(WASHINGTON) -- Army Staff Sergeant Travis Atkins will posthumously receive the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony on Wednesday for his heroic actions in Iraq in 2007 when he jumped atop a suicide bomber and absorbed a blast that killed him, but saved the lives of fellow soldiers.
On June 1, 2007, the 31-year-old Atkins was leading a team of three soldiers performing route security on a road near the town of Abu Samak, southwest of Baghdad, when they spotted several Iraqi men acting suspiciously.
After confronting the men, Atkins discovered that one was wearing explosives under his clothing. Atkins immediately tackled the man to prevent him from detonating a suicide vest packed with grenades.
"All of a sudden, I see Travis wrap the guy up and he lifted him up and he slams him to the ground," said Sgt. Sand Aijo who was one of the soldiers with Atkins that day. Aijo was one of several soldiers and family members who spoke with reporters at a Pentagon briefing Tuesday.
"The thing that became confusing is once they hit the ground, the way Travis began positioning his body, it just wasn't, it seemed strange to me," said Aijo. "I didn't know what was going on."
Do you know the incredible story of Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins?— U.S. Army (@USArmy) March 25, 2019
This American hero will be awarded the #MedalOfHonor on March 27 for his valor and courageous actions serving with the @10MTNDIV during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
For more info, visit: https://t.co/lbGD4Iqcm6 pic.twitter.com/Q5m2RW7206
Aijo said that while Atkins was wrestling with the bomber, he saw Atkins position himself between his vehicle and the bomber, "and that's when the detonation happened."
In wrestling him to the ground, Atkins absorbed the force of the blast and saved the lives of his fellow soldiers.
"There is no doubt in my mind that when he dismounted that vehicle and encountered the two individuals, he knew instantaneously that he was dealing with a mortal threat," said retired Col. John Valledor, Atkins's battalion commander at the time.
And that given his experience, "he did everything humanly possible physically to ensure that mortal threat did not affect his fellow soldiers."
Aijo agrees, noting that the grenades in the suicide vest would have exploded seconds after a pin was pulled.
"He would have seen that it would have been clearly obvious," said Aijo. "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."
Valledor recommended Atkins for the Medal of Honor, but instead, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest award for valor.
"At the end of the day, what Travis did was above and beyond the call of duty," said Valledor. " It was recognized as such by others outside of the chain of command. And I thought that I would never hear about that again."
But in 2016 the military began a review of previous awards for valor and it was decided that Atkins heroism merited the Medal of Honor.
Atkins son, Trevor Oliver, will accept the Medal of Honor on his family's behalf.
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