When retired Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins, 84, received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama in 2014, his life changed.
He went from not being able to speak about operations he was involved in as a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier in Vietnam to touring the country to tell his story. Now, he is sharing his experiences through his book, "A Tiger Among Us: A Story of Valor in Vietnam's A Shau Valley," co-authored by fellow Opelika resident Katie Lamar Jackson, a writer, editor and photographer.
The book recounts the battle in a Vietnam jungle, where Adkins and 16 other Green Berets were surrounded by the North Vietnamese Army as they tried to defend Camp A Shau. After a 38-hour battle, 18 helicopters were sent in to rescue the soldiers. Ten were shot down in route.
"All (of us) were wounded, most multiple wounded," Adkins said during a recent book talk at Pebble Hill. "The ones that were living were able to move and make up our mind that we would not become prisoners of war, that we would continue fighting until we were either killed or we were wounded to the point that we couldn't go."
Adkins helped wounded soldiers board helicopters, and as he was attempting to get to a helicopter himself, the Vietnamese were closing in.
Then, an unlikely ally arrived.
"This friend of ours, this 400-pound tiger stopped us," he said. "The North Vietnamese were more afraid of the tiger than they were of us, so they backed up and we had room to get away."
"A Tiger Among Us" — the title a nod to the great Indochinese tiger — provides an hour-by-hour account of the battle, leaving no detail out. Adkins said the first thing he told Jackson was that he wanted the book to be factual.
"I wanted to be as truthful and accurate as possible," he said. "What we had to do to do that was not only get information from me, but information from the other six living American Special Forces soldiers that were in battle with me. I'm real pleased with what Ms. Jackson has done."
To help write the book, Jackson spent many hours with Adkins, often asking him the same questions over and over, listening to him add a little more detail the second or third time.
"I spent a lot of time with Bennie," she said. "He and Mary graciously let me just show up at their house for several months. I would go frequently there, and we would sit and talk.
"It was so great to have that opportunity to not just go in once and do an interview, but to have all this time with Bennie to rehash things."
She said she learned a lot about who Adkins is and described him as "fierce, still."
"He may look like he's pretty quiet and unassuming, but he has a spirit that is just amazing," she said. "That part would shine through every time we were together."
Proceeds Adkins earns from the book will go directly to the Bennie Adkins Foundation, a nonprofit he founded to aid Special Forces soldiers in their transition from military to civilian life. Aid will be provided through educational scholarships to assist soldiers in issues they face during the transition, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"That's what I was — one of the Special Forces soldiers, and there are some problems with them when they transition out of service," he said. "Hopefully some of the scholarships will help them make a transition."
While book sales proceeds will aim to improve the quality of life of returning soldiers, Adkins hopes that sharing his story will inspire a deeper love for country in America's youth.
While speaking all over the country — his largest crowd was at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa — Adkins' favorite talk was given to his granddaughter's pre-kindergarten class.
"I enjoyed the pre-kindergarten more," he said, cracking one of his wide grins. "What I'm attempting to do with this is hopefully change the attitude of the young people of our country ... maybe instill a little patriotism and honor throughout our country."
Find out more about the Bennie Adkins Foundation at www.bennieadkinsfoundation.org.