Split-Second Bravery: Soldiers Recount Fallen Comrade’s Medal of Honor Heroism

Soldiers kneel to pay their respects to Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins, who was killed June 1 by a suicide bomber near Sadr Al-Yusufiyah, Iraq, at a memorial ceremony held June 7, 2007 at Camp Striker. (U.S. Army/Spc. Chris McCann, 2nd BCT PAO)
Soldiers kneel to pay their respects to Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins, who was killed June 1 by a suicide bomber near Sadr Al-Yusufiyah, Iraq, at a memorial ceremony held June 7, 2007 at Camp Striker. (U.S. Army/Spc. Chris McCann, 2nd BCT PAO)

Trevor Oliver thought he was being scammed when he got a call last August purporting to be from the White House. Then President Trump got on the line and told him his father, the fallen Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins, was going to receive the Medal of Honor for sacrificing his life to stop a suicide bomber in Iraq.

"They couldn't tell me anything until the last second; the whole time I thought ... they were trying to get some sort of information out of me," the 22-year-old recalled, describing his shock when he heard Trump's voice. "[But] right as he picked up and said who he was, I could tell immediately it was really him."

Trevor was 11 when his father was killed June 1, 2007 after knowingly wrestling a suicide bomber away from his men before it exploded -- an act that saved the lives of three of his soldiers. He would receive the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery, an award that will now be upgraded to the nation's highest honor for combat valor.

Trevor will accept his father's Medal of Honor Wednesday at the White House.

"After the phone call ... I teared up a little bit. My jaw was on the floor," Trevor told a group of defense reporters today at the Pentagon. "It's such an incredible, incredible honor."

Trevor was joined by his father's parents and several members of Atkins' old unit -- Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. Atkins was with those troops on his final deployment to Iraq.

Atkins' unit had been conducting route security in the town of Abu Sarnak, Iraq, when a call came over the radio describing four "suspicious men on the road in a place they were not supposed to be, trying to cross in a place they weren't supposed to cross," former Sgt. Sand Aijo recalled.

Then-Spc. Aijo was manning a .50 caliber machine gun in the gun turret of Atkins' Humvee.

When Atkins, Aijo, the medic and the Humvee's driver arrived on the scene, they found two men standing at the end of a driveway to a mosque. The dirt road was flanked by two canals with "10-to-12 foot reeds on both sides, so visibility is not very good," Aijo said.

"I'm yelling at [the men], trying to get them to comply; they have this very glassy look in their eyes," Aijo said. "They were very fidgety, so I charged the .50 cal. machine gun ... and point it at them."

At this point, Atkins and the medic exited the vehicle and separated the two men.

Aijo switched to his M4, trying cover both of his teammates.

"To be honest, I was more focused on our medic, because he is not an infantryman ... Travis knew what he was doing," Aijo said.

A struggle soon ensued between one of the men and Atkins, who used hand-to-hand combat techniques to subdue him, Aijo said.

"All of the sudden, I see Travis wrap the guy up, and he lifts him up, and he slams him to the ground," Aijo said. "Honestly, the first thought that crossed my head was how impressive the slam was."

But something was wrong, Aijo said. "Once they hit the ground, the way Travis began positioning his body, it seemed strange to me. I didn't know what was going on."

Atkins was still holding the man down, but positioning himself more toward the other soldiers, Aijo said.

"Mind you our medic is feet away, I am feet away up in the gun turret," he said. "That's when the detonation happened."

Suicide bombers were not common in the area Atkins' unit operated, Aijo said.

"It all happened so quickly, that my initial thought was that maybe they had hit or rolled onto an [improvised explosive device] ... maybe artillery, mortars -- something," Aijo said. "It didn't become more clear to me until the second man came around and he also detonated."

The unit later learned that the men were using grenade-detonated suicide vests, Aijo said.

"Travis would have seen that; it would have been clearly obvious and he had that split second to make that decision. And that was the decision he made -- to sacrifice himself so that we could all live," Aijo said.

Atkins' medal upgrade was the result of Pentagon-wide review of combat awards given after Sept. 11, 2001, launched in 2016 by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter. In the final phase of the effort in recent months, Army officials said they upgraded 12 Silver Stars to Distinguished Service Crosses.

None of Atkins' teammates who spoke with reporters were surprised that his Distinguished Service Cross was being upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

Retired Col. John Valledor, Akins' former battalion commander, said he had originally recommended Akins for the highest combat award.

At the time of the incident, the unit was on the 10th month of deployment that was expected to last 12 months, but would ultimately stretch to 15, Vallador said.

"Travis was the expert on that piece of terrain," he said. "There is no doubt in my mind, when he dismounted that vehicle and encountered the two individuals, he knew instantaneously that he was dealing with a mortal threat ... and he did everything humanly possible, physically, to ensure that that mortal threat did not affect his fellow soldiers."

Former Staff Sgt. Stuart Hollingsworth called Atkins a "true master at his craft."

"He was a subject matter expert in all things -- infantry tactics, weapons, what was being used in theater, whether it was homemade explosives, grenades, what rounds, what calibers that enemy had," Hollingsworth said. "He knew exactly what he knew, and he knew exactly what he didn't know, and I can guarantee you, to that end, that he had properly identified exactly what he was doing and he executed the only way he knew how."

Maj. Benjamin "Alex" Ruschell, Atkins' company commander at the time, said it was clear the type of leader Atkins was by the professionalism his soldiers showed in the days and months after his death.

"He would be extremely proud of the way his soldiers conducted themselves, following that act on that day and ever since," Ruschell said. "They picked right up and never sat down with it."

For Atkins' son Trevor, he said he has "never felt so much respect" for his father after he heard he was going to receive the Medal of Honor.

"It hit me very hard immediately, but I got quickly over it because of how proud I was," Trevor said.

Trevor added that he feels very close to the soldiers his father served with.

"The stories that his brothers tell me and the ... way that they treat me make up for everything -- that's the real honor out of it all."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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