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This Day in History: Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins and Operation Iraqi Freedom

On this day in 2019, a United States soldier is awarded a Medal of Honor. Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins’s actions in Operation Iraqi Freedom initially earned him a Distinguished Service Cross, but that Cross was later upgraded.

“He saved my life and the life of several others,” Army Sgt. Sand Aijo would later say. “I would not be here today without him.”

Atkins didn’t have to be there that day. He’d originally enlisted in the Army in 2000 but received an honorable discharge in 2003. He missed the Army, though, and he decided to re-enlist in 2005.

“I told him he’d paid his dues with the 101st in Iraq,” his father later told a reporter, “but he wanted to go back in. That’s where he felt comfortable. Since he insisted on going back in, I suggested he change his MOS to something he could use when he got out, but he insisted on infantry only.”

On June 1, 2007, Atkins and his men were on a route clearance mission near Abu Samak, Iraq, when they noticed a group of suspicious men.

Two of the insurgents fled, but two remained.

Atkins got out of his Humvee and approached one insurgent in an attempt to search him. It didn’t go well and the two were soon engaged in hand-to-hand combat. At that juncture, it seems that Atkins realized that the insurgent had an explosive vest on. He grabbed the man in a bear hug and slammed him to the ground.

“Honestly, the first thought that crossed my head was just how impressive the slam was,” Aijo said.

As he hit the ground, Atkins twisted his body, ensuring that he was between the insurgent and his men. Just then, the insurgent found the trigger for the vest. Atkins absorbed the explosion that followed, shielding his three men from the blast.

He’d given his own life that his men might live.

“His platoon was devastated,” one officer later described. “His men loved him. He was a damn good NCO and he really, really took care of his men. He was one of the good ones.”

In the wake of the attack, Atkins was nominated for the Medal of Honor by his battalion commander, then-Lt. Colonel John Valledor, but the Army chose to award a Distinguished Service Cross instead. “I had a lengthy discussion with my chain of command,” Valledor later said, “and I think the consensus was that we were too close to it, that we were too emotionally tied to the narrative.”

But was it part of a trend of awarding the Cross instead of the Medal during those years? Valledor had noted how many Medals were awarded in other wars when men threw themselves on grenades. “The only difference here,” he concluded, “was that it was a living grenade.”

Fortunately, the Army ultimately agreed. Atkins’s case became part of a broader review of awards, and it was decided to upgrade his Cross to a Medal.

Atkins’s son, Trevor Oliver, received that Medal on his father’s behalf. He was the “best father a son could hope to have,” Oliver told a reporter at the time. “He was also the best Soldier and leader. I wish I’ll be half the man he was and hope to do him proud.”

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