Memorial Day is a time to remember heroes. Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins fit that description, and more than two years after his death, his legacy continues to grow.
On April 17, 2020, the Medal of Honor recipient passed away at the age of 86 and was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery next to his wife Mary.
Earlier this month, the police department in York, Pennsylvania, held a swearing-in ceremony for a police dog named after Adkins.
K9 Bennie, a Labrador retriever, will partner with Sgt. John Huncher, a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan. Their mission is to visit schools and the local hospital, interact with York residents and improve officer wellness.
Naming a police dog after Adkins is a fitting tribute to the Vietnam soldier who was sworn in as a Lee County deputy and buried with his badge.
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On a March morning in 1966, Bennie Adkins was sleeping at Camp A Shau, a Special Forces outpost in Vietnam. At 3:50 a.m., he awoke to a barrage of North Vietnamese mortar, rifle and machine gun fire.
In the next 38 hours, Adkins would be wounded 18 times, twice blown into the air by mortar strikes, but he kept launching mortars, firing rifles and throwing grenades, not to mention dragging fellow soldiers to safety, and under heavy fire retrieving air-dropped supplies and loading other wounded onto evacuation helicopters.
When fellow soldiers were in danger, or helicopters were trying to land, or an Air Force jet pilot was shot down and another pilot was trying to rescue him, Adkins increased his volume of fire to draw enemy fire on himself and away from his brothers in arms.
When he received the order to evacuate, Adkins and the other survivors dug their way out of a bunker but missed the last helicopter because he was carrying a wounded soldier. Adkins led them into the jungle where they evaded the enemy for another 48 hours.
For these actions, Adkins received the Medal of Honor in 2014 at the age of 80 from President Barack Obama.
Six years later, under a dark sky, Adkins’ body was placed in a long white hearse and escorted by police from Opelika to Atlanta. He was flown to Arlington National Cemetery and buried there next to Mary.
Shortly after Adkins received the Medal of Honor, Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones made him a deputy.
“It was an honorary circumstance,” Jones said, “but as far as we were concerned, he was a sworn deputy sheriff for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.”
Jones calls Adkins a good friend and “a national treasure.”
“When you think about the definition of hero, he fits it on all accounts,” Jones said. “He was always the first to give credit to others in all situations and certainly in the circumstance surrounding the actions on that day in March in Vietnam. His selfless attitude, his willingness to do whatever he could to help others, certainly was in prominent display that day while he did what he could to protect his fellow soldiers.”
Adkins’ daughter, Mary Ann Blake, lives in Auburn, and her brothers Michael and Keith also live in Lee County.
Blake said her father kept his deputy's badge in his pocket.
“From the day my father was sworn in as a Lee County Deputy by Sheriff Jay Jones, he carried his badge every day and everywhere he traveled throughout the United States, either by car or plane,” Blake wrote in an email. “He was very honored and proud to carry the badge.”
Today, that badge is in her father’s casket in Arlington National Cemetery, she said.
Leashes of Valor is a national nonprofit organization that describes its mission as “bringing service dogs and post-9/11 Veterans together in order to enrich and improve the lives of both,” according to its website.
Recently, the organization branched out to provide therapy dogs to police departments, healthcare facilities and other frontline workers.
“We also want to make sure our heroes here at home have access to the healing power of canines,” Danique Masingill, president of Leashes of Valor and a U.S. Navy veteran, wrote in an email.
Under the new initiative, Leashes of Valor has placed its second therapy dog in Pennsylvania with the York City Police Department.
“We did not have any direct ties to Pennsylvania or York Police,” Masingill said, “but Bennie has truly brought communities together, and the impact is difficult to measure. He is impacting lives. We were tremendously honored to name a K9 after Medal of Honor recipient Bennie G. Adkins and to continue to share his legacy.”
Blake said the impact of her father’s life continues to spread through programs like Leashes of Valour and also through the Bennie Adkins Foundation, which provides scholarships to soldiers as they transition to civilian life. But her parents’ real legacy, she said, was the way they raised their children.
“We never considered our father as a war hero,” Blake wrote in an email. “He was just our ‘dad.’ Our parents always encouraged us to strive to do the best that we could do in whatever career path we chose. Giving up was not an option.
“That is why he was a war hero, why they were both heroes: they never gave up on each other.”
Jones said that the recent swearing-in of K9 Bennie as we approach Memorial Day is a special reminder of Adkins and the life he lived.
“We think that’s an absolutely wonderful example of how his memory continues to live on,” Jones said. “He is one of those that, through his service to this country, we owe a debt that we obviously will never be able to repay.”