Bennie Adkins was not the first brave soldier who mustered the courage needed to escape the Army’s confines of Fort Benning, Georgia, and cross the Alabama state line to meet a girl.
He found that girl, married her in her family’s Opelika home, and eventually put his military career behind him for a quiet business practice in Auburn.
Most longtime local folks know about Bennie’s wartime heroics in Vietnam, and they may know the story behind his surprise 2014 phone call from the president of the United States informing him he would receive the Medal of Honor.
But it turns out retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins has a much richer and wide-ranging life story than all of that to share, and he does so in his newly released book, “A Tiger Among Us.”
For example, Bennie was a simple Army clerk before he became a Special Forces war hero, sent to some boring outpost in Germany.
Boring, that is, until it was his task to fingerprint one particular new soldier assigned to the base.
That happened to be a young man named Elvis Presley.
A day at Pebble Hill
It was an elegant and polite crowd that gathered Thursday afternoon around Bennie and co-author Katie Lamar Jackson, also of Opelika, at Pebble Hill in Auburn, as they basked in the limelight of their launch of a book-signing schedule that will promote the book nationwide.
The story of the battle from which Bennie’s valor earned him the Medal of Honor is carefully and yet personally detailed in the book, and he goes to great extremes to memorialize and pay tribute to those with whom he so closely served.
He and 16 other Green Berets fought the Battle of A Shau while outnumbered 10-to-1.
Being an avid reader and writer of military history, I somewhat expected a good read on those details.
Finding the many other interesting stories Bennie shared, however, was a pleasant surprise, and it also makes the book of interest to readers who don’t always pick up a hardback featured in the military section of a bookstore.
The Elvis Presley story is just one of them. Bennie is a living connection to and played an active role in several stories you’ll also find in American history books, from his role with the late President John F. Kennedy, to being on a secret mission aboard a submarine during the Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba with the world on the brink of a nuclear crisis, to things he encountered that will surprise you with the flip of a page.
Oh, and there is the story about his wife, Mary, whom he wedded in her family’s living room in Opelika.
And the emotional behind-the-scenes saga of going from an unrecognized, frowned-upon Vietnam fighter nobody wanted to hear about, to the surprise call he finally received 48 years later telling him he would be receiving the Medal of Honor and recognized as a national hero.
Katie Lamar Jackson
Bennie picked a good partner for the book project. Katie is a jewel. She grew up in Auburn, moved to Opelika, enjoys writing, and on the side does other tasks, such as teaching a public relations class at Auburn University, which is where I first met her after she invited me as a guest speaker.
“Helping Bennie write this book was both an honor and an education for me. Listening to the stories that Bennie and his fellow A Shau veterans shared gave me a better understanding of the Vietnam War, but those stories also gave me a deeper appreciation for what it means to be ‘brave,’” Katie said.
“These men all exhibited remarkable bravery in the heat of the battle, but they also came home to an often unwelcoming, unappreciative public and somehow still managed to successfully carry on with their lives.
“That takes bravery, too,” she said. “I’m not sure I fully appreciated that until I helped to write the book, but I hope people who read the book will come away with a similar appreciation."
They will, as that point is made in “Tiger” and provides another worthy reason to read the book.
Bennie shares personal details about living life in the war’s aftermath, something many if not most Vietnam combat veterans always found difficult.
His best medicine was staying busy. Part of his Green Beret mission was to teach, and he put those teaching skills to work as an adjunct instructor for Auburn University and at Southern Union State Community College.
“I looked around for jobs, but it was hard for men who had served in Vietnam to find them. People still weren’t over it,” he wrote in the book. “So I opened an accounting and tax consultation business in Auburn.”
He and Mary also bought a farm nearby, and he stayed busy working on it.
“I have had flashbacks, but anyone who has been in combat knows this might happen and we just deal with it,” he wrote. “But there are still things that trigger a reaction in me.”
Throughout the book, Bennie honors those who fell and never came home from the war. He also pays tribute to veterans and service members who serve today.
“A Tiger Among Us” is a timely release for Memorial Day weekend.
Bennie Adkins is a timeless hero.
Well done, Bennie. And, thank you.
Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.