Army Sgt. Sand Aijo was in the gun turret of a Humvee in 2007 when he and his fellow soldiers rolled up on two suspicious men in Iraq’s “Triangle of Death.” They were in a place U.S. soldiers didn’t expect to find them, and so glassy-eyed and fidgety that Aijo charged his machine gun, he recalled.
Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins, their gruff but revered squad leader, stepped out of the Humvee and walked toward the first stranger. Then an Army medic stepped out of the back seat, moving toward the second.
As Aijo tried to keep track of both soldiers, Atkins unexpectedly began grappling with the first Iraqi just a few feet away. Atkins grabbed him in a bear hug, slammed him to the ground and pinned him down.
“The thing that became confusing was that once they hit the ground, the way that Travis began positioning his body, it just seemed strange to me,” Aijo said. “That’s when the detonation happened.”
On Wednesday, Atkins, of Bozeman, Mont., posthumously became the fifth U.S. service member to receive the nation’s highest award for combat valor, the Medal of Honor, for actions during the Iraq War.
Atkins’s son, Trevor Oliver, accepted the award on behalf of his late father from President Trump, who highlighted how Atkins, then 31, died June 1, 2007, saving the lives of the three other soldiers by choosing to smother a suicide vest with his own body.
“In his final moments on earth, Travis did not run. He didn’t know what it was to run," Trump said. “He laid down his life to save the lives of his fellow warriors.”
The case highlights the Pentagon’s longtime struggles to fully recognize some of the U.S. military’s most highly regarded modern-day heroes — and underscores the likelihood that the Pentagon may soon belatedly award other service members the nation’s highest combat decoration.
To date, no living service member or veteran has received the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq. Seventeen Americans have been awarded Medals of Honor for actions in Afghanistan, including four posthumous awards.
Doug Sterner, an Army veteran and historian who has testified before Congress on valor issues, said Wednesday that he is aware of at least one case in which a living Army veteran will soon be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq. Sterner said he could not disclose whom, and Army officials declined to comment.
Atkins’s award is the latest to surface since defense secretary Ash Carter launched a review in 2016 after years of U.S. troops and some members of Congress voicing frustration over how few recipients came from modern conflicts.
The Pentagon set out to review more than 1,300 cases in which U.S. troops had received the nation’s second- and third-highest valor awards to make sure the recipients were not worthy of a more prestigious medal.
In Atkins’s case, his battalion commander in the 10th Mountain Division, now-retired Army Col. John Valledor, nominated him for the Medal of Honor. The Army downgraded the award to the Distinguished Service Cross, the service’s second-highest award, and presented it to his family in 2008.
Valledor said Tuesday he was “pretty satisfied” when Atkins received the Distinguished Service Cross. But he acknowledged being surprised the higher award was not approved. He nominated Atkins for the Medal of Honor after researching earlier cases in which recipients had smothered grenades, he said, and concluded that the only difference was that in Atkins’s case, “it was a living grenade.”
“I had a lengthy discussion with my chain of command, and I think the consensus was that we were too close to it,” he said. “That we were too emotionally tied to the narrative.”
Similar stories linger.
In August, Trump posthumously awarded Air Force Tech Sgt. John Chapman the Medal of Honor for his actions in March 2002 on a snowy Afghan mountaintop. Chapman, 36, received the Air Force Cross, his service’s second-highest award, in 2003 for fighting to his death and fending off the ambush of a helicopter filled with Army Rangers, but the Pentagon determined he deserved the higher decoration.
Last May, Trump also awarded Navy Command Master Chief Britt Slabinski, 49, the Medal of Honor for valor in the same battle in which Chapman was killed. The Navy SEAL had received the Navy Cross, but the medal was upgraded after the Pentagon’s review.
Potentially unresolved cases include that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, 35. He posthumously received the Silver Star after pulling six wounded soldiers from a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle in a fuel-soaked uniform in Iraq on Oct. 17, 2005, suffering burns over more than 70 percent of his body.
His battalion commander at the time, now-Maj. Gen. Gary Brito, told the Los Angeles Times in 2014 that he wishes he had submitted Cashe for the Medal of Honor.
“If Cashe doesn’t get a Medal of Honor, I’m just going to be totally disappointed," Sterner said. “It’s the most striking example of a Medal of Honor that I have ever accounted.”
The dearth of modern Medals of Honor has been attributed to the inexperience U.S. commanders had with recommending and processing the award early in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The United States had not been in a major conflict in years, and few Vietnam veterans remained in the ranks.
Dwight Mears, a retired Army officer and historian who published a book about the Medal of Honor, said that there was “a cultural problem with the military not knowing what the appropriate gallantry thresholds were."
“I think it is largely resolved at this point, but there was some naivete early in those conflicts,” he said.
U.S. military officials said Wednesday that the Pentagon also has approved recent upgrades for 12 soldiers to receive Distinguished Service Crosses, three Marines and 12 sailors to receive Navy Crosses, and five airmen to receive Air Force Crosses. The medals were upgraded from the Silver Star, the third-highest valor award.
The Marine Corps also upgraded nine additional awards to Silver Star, and the Navy upgraded 18. The Air Force upgraded four additional awards to Silver Star and two to Distinguished Flying Cross with V device.
Members of the Atkins family told reporters Tuesday that they were appreciative of the Distinguished Service Cross and did not believe that Atkins’s award would be elevated when the White House reached out to them.
In fact, Oliver and Atkins’s father, Jack, said with a chuckle that they initially thought the calls from Washington were part of a scam. In reality, it was administration staff members trying to connect them with Trump.
“I thought there was some elaborate plan going on and they were just trying to fool me. I immediately was not very nice to people on the phone, and I was being rather rude,” said Oliver, who was 11 when his father died. “My girlfriend was in the room, and she said my jaw was on the floor and I was beet red. It was a liberating experience. It’s such an incredible, incredible honor.”
Aijo said he was “speechless” when he found out about the upgrade for his former mentor.
“You don’t think about things like this that often, so it brought back a lot of emotion for me,” he said. “Once I had time to kind of settle and bring back my thoughts, I was extremely overjoyed. It was nice to know that a grateful nation would be equally thankful for this sacrifice as I was.”
This story was originally published Wednesday morning and updated after the ceremony.