what it is, or where it comes from, but what it does.
So what did SPC4 Sloat and CSM Adkins do? The Secretary discussed this himself, but it is worth repeating. When one of his fellow Soldiers triggered a grenade booby trap near Hawk Hill fire base on that fateful day in 1970, SPC4 Sloat, not yet 21 years old, did not run, or seemingly even hesitate, instead he pulled toward him the rolling grenade, shrouding it with his own long body, shielding three men from certain death, but only at the cost of his own.
CSM Adkins had three tours in Vietnam, during the second of which he fought in the jungles of the A Shau Valley, not far from Hue City, with the 5th Special Forces group. When his camp was attacked by the enemy in what would become a 4 day firefight, CSM Adkins, injured though he already was, manned a mortar position, leaving it only to weather enemy fire in dragging his fellow injured Soldiers to safety. He braved sniper fire to transport the wounded to a camp dispensary and then to an airstrip for an evacuation. He returned to the mortar, time and time again, alone manning it until there were no more rounds to fire, and then he continued the fight with his rifle. Carrying a wounded soldier, CSM Adkins was unable to board the last evaluation helicopter, and as Secretary Hagel noted, was left behind and fought for two days through the jungle until rescue came. Eighteen wounds to his own body, CSM Adkins is attributed with killing up to 175 of the enemy.
So nearly a half century on from the jungles of Vietnam, a war that resonates still, we can see the time-honored but never old-fashioned virtues of the Soldier:
To remain with the wounded,
to never accept defeat,
to never quit,
to never leave a fallen comrade.
We see made real the Soldier's creed: selfless service, honor, loyalty, duty.
These, SPC4 Sloat and CSM Adkins made living in circumstance as difficult as fate could see fit to contrive. While recounting tells of extraordinary deeds, of choices made in a split second but carrying nothing less than the weight of eternity, the question, unanswerable as it is, recurs -- from where did the values of these Soldier emerge? In what crucible were their characters formed?
And what brings our Soldiers, all of them, whether their names are inscribed on the Hall of Heroes or whether their names are instead forgotten by history, what brings them to routinely perform as a matter of course so valiantly?
Since the six survivors of the Mitchell Raid were awarded the first Medals of Honor in 1863, citizens -- from Presidents to privates -- have received the Medal.
The stories of the Medal's recipients come from every imaginable background, and from every station in life that this great land maintains.
I think Corporal Thomas Bennett from Morgantown, West Virginia -- deeply patriotic, but also deeply religious, and opposed on that basis to the killing of others, no matter the reason, no matter the justification. But he did not shirk his duty, enlisting as a medic instead, where he saw fierce combat in Vietnam. Tom Bennett would die in the Central Highlands - there gunned down while pulling five wounded Soldiers to safety.
And I think of the story of another Oklahoman, this one a sailor, LCDR Ernest Evans, a Cherokee Indian, who commanded the USS Johnston at Leyte Gulf. Confronted with the massive Japanese fleet, CMDR Evans chose not to flee, but instead to charge alone into its maw. Outgunned, outnumbered, the USS Johnston did what damage it could, allowing the rest of the American fleet to escape. Even when his ship was dead in the water, Evans refused to abandon his post until every round on the Johnston had been fired, even the starbursts and the sandbag rounds. It is said that when the Japanese passed the American survivors floating in the water after the Johnston had sunk, they threw them food and water and saluted them, shouting, "Samurai! Samurai!" As for Evans himself, he was last seen astride the deck of the doomed boat, two fingers ripped off by the Japanese blast, shirtless, his own uniform burned off his body, but very much alive. His body would never be found.
Whether from the small Indian towns of Oklahoma, like Waurika and Coweta, the coal mines of West Virginia, or the largest of American cities, these men, all of them, like those honor today, had, to use the immortal words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., hearts touched by fire.
So what does lead men to act so valiantly? It is indeed tempting to ask how such men are created . . . but courage of this sort is beyond words, even beyond understanding. And maybe we can be satisfied only with knowing that there exists in some people something so inviolable, something so precious, that they would sacrifice their own lives to protect it, to ensure its continue vitality. Let us call it duty, honor, patriotism, love. . . But whatever we call it, let us be grateful that our country seems to be blessed with an abundance of this scarce breed of person, SPC4 Sloat and CSM Adkins being two of which we honor today.
I would note that we recognize too those who have loved SPC4 Sloat and CSM Adkins, and who have sacrificed much themselves. Mary, CSM Adkins's wife of 59 years is here today, along with other family members. She raised the family when the nation called her husband abroad. I would ask her to stand, and please join me in recognizing her.
The three siblings of SPC4 Sloat are also present today -- Dr. Bill Sloat from Enid, Oklahoma, his sister Karen from Mounds, and Kathy, who still lives in Coweta. As they would no doubt tell you, with them here today in spirit also is their mother, Don's mother Evelyn, who championed for her son that which we acknowledge today, but who passed away before her cause would find vindication. Please join me in recognizing the Sloat family.
To the families of SPC4 Sloat and CSM Adkins, you inspire us, too. Your steadfastness over the years, your love that transcends place and time, remind us all that, to use the poet's words, there does exist a realm above this plane of silent compromise.
The work of the Army continues -- to empower our soldiers abroad, to care for, with dignity, those Soldiers wounded, to honor our obligations to Soldiers whose service is now honorably completed, to remember those Soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and to ready future soldiers for when the nations call again -- for call she will.
Shaped by our nation's values, and forged by the values of our Army -- we will be ready. May God bless those we recognize today and their families, and may God bless all of those who choose a life of service to this country and who left the vivid air signed with honor.