President Donald Trump posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on Wednesday to Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins, a 10th Mountain Division soldier who sacrificed his life to save his fellow troops from a suicide bomber on a dusty road in Iraq 12 years ago.
At a White House ceremony, Trump presented the nation's highest award for valor to Atkins' 22-year-old son, Trevor Oliver, who was 11 years old when his father died.
The soldiers that Atkins left behind described him as a tough big brother and a master of his craft that wouldn’t ask anybody to do anything he wouldn’t.
"Today, the name of Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins will be etched alongside the names of America's brave warriors and written forever into America's heart," the president said. "Your father's courage and sacrifice will live for all time."
Atkins originally received the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery, but a recent Pentagon review upgraded his award to the Medal of Honor.
Atkins' unit operated in a "hotbed of terror" in a part of Iraq known as the "triangle of death," Trump said.
Atkins' unit was conducting route security on June 1, 2007, when he and three other soldiers stopped two Iraqis on a remote road near the town of Abu Sarnak, Iraq. Atkins and his men stopped two Iraqi men who were acting suspiciously.
A struggle broke out between Atkins and one of the men. Using hand-to-hand combat techniques, Atkins got the man down on the ground and deliberately positioned himself so his body would block the blast before the man detonated his suicide vest, according to the award citation and soldiers who witnessed the incident.
"The man began to reach for something and Travis knew what it was; he realized the man was wearing a suicide vest," Trump said. "Travis wrapped his arms and his entire body around him and threw him to the ground, away from his troops who were right next to him.
"He shielded his men from certain death. The terrorist detonated his suicide vest and Travis was instantly killed."
"In his final moments on earth, Travis did not run," Trump said at Wednesday's ceremony. "He didn't know what it was to run."
"He rose to the highest calling; he laid down his life to saves the lives of his fellow warriors," Trump added. "In so doing he embodied the deepest meaning to the motto of the 10th Mountain Division -- he climbed to glory."
Trevor spoke briefly at the ceremony at Trump's insistence.
"It's something that I can't really put into words; it's something that is surreal and I still haven't fully accepted it yet," Trevor said, his voice shaking with emotion.
This did not come as a surprise to his mother, Elaine Atkins, who attended the ceremony with Atkins' father, Jack, and other family members.
"When he was home on leave, he would talk about what he had to do to instruct them and get them ready," she told a group of reporters Tuesday. "He was always very concerned about that, making sure that they knew what they should do in order to survive, in order to function as good soldiers."
"I was 18 years old, and frankly, I was just really scared," he told a group of reporters Tuesday.
Upon meeting Atkins, he said he immediately felt a sense of relief.
"He made me feel like there was a chance and that I could trust him -- that there was somebody there that knew what they were doing," Venable said. "There was no doubt in mind that he knew what he was doing and that he wouldn't have me doing anything that he wouldn't do himself."
Former Sgt. Sand Aijo, who served as the .50 caliber machine gunner on Atkins' Humvee, recalled that Atkins could be "very intense when he had to be ... he had very specific standards and they were nothing that he wouldn't have for himself."
"To be honest, when he first became my team leader and squad leader, I hated it; I was a 19-year-old kid -- cocky, you know. I thought I knew everything," said Aijo, who is certain that Atkins saved his life that day. "And he came in and he put me in my place, but he did it in the best way possible."
Aijo said he realizes that Atkins was preparing him to survive without him.
"When that day happened, I was prepared and reacted appropriately, and I don't know if I would have with anybody else leading me," he said. "No matter how tough he could be, he was like a tough big brother."
Before accepting his father's award, Trevor thanked this father's fellow soldiers for the kindness they showed him.
"Everything you have said to me over the last few days has meant the world to me and it changes my life," he said with a voice full of emotion.
"The medal is something that 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."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.