Montana Son Gives His Life For Fellow Soldiers In Iraq, Earns MOH
by David Vergun, Army News Service
March 27, 2019
Yusufiyah wasn't the safest place to be. The Iraqi town southwest
of Baghdad was in an area U.S. Soldiers called the "Triangle of
Death" ... because so many had been killed there in the years
following the 2003 invasion.
On a hot and muggy morning June
1, 2007, Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins, 31, and fellow Soldiers were
searching for a missing or captured Soldier in the vicinity of
Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins in Iraq during 2007. (U.S. Army courtesy photo)
They'd been attacked earlier in the day. Now they noticed four
As the truck commander in his
Humvee, Atkins ordered the driver to pull the vehicle up to the
intersection so they could interdict the suspected insurgents. Once
stopped, Atkins exited the vehicle and approached one of the men to
check him for weapons while another Soldier covered him.
Travis understood the danger, said his father John "Jack" Atkins.
But as a leader, Travis lived and breathed Army values.
wasn't just saying that, he had been a paratrooper in Vietnam from
1965 to 1966, so he well understood the dangers his son faced and
the Warrior Ethos that Army professionals live by.
always wanted to be a Soldier, his father remembered, speaking from
inside his Montana farm house, which has an expansive view of his
30-acre hay fields, birch forest and the towering mountain ranges in
the distance. It was where Travis had lived since age 6.
recalled when Travis was 12, back in 1987, he played Soldier with
his younger sister Jennifer. He role-played a general and bestowed
on her the rank of private. His army consisted of plastic toy
But after high school in Bozeman, Travis did an
assortment of blue-collar work, from painting and concrete work to
jobs as a small-engine mechanic in the Montana towns of Belgrade,
Bozeman and West Yellowstone. He also spent a year at Kemper
Military School in Booneville, Missouri.
DECISION TO ENLIST
day, at age 25, Travis realized he wasn't getting any younger and
he'd have to make a decision about joining the Army, his father
related, so he went to see the local recruiter in Bozeman.
After taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery,
which measures aptitude for the various military occupational
specialties, a recruiter informed Travis that he scored high in
mechanical aptitude and the Army thought he'd make a great
helicopter mechanic, Jack said.
Travis was in fact very
skilled with his hands, his father said. As a boy, he quickly
learned to operate all of the farm vehicles.
Once, a younger
Travis completely took apart a snowmobile, his father said. "I never
thought he'd put it back together, much less that it would run." But
Travis was, however, dead set on becoming an
infantryman and told the recruiter in so many words that if he
didn't get infantry, he wouldn't enlist. So he got his wish, his
Following his enlistment November 16, 2000,
Travis completed infantry initial-entry training at Fort Benning,
His parents, Jack and Elaine Atkins, attended the
graduation ceremony. When it was over, Travis told his parents that
going through basic combat training was the most fun he'd ever had,
"I don't think too many Soldiers would have told
you that," Jack said. But he loved it. He loved the discipline and
the physical and mental challenges and most of all, he loved to
Travis was a crack shot, his father said. Jack used to
take his son on hunting trips all the time to places like West
Yellowstone, where big game is plentiful.
They'd split up at
daylight to hunt alone and then rendezvous at a designated spot
around lunchtime. One day, Travis met his dad at the rendezvous
point and told him that he'd bagged a deer.
So the two of
them tramped through the fields and forests to where it was. "It was
the biggest deer I'd ever seen," his father said. After dressing it,
they carved it in half and the two of them each took half and
carried it 1.5 miles back to the truck.
Travis carried a
large, heavy-barreled rifle. Jack said he told him he'd never haul
such a heavy gun across the terrain, but Travis insisted on it
because of the challenge of bringing down game from a long distance
that only could be done with a large-caliber gun.
infantry training at Benning, Travis was assigned to Alpha Company,
3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne
Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Jack said he didn't know if his own Army service from 1963 to
1967 as a paratrooper and as a co-pilot on a number of fixed-wing
and helicopter models had anything to do with Travis' wish to become
"I never encouraged him or discouraged him from
serving," he said. "It would have to be his decision and his alone
At the time, the nation was not at war. But a year
later that would change, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Travis steeled himself for the fight he certainly knew he'd soon be
in, Jack said.
Travis deployed with the 101st to Kuwait in
early March 2003 and participated in the invasion of Iraq as a fire
team leader and later as a squad leader.
One of the many actions that stood out in Jack's mind during his
son's deployment was the clearing of a mosque, which terrorists were
using as a base of attack.
Travis came face-to-face with a
6-foot-tall Iraqi man and physically took him down. Travis was only
5-foot-7. "He wasn't the biggest guy in the world but he was tough,"
Jack said. "The Army taught him that."
In less than three
years' time, Travis made sergeant. Jack said it was because he was
very competitive and competent and had all the markings of an
He wanted to join the 501st Parachute
Infantry Regiment in Alaska, after returning from Iraq, but he was
told no slots were available, his father said. So he decided to get
In December 2003, he was discharged and returned to
Montana to continue doing the blue-collar-type jobs he'd previously
been doing. He also attended the University of Montana in Missoula.
However, Travis soon began to miss the challenges of military
life, his father said.
"I told him he'd paid his dues with
the 101st in Iraq, but he wanted to go back in. That's where he felt
comfortable," Jack said. "Since he insisted on going back in, I
suggested he change his MOS to something he could use when he got
out, but he insisted on infantry only.
"The military isn't
suitable for everyone, but it was his niche. He belonged," Jack
So, in December 2005, he re-enlisted and the Army let
him keep his former E-5 rank.
He was assigned to Alpha Co.,
2nd Bn., 14th Inf. Reg., 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Div.
(Light Infantry), at Fort Drum, New York.
Jack said. He focused on keeping his young Soldiers well trained.
"Some of them later came to me and said that he was really hard
on them and they didn't like it," he said. "But over time, they said
they came to appreciate what he did and that hard training in some
cases saved their lives."
Travis knew another deployment to
Iraq or possibly Afghanistan was inevitable, Jack said.
SECOND IRAQ DEPLOYMENT
Travis was subsequently reassigned to Delta Company in the same
battalion and got orders to Iraq again in August 2006.
"I'm not too sure I can make this one," Jack
said his son told him. "Travis knew the reality of serving in Iraq.
He knew there'd be danger."
Jack and Elaine attended the big
deployment ceremony at Fort Drum. "As I looked out over the
formation from the viewing stand, I realized that some of them were
not coming back," Elaine said. "But you hope for the best."
Similar to his previous deployment, Travis displayed great
leadership qualities, this time as a squad leader, Jack said. "His
world revolved around his troops, whom he called 'my Joes.'"
When his platoon sergeant went on leave stateside, Travis was
elevated to that position and promoted to staff sergeant on May 1,
Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins stands next to his vehicle after it was damaged by an improvised explosive devise in Iraq during 2007. (U.S. Army courtesy photo)
On the morning of June 1, hours before he would be going on that
search mission, Travis called home, Elaine said.
"He asked me
if I'd received the Mother's Day card he mailed," Elaine said.
"No I didn't, I told him."
He then became very
apologetic, she said.
Elaine told her son not to worry and to
just focus on his mission. She was sure the card would eventually
When Atkins attempted to search the suspect, the man resisted.
Atkins then engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the insurgent, who
was reaching for an explosive vest under his clothing, according to
an award citation.
then grabbed the suicide bomber from behind with a bear hug and
slammed him onto the ground, away from his Soldiers. As he pinned
the insurgent to the ground, the bomb detonated.
mortally wounded by the blast. With complete disregard for his own
safety, he had used his own body as a shield to protect his three
fellow Soldiers from injury. They were only feet away.
after, another insurgent was fatally shot by one of Atkins' Soldiers
before he could injure anyone.
Owen Meehan, the company first
sergeant, said he spoke with Atkins 30 minutes before. They
conversed about route security and the placement of the gun trucks
in his sector.
The highway they
were clearing was known as Route Caprice, a supply route that
connected Camp Stryker with other forward operating bases in the
vicinity of Baghdad.
Meehan said he was visiting the platoon
sergeant of another sector when he heard the explosion. He said he
immediately went there.
"His platoon was devastated," he
"His men loved him," he added. "He was a damn good NCO
and he really, really took care of his men. He was one of the good
Meehan admitted that he "was a little bit of a rough
and tough first sergeant," and gave praise sparingly, meaning that
he thought Atkins was exceptionally good.
commander, Alex Ruschell, said "he was a phenomenal NCO and
Ruschell, now a major working in the
Pentagon, had been with a mechanized unit just prior to this Iraq
deployment and Atkins, along with the first sergeant and other NCOs,
helped him with the transition to light infantry.
several times a month, Ruschell said he thinks about Atkins and his
sacrifice. Later, he said he met Trevor Oliver, Atkins' son, and he
keeps a picture on his dresser of Delta Company's 2nd Platoon, with
Trevor up in front of the guys. He said his own son is about the
same age as Trevor.
Former Capt. Clint Langreck, Atkins'
company executive officer, recalls him as being "the real deal. He
certainly was mature in the way he handled himself and the way he
handled troops. I don't remember a day when he wasn't positive or
professional. And, he always had a military bearing."
engagement, during a route patrol, Atkins' Humvee, which Langreck
thinks was the lead vehicle, hit a mine, blowing the whole front end
skyward, fortunately not killing or injuring anyone, but destroying
After the explosion and the emotional event,
Atkins "had the sound mind to immediately assign sectors and put in
In another incident, later in the deployment, the
company was conducting a patrol through a small village when gunfire
"I remember him doing all the right things,"
"It turned out to be just some locals probably
hunting birds," he said. Atkins' "guys were all postured and ready
to shoot and he de-escalated the situation and took care of it all,"
meaning no Soldiers fired weapons.
After the patrol, Atkins
sat down with his men and did an after-action review. "That was the
exact right thing to do," he said. "You talk about the situation and
learn from it. It left an impression on me watching that."
Command Sgt. Maj. Roberto Guadarrama, Atkins' platoon sergeant then,
had served with him during the deployment and for many months before
the deployment and got to know him on a personal level.
shared a lot of time together," he said. "He was very passionate
with the stories he would share about his son, his father, his
mother, his hunting trips, his times on the river."
was also "a great team builder, very competitive, a great person to
be around. What a complement he was to the outfit," Guadarrama said.
He was decisive and fluid in his leadership role in critical
combat situations where most people would falter or buckle,
Guadarrama added. And, his decisions and actions were always
correct. He embodied Army values to the fullest.
speak for everyone," he said, "but I know that the day he was
killed, I think a good part was killed inside everybody."
THE MEN ATKINS SAVED
Then-Pfc. Michael Kistel was the driver of
Atkins' Humvee. As such, he was with him all the time, including
when the vehicle was destroyed by a mine.
When Atkins was
killed, Kistel was just a few feet away, on his way to help take
down the terrorist. Atkins' body shielded him and the other two
Soldiers from the blast. However, the blast from a second terrorist
moments later sent fragments into his body resulting in 100 percent
disability and a discharge from the Army.
Kistel noted that
another Soldier, Spc. Travis Robertshaw, was firing rounds into the
terrorist, but he just kept coming. Kistel said he thinks the
terrorist must have been on drugs and impervious to the pain.
"We really loved Travis, even though he could be demanding at
times, but it was always for our own good," Kistel said.
Soldiers kneel to pay their respects to Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins, who was killed, June 1, 2007, by a suicide bomber near Sadr Al-Yusufiyah, Iraq, at a memorial ceremony held, June 7, 2007 at Camp Striker. Atkins was on a patrol with his unit, Company D, 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) from Fort Drum, New York, when they detained men who were wearing suicide vests. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Chris McCann)
Today, Kistel lives with his 94-year-old
grandmother and his beloved service dog in Tampa, Florida.
The second man saved by Atkins was Robertshaw, a medic. He said he
rode in the vehicle with Atkins for several months and knew him very
"I remember him as being very intense," he said. "He
loved the Army. He loved his country. He was very passionate about
the Army and always wanted to make sure the job got done well. But
at the same time when we weren't doing Soldier tasks and sitting
around waiting, he'd like to joke around, tell stories and just talk
Robertshaw said he now tries to avoid thinking about
his time in Iraq, but he's deeply grateful for what Atkins did on
his final day and all of the other days he was with him.
Today, Robertshaw is still in the Army, a sergeant first class,
serving at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
He's the NCO in charge of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine.
Then-Spc. Sand Aijo was the third Soldier whose life was saved
by Atkins. As the gunner manning a 50-caliber machine gun in the
Humvee, he was with Travis almost all the time during the
"He always put us above everything else. That's
the kind of person he was," Aijo said, comparing him to "a tough big
"He could be really strict and tough, but in
moments that happened, you came to realize why," he added.
Regarding the day Atkins was killed, Aijo said, "I think about that
day all the time. I think it's always important to remember that
sacrifice. And, I always try to make sure I live my life to the
fullest and do the best I can to make sure that sacrifice wasn't for
Aijo currently lives in Dallas and works in a
project management office for a major financial institution. He used
his GI Bill benefits to study business and finance.
NOTIFICATION AND AFTERMATH
On June 1, 2007, a sergeant first class in uniform and an Army
chaplain in civilian clothes arrived at the Atkins home in Bozeman
to inform the parents that their son had been killed.
Trevor, who was 11 at the time, said, "It was
five days after my birthday," mentioning that his dad had called to
wish him a happy birthday.
His father's death was hard on him
-- still is, he said, particularly around the holiday times. Trevor,
who is now 22, recalled Thanksgivings when his dad would peel the
skin of the turkey as that was his favorite part. He also fondly
recalled their camping, hunting, fishing and snowmobiling trips with
his dad and grandparents.
Soldiers from Travis' unit were
very supportive, Trevor said. They invited him and his grandparents
to Fort Drum, where Trevor said he got to do some cool stuff like
driving a Humvee through the forest.
That helped to ease the
pain somewhat, he said.
Another thing that helped was getting
a call from President Donald J. Trump recently, informing him that
his father would be receiving the Medal of Honor. Trump was very
cordial and upbeat, Trevor recounted, adding that he complimented
him on having good genes from a tough warrior. "That meant a lot to
There were other things that eased the pain somewhat,
Battle buddies who had served with Atkins told
Trevor how much his father had inspired them and kept them alive
through rigorous training. "They treated me so good. That was very,
very sweet of them," Trevor said.
One day while fishing, his
father had told Trevor to observe how the water was flowing over the
rocks and boulders. See how the water is moving and flowing past the
obstacles, he pointed out, telling his son that's what he needs to
do. Keep moving past the obstacles no matter what.
the "best father a son could hope to have," Trevor said. "He was
also the best Soldier and leader. I wish I'll be half the man he was
and hope to do him proud."
Medal of Honor Recipient Staff Sergeant Travis W.
Medal of Honor Citation
Medal of Honor Presented To
His Son |
Hero, Father, Son
America's Best | America's Greatest
Heroes | Veterans |
Answering The Call |
Our Valiant Troops
Honoring The Fallen |
Don't Weep For Me |
Remember The Fallen |
Tears For Your Fallen |