Soldier Receives Posthumous Medal of Honor After Saving Others From Suicide Bomber

Staff Sergeant Travis W. Atkins received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions on June 1, 2007, when he saved the lives of three other soldiers after wrestling with a suicide bomber in Iraq. U.S. Army

U.S. Army soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment were standing in formation at Fort Drum in Jefferson County, New York, in August 2006. Soon they would say goodbye to loved ones as they deployed overseas once more.

John and Elaine Atkins of Bozeman, Montana, were sitting in Fort Drum's bleachers, staring at the multitude of soldiers set to deploy to war-torn Iraq as a part of the Bush administration's strategy to surge the number of American forces on the ground and attempt to secure the volatile Iraqi regions of Baghdad and Al Anbar Province.

"We went to Fort Drum for the deployment ceremony, where they case the flags, sitting in the stands and looking at the troops on the field," said Elaine Atkins in a recent video produced by the Defense Department. "A parent always realizes that some of them are not going to come back," she said as her eyes watered.

Her son, Staff Sergeant Travis W. Atkins, 31, was among those who did not return alive. But the three others whom he gave his life for did after Atkins wrestled with an insurgent rigged with explosives.

President Donald Trump awarded the Medal of Honor to Atkins posthumously on Wednesday in the East Room of the White House. His son, Trevor Oliver, of Coon Rapids, Minnesota, accepted the award on his behalf.

President Donald Trump presents a posthumous Medal of Honor for U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Travis Atkins to his son Trevor Oliver, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, on March 27. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The mood was somber in the East Room as Trump presented the nation's highest award for combat valor to Atkins' family amid other Medal of Honor recipients, current and former uniformed service members and congressional leaders.

"Today the name of Staff Sergeant Travis Atkins will be etched alongside the names of America's bravest warriors and written into America's heart," Trump said during the ceremony.

In the Pentagon video, Oliver said of his dad: "I want him to be remembered as the best father that anyone could ask for and also at the same time being the best soldier anyone could ask for. That's the main message."

Shipping off to war was a talk Atkins tried to avoid with his son, but it was inevitable.

"It was always the last thing he wanted to talk about, you know the conversations of, 'I'm going, got to do my job, there's bad guys that don't like me very much, you know,'" Oliver said. "He was very open about that."

Atkins seemed to be built for military service. The Montana native was an avid outdoorsman who loved to hunt and fish. He grew up in Bozeman, located in the southwest region of the state, among the mountain ridges.

Atkins first joined the U.S. Army in November 2000, at the age of 24, attending basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia and later being assigned to Company A, 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

He deployed to Iraq in 2003 for the initial invasion with the 101st Airborne Division as an infantry team leader and was later honorably discharged as a sergeant, said the U.S. Army.

The Iraqi veteran went to college at the University of Montana and worked as a contractor for a time. But after two years of being out of uniform, Atkins wanted to go back to the military.

"The civilian life just didn't do it for him," his father, Jack Atkins, told the U.S. Army.

Staff Sergeant Travis W. Atkins stands with his parents John and Elaine Atkins of Bozeman, Montana. U.S. Army

Atkins donned his uniform once more in December 2005 and was assigned to the Army's 10th Mountain Division. A month before his death, he was promoted to staff sergeant while in Iraq.

In June 2007, 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment was situated between Baghdad and the Euphrates, known to Iraq veterans as the "Triangle of Death" due to al-Qaeda's grip on the region with improvised explosive devices.

On the first day of the month, Atkins's Humvee was parked on Route Caprice, near the Iraqi town of Abu Samak, southwest of Baghdad. The road was known to be peppered with pressure-plate bombs and Atkins's unit was clearing the road of them.

The men in Atkins's truck spotted two "military-aged males" walking nearby a road the unit was attempting to secure. The Iraqi men seemed to be acting suspiciously.

Atkins got out of his Humvee to question the men but had left his rifle on his seat. He walked toward the Iraqi men with his arms spread out wide in an attempt to appear friendly, reported The Washington Post in 2015.

One of the men resisted being searched and suddenly engaged Atkins in a struggle. Atkins then discovered the man had a suicide vest under his clothes, rigged with grenades.

Atkins lifted the insurgent off his feet and slammed him to the ground, but as the force of the man came crashing down, the insurgent detonated his vest and Atkins and the man disappeared in the explosion, Michael Kistel, the Humvee driver told the Post.

The other insurgent charged at the Humvee, but Atkins's medic had gotten out of the back seat and began firing at the other Iraqi, who was also wearing a suicide vest. Kistel told the Post he had managed to pull the Humvee's heavy door shut just as the militant was killed, slumping over next to the driver side door.

Atkins was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but the award was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross by November 2008, reported the Post. His parents and son accepted the award on his behalf during a ceremony at Fort Drum, the last place Atkins' mother saw him alive.

Wednesday's Medal of Honor ceremony upgraded Atkins's 2008 medal to the nation's highest honor.

"The medal is something I take a lot of pride in, but it's the words that are the real prize and what really means the most to me," said Oliver during the ceremony at the White House, referencing the veterans in attendance who have shared memories of serving with Atkins.

Oliver, who was 11 at the time when his father died saving others, said of his father, "He was my icon."

This article has been updated with comments made during the Medal of Honor ceremony.