For some people, the military is a calling. That was the case for Army Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins, who reenlisted during the height of the Iraq War after a break in service. It was a decision that led to his death, but his dedication to the cause saved the lives of three of his fellow soldiers, and those actions are now earning him the Medal of Honor.
Atkins was born on Dec. 9, 1975, and grew up in Bozeman, Montana. His family said he loved to do anything outdoors, like fishing, camping, hunting and snowmobiling.
After high school, he spent a few years working as a contractor in the area, but he felt called to the military, so on Nov. 9, 2000, a 24-year-old Atkins joined the Army.
Atkins deployed to Kuwait with the 101st Airborne Division in March 2003 and was an infantry team leader during the invasion of Iraq a month later. His father, Jack Atkins, said he didn’t get the assignment he wanted when he came home, so he chose to get out of the Army at the end of that year.
Atkins decided to go to college and went back to working as a contractor for a while. But after two years, he still felt a call to serve.
"The civilian life just didn’t do it for him," his father said.
So, Atkins rejoined the Army in December 2005 as part of the 10th Mountain Division. He deployed to Iraq again less than a year later. By May 2007, he was promoted to staff sergeant while still overseas.
On June 1, 2007, Atkins’ unit was doing route clearance in the town of Abu Samak, southwest of Baghdad, when they noticed two suspicious men trying to cross the road they were securing. Having heard reports that there were insurgents nearby, Atkins and the soldiers in his Humvee yelled at the pair, who started acting erratically.
Atkins had his Humvee pull over. The staff sergeant tried to search one of the men, but he resisted, so the two started fighting. That’s when Atkins realized the man had a suicide vest under his clothes. A short while later, the insurgent found the trigger.
Without pausing, Atkins bear-hugged the man from behind, threw him to the ground and pinned him there, shielding his fellow soldiers who were only a few feet away.
The bomb went off.
Atkins died from the blast, but his quick thinking and selflessness saved the lives of three other soldiers, one of whom shot and killed the second insurgent before he could detonate another explosive vest.
"Travis always personalized the term ‘quiet professional,’" said Atkins’ battle buddy, Sgt. Aaron Hall, during a ceremony honoring Atkins years later. "He was a leader in the truest sense of the word."
Atkins was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for the actions that took his life, but after a Defense Department review, it was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Atkins’ parents and his son, Trevor — who was 11 when his father died — will accept the medal for him during a White House ceremony on March 27.
"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 that anyone could ask for," Trevor Oliver said. "He was my icon."
Atkins is being remembered fondly. In January 2013, the Atkins Functional Fitness Facility was dedicated in his honor at Fort Drum, New York. Many more will remember him this week as he’s honored with our nation’s highest medal for valor.