Army staff sergeant’s family to accept posthumous Medal of Honor for his dive onto 'living grenade'
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 26, 2019
WASHINGTON – It was not immediately clear to former Army Sgt. Sand Aijo what his squad leader was doing as he watched Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins body slam a young man onto a dusty road in rural Iraq on a hot day in June 2007.
From the turret of his Humvee, Aijo watched as Atkins, who earned respect through his actions and attention to detail, methodically moved his body directly between the pinned-down man and that of Aijo and two other American soldiers. Then came the explosion.
“He saved my life and the life of several others,” Aijo said Tuesday at the Pentagon, recalling Atkins’ act nearly 12 years ago. “I would not be here today without him.”
Atkins, 31, will be awarded the Medal of Honor on Wednesday afternoon for trading his life for that of his fellow soldiers on June 1, 2007 on the dangerous Route Caprice near the village of Abu Samak. His son Trevor Oliver, now 22 years old, will accept the nation’s highest military honor on behalf of his fallen father from President Donald Trump in a White House ceremony.
“It’s the biggest honor I could possibly think of,” Oliver told Stars and Stripes one day before the ceremony. “There’s no real words to explain how I feel. … It’s just such an incredible honor and it uplifts me so, so much.”
The award is an upgrade of the Distinguished Service Cross that Atkins’ family received in a 2008 ceremony at Fort Drum in New York, where the soldier had been stationed. The upgrade, part of a Defense Department-wide review of post-9/11 valor awards ordered by former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2014, is long overdue, soldiers who served with Atkins have said for years.
Atkins' battalion commander at the time of his death, now retired Col. John Valledor, recognized what the soldier had done almost immediately. He interviewed Aijo and the two other soldiers who had witnessed the attack and walked the scene in the hours after Atkins’ death. He quickly drew his conclusion – Atkins had committed an exceptionally valorous act. It was an act that in his mind clearly deserved the military’s top honor.
“It occurred to me there’s a similar pattern here to Medal of Honor recipients who had jumped on grenades,” Valledor said. “The only difference here is it was a living grenade that Travis had overpowered and then used his body to protect his fellow soldiers. I thought for sure that others would see it, or read it the same way that I did.”
But somewhere along the long line of approvals needed to secure a Medal of Honor nomination, someone did not agree. The Army has never made public who decided to downgrade the award to the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for battlefield valor. Valledor and others have speculated the decision to downgrade the award might have occurred because Atkins never verbally told the other soldiers around them what his intent was.
Aijo and other soldiers who knew Atkins have no doubt that he knew he was shielding his battle buddies from the explosive vest.
Former Army Staff Sgt. Stuart Hollingsworth, a member of Atkins’ platoon who was about 100 yards away when the attack occurred, described Atkins as an expert at recognizing weapons and would have quickly realized the insurgent was wearing the grenade-laced suicide vest.
“I know exactly what he did. No doubt at all,” Hollingsworth said. “That man was a great man, and he was an even better soldier. It is an impossibility that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing.”
It was Atkins’ second tour in Iraq. He initially enlisted in the Army from his hometown in Bozeman, Montana, in 2000. Less than three years later, he fought during the invasion of Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division as an Army fire team leader. He would earn a Combat Infantryman Badge and other awards during that tour. After returning home, he decided not to re-enlist, choosing instead to go to college.
But after two years at the University of Montana at Missoula, Atkins found his classmates immature, his mother Elaine Atkins said. In late 2005, he re-enlisted in the Army and was sent to Fort Drum and, eventually, back to Iraq.
Atkins’ unit – the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment – was about 10 months into its tour when the soldiers received the radio call of four “military-aged males” acting oddly along Route Caprice, an off limits to locals supply route that had become a favorite target of insurgents for emplacing roadside bombs.
The improvised explosive devices were often successful, mangling the soldiers’ Humvees. Atkins’ own vehicle had recently been struck. But suicide attacks were unusual. Valledor said the unit had not seen such an act through its entire deployment before June 1.
When Atkins spotted two of the four males, he left his Humvee unarmed, yelling directions at the men, Aijo recalled. As Atkins moved toward one of the men, the team’s medic moved toward the second man.
Suddenly, Atkins was fighting hand-to-hand with the insurgent. Aijo remembered the “impressive” body slam attracting his attention.
“It all happened so quickly,” Aijo said. “My initial thought was that maybe they had rolled onto a [roadside bomb]. It didn’t become more clear to me until the second man came around and he also detonated. That’s when it clicked for me that this is what had happened.”
Aijo credited Atkins not only with saving his life by shielding him from the blast, but with instilling in him the skills and maturity needed to deal with such a deadly clash.
The former soldier said he and others were not initially thrilled when Atkins showed up to their unit. Aijo described himself as a “cocky, 19-year-old kid” who was not thrilled to have a new noncommissioned officer who set high expectations for his troops.
“I hated it,” Aijo said. “I thought I knew everything. He came in, and he put me in my place. He did it in the best way possible, and when that day came, I was prepared and I acted appropriately. I don’t know if I would have with anybody else leading me.”
That trait in Atkins comes as no surprise to Elaine and Jack Atkins, the late soldier's parents. They said Tuesday that they were aware their son had once been considered for the Medal of Honor but were caught by surprise when they were informed of the upgrade.
More important to them, said Jack Atkins, was the respect their son’s fellow soldiers have shown for him in the months since they learned of the award upgrade.
“I am not surprised to hear what Travis did,” Jack Atkins said. “This award is one thing. The real award for us is that these guys showed up.”