The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two men confronted suicide bombers and saved lives. Only one got the Medal of Honor.

U.S. President Barack Obama presents a Medal of Honor to Army Captain Florent A. Groberg during an East Room ceremony at the White House on Nov. 12 (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

No one heard Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins yell a warning as he wrestled the young insurgent to the ground by a reed-choked canal — not “suicide bomber,” not “S-vest,” not anything else. His unit had never encountered one before.

In the minutes after the two grappling men hit the ground and an explosion engulfed them, soldiers watching from a nearby Humvee weren’t sure what had happened, even after a second bomber charged them and blew himself up. Had Atkins and his opponent fallen on a buried roadside bomb?

But after battalion commander Lt. Col. John Valledor pieced together the evidence at the scene with the survivors’ statements, he felt sure of what Atkins had done: spotting the same type of suicide vest on the first bomber that the other soldiers saw moments later on the second, Valledor reasoned, Atkins had been trying to get the man as far away from his soldiers as possible. He’d saved their lives at the cost of his own.

[Army Capt. Flo Groberg receives the Medal of Honor]

This week, another soldier, retired Capt. Florent Groberg, received the Medal of Honor — the military’s highest valor award — for doing in Afghanistan in 2012 almost exactly what Atkins did near the Iraqi town of Sadr al-Yusufiya on June 1, 2007: rushing at a suicide bomber, thereby saving other soldiers around him. (Groberg survived.)

Valledor wrote Atkins up for the Medal of Honor too, submitting Department of the Army Form 638 with the “posthumous” box checked and the sworn statements of the survivors attached. But when Atkins’s parents and young son accepted a medal on his behalf a year and a half later, it was the Army’s second-highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross, awarded not at the White House but in a ceremony at Fort Drum, N.Y., where Atkins had been based.

Atkins’s case shines a light on the subjective and sometimes-frustrating workings of the Pentagon’s awards process, a subject that former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sought a review for while in office. The results of it should be available soon.

In the case of Atkins, it came down not to what he or the lives he saved, but to what he was thinking when he did it — something no one will ever know.

A native of Bozeman, Mont., Atkins had already been in and out of the Army and done a combat tour in Iraq when the draw of service pulled him to join again in 2005.

The American enterprise in Iraq was at its black nadir when Atkins, then a 30-year-old sergeant, deployed again late in the summer of 2006. Few places in the country were more violent than the agricultural tract between Baghdad and the Euphrates where he and his unit, Ft. Drum’s 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, wound up.

Nicknamed the “Triangle of Death,” the area was a stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of today’s Islamic State. Local men planted potatoes, tomatoes, and artichokes in the triangle’s fields. In the dirt roads that crisscrossed the land alongside deep canals, channelizing 2nd Battalion’s movements, they planted bombs.

[The Army denied a Medal of Honor to this Green Beret war hero. What happened?]

As the leader of a fire team and then a squad, Atkins was a standout, calm almost always despite the frustrations and savagery of the war and respected, if not always loved, by his soldiers.

“He was OCD about everything,” said Michael Kistel, his driver. “He’d have us sweeping dirt out of the Humvee in the middle of the desert.”

Along with the rest of the truck’s crew, the two men survived four skull-rattling bomb strikes.

“He was an absolutely brilliant noncommissioned officer,” said Atkins’s former company commander, who asked not to be named because of the nature of his current job, recalling the foul-mouthed soldier with the shaved head. “There are some men who just know they need to be wearing stripes, down in the dirt with the guys, and he was one of them.”

On Friday, June 1, Atkins’s Humvee was parked on Route Caprice, a dirt road that insurgents seeded with bombs, when another truck radioed up that it had spotted a group of four “military-aged males” walking nearby, acting fishy. Heading toward the intersection the report specified with Atkins in the right-front seat, the crew spotted two of the men.

To Kistel, the two looked like teenagers. When Atkins swung open the Humvee’s heavy armored door to get out and question them, he left his rifle on his seat and approached with his arms spread wide, trying to act friendly.

“You look upset,” Kistel heard Atkins joke to the closer of the two young men as the distance between them closed. “Let me give you a hug.”

[Pentagon review of how troops get awarded for heroism in final phases]

The next thing Kistel knew, Atkins and the Iraqi were locked together, struggling, Atkins seemingly focusing on grabbing the man’s hands. After a few seconds Kistel saw his squad leader engulf his opponent in a bear hug, lift him off the ground, and slam back down. Then he heard, saw, and felt the explosion, and both men vanished.

While Atkins approached and then fought with one man, his medic had gotten out of the Humvee’s back seat and trained his rifle on the other. As the blast that killed Atkins echoed, the second man charged the Humvee, and Kistel saw the telltale signs of a suicide bomber on him: a blue vest, adorned with a string of grenades rigged to go off at once.

Perforated with bullets from the medic’s rifle, the oncoming insurgent collapsed next to the driver-side door just after Kistel had managed to pull it most of the way shut, splattering the Humvee’s beige-painted armor with his flesh. A leg thudded onto the hood.

Battalion commander Valledor and brigade commander Col. Michael Kershaw arrived soon afterward and spread out with their guard details to look for Atkins’s body. When they found it — mercifully mostly intact — the two colonels drove with it straight to the military morgue at Baghdad International Airport.

“I want to agree with you,” Kershaw told Valledor when the two commanders first discussed, behind closed doors at their base on the edge of the airport’s sprawl, whether to nominate Atkins for the Medal of Honor or the lesser Distinguished Service Cross.

[6 modern troops whose extreme heroism didn’t get the Medal of Honor]

Had Atkins’s final act been “above and beyond the call of duty,” the standard the Medal of Honor called for? Valledor thought so.

“He dismounted the vehicle unarmed, knowing the risk he was about to undertake,” Valledor said of his reasoning. “He immediately discovered his opponent was wearing a suicide vest and commenced to physically fight him and lift him away from the junior enlisted soldiers occupying the very isolated Humvee he had dismounted.”

But the Medal of Honor guidelines also called for ironclad evidence, and Kershaw didn’t think they had it. What Valledor was saying made sense, but it was a theory, he pointed out. Because Atkins hadn’t called out a warning or shouted an explanation of what he was going to do — and because he wasn’t alive to explain himself after the fact — they couldn’t know for sure that he’d even known the man he was fighting with was a bomber.

“He could’ve just been reacting to a guy who resisted detention, which wasn’t uncommon in South Baghdad, and wrestled him to the ground, which is also a valorous thing to do” but not Medal of Honor-worthy, Kershaw told The Washington Post. “I just didn’t see in the witness statements the kind of certainty that you need to justify that award. I think the standard is ‘irrefutable proof.’”

[Capt. Flo Groberg’s interview with The Washington Post]

Despite Kershaw’s misgivings, Valledor submitted the Medal of Honor nomination packet to the next headquarters that would have to review it. To give the packet the best possible odds of approval, he consulted a raft of Korea- and Vietnam-era award narratives before writing Atkins’s proposed citation, paying special attention to cases where troops had covered live grenades with their bodies, a situation he saw as analogous.

Neither Kershaw nor Valledor ever heard anything else about it until late 2008. That November, in a ceremony at Fort Drum, Valledor presented Atkins’s parents, Jack and Elaine, and his 12-year-old son, Trevor, with the Distinguished Service Cross that the Army had approved.

It isn’t clear at what level the award nomination was downgraded. Officials at three echelons — retired generals Rick Lynch and David Petraeus, whose desks the award packet would have crossed in Iraq, and then-Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, who reviewed all Medal of Honor nominations — couldn’t recall the case when contacted by The Post about it.

But Valledor and others felt sure the downgrade was the result of the same lack of irrefutable evidence that Kershaw had identified off the bat as the nomination’s weakness.

“Had Staff Sgt. Atkins called out a warning that it was a suicide bomber, then it would’ve been unmistakable,” Valledor said. “But we never got any training that you were required to call something out.”

Underscoring the seeming inconsistencies of the awards process, Groberg, the soldier receiving the Medal of Honor this week for actions similar to Atkins’s, says that he actually wasn’t sure he was confronting a suicide bomber at first. He realized he was facing a suicide bomber when he grabbed the man by the chest, he told The Post last week.

[Obama awards more Medals of Honor than Bush — but it takes longer, too]

The Atkins family had heard, informally, about the Medal of Honor nomination. But Jack, a Vietnam veteran, wasn’t bothered by the downgrade. “Medals don’t mean anything,” he told Checkpoint simply. He was more troubled by a similar but higher-profile case involving a Marine, Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who like his son was nominated for the Medal of Honor but received a lesser award due to doubts over whether Peralta, already fatally shot, knew what he was doing.

As a lawyer, though, the elder Atkins was puzzled by the Army’s varying standards or proof for different awards. The Distinguished Service Cross citation, based on the same witness statements submitted with the Medal of Honor packet, does not suggest any doubt about whether Atkins knew what he was up against: “As Staff Sergeant Atkins attempted to subdue the man,” it reads, “he realized the insurgent was attempting to trigger a suicide vest which he wore under his clothing.”

“They couldn’t establish his state of mind to the degree necessary for the Medal of Honor, is what I was told. But in the criminal law arena, state of mind can be established by conduct,” Jack said. And it seemed like in awarding the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army had done just that.

Valledor, who remembers the grim scene that June day on Route Caprice indelibly, was disappointed. “The effect of his actions is what matters,” Valledor maintains. “He died so his soldiers could live.”

Kistel, Atkins’s driver, agreed. He spoke to Checkpoint by phone on his way back from a visit to a Ft. Drum gym named after the fallen staff sergeant. Asked if he believed Atkins saved his life, his answer was simple: “Of course.”

Wesley Morgan’s book on Afghanistan’s Pech valley is forthcoming from Random House. Follow him on Twitter: @wesleysmorgan.