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I graduated from high school in May 1968 at the age of 17 and had no job. I had received a football scholarship to Grambling State University, but I didn’t make the team, so I drifted around my hometown of Minden, Louisiana, trying to make up my mind about what to do with myself. I realized I needed direction. I wanted to have a decent life and a better future than the others in my family.

On Dec. 22, 1968, I joined the Army. I was taken by bus to Fort Polk, Louisiana, where I met my hated drill sergeant. After basic training, I went straight to Fort Polk’s “Tigerland” for jungle warfare training. We knew what we were preparing for and where we were headed: the Republic of Vietnam! We were taught how to survive and how to fight a very worthy opponent, the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. Out of 110 GIs in my unit, 109 went to Vietnam. The one who did not go was 17; you had to be at least 18 to go to Nam.

So at the ripe old age of 18, I went off to Vietnam. To that point, the greatest distance I had traveled in my life was to Denver, Colorado, where I stayed with an older sister for three months when I was 10. We departed for Vietnam by way of Fort Lewis, Washington, and traveled to Anchorage, Alaska, then to Tokyo, Japan, and finally to Cam Ranh Bay. There they issued me an M-16 rifle and other equipment and shipped me off to Bien Hoa. I was attached to my outfit at Tay Ninh, Company C, 1st Battalion (Airmobile), 5th Cavalry. I was a grunt in a rifle company, the best damn outfit in the U.S. Army.

On Landing Zone Dolly in the Black Virgin Mountains my first night, we were hit. I was scared and confused—but you learned quickly in Nam! Specialist 4 Eligio Lasoya and Sergeant Martin Ponist took me under their wings and taught me how to survive. We became known as “The Mod Squad.” I was the only black in the squad. Lasoya was Hispanic, and Ponist was Italian. There was a blond-haired kid from Wisconsin we called “Bam Bam.” Lasoya was “Tex Mex.” Everyone had a nickname. Mine was “Sugarbear.” There was “Tank” for Sherman Brandon and “Scar” for John Feller. Lasoya and Feller walked point more than anyone I ever met! Very brave men with not much regard for their own lives.

We would go on search-and-destroy missions for 30 days and then spend seven back at the LZ. Two months in, while involved in a firefight in an abandoned LZ in Binh Long province, I helped capture seven prisoners, for which everyone in the platoon received the Army Commendation Medal. I was still green and kind of jumpy, and until that day, June 30, 1969, I had never seen an NVA that was alive, face-to-face, up close. I was standing there holding my M-16 on him. He realized I was a little scared, and he looked at me with those dark eyes and said something directly to me in Vietnamese. I suppose, as jumpy as I was, if he had shouted at me I would have shot him to death!

I don’t think I was ever angry in a firefight. There is no time for such emotions. You are in survival mode. You just react.

All hell broke loose in November. We had many skirmishes, but on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, we got caught in a company-size ambush with a large NVA force in Tay Ninh, in the “Fishhook” area close to the Cambodian border, and suffered a lot of casualties. I was wounded badly in both legs and my left shoulder by an exploding B-40 hand-held rocket. A GI from Dallas, whom we called “Cowboy,” lost a leg. “Bam Bam” took a head and a face wound. I was airlifted around noon to a medevac hospital in Long Binh, where they completed emergency surgery. By God’s grace I survived and was shipped off to Camp Zama Army Hospital in Tokyo for reconstructive surgery.

Once I started rehabilitation therapy, I went from bedridden to wheelchair to walking with a limp and cane. The physical therapists were merciless; they would not allow you to feel sorry for yourself. One incident I’ve never forgotten: I was in the bathroom in my wheelchair complaining about how my left arm and my legs hurt. There was a kid standing at the mirror. He turned and looked at me and said, “At least you have both arms to hurt.” His right arm was gone. I turned and rolled my wheelchair out of the room and never complained again.

After 3½ months in the hospital, I went on to serve the final six months of my tour of duty at Fort Hood, Texas.

I’ve had serious post-traumatic stress. I lost my family, home and everything dear to me. I received group therapy and medication, and thanks to some good doctors and psychologists at the VA hospital in Shreveport my life changed dramatically! I gave my life to God and started serving others. We grunts have a saying: “It Don’t Mean Nothin’!” It is our way of facing hurt and the loss of friends.


Specialist 4 Bennie R. Adkins served in-country from May 1969 to November 1969 (wounded). A retired welder, he is now chairman of his church’s deacon board in Minden, Louisiana.

Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.