WASHINGTON — An Army staff sergeant who saved three soldiers from the blast of an Iraqi suicide bomber by turning himself into a human shield will be memorialized when President Donald Trump presents the service member’s family with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award for bravery against an enemy.
Wednesday will be the eighth time Trump presents the honor. It’s one of the few he regularly gives out.
Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins, 31, of Bozeman, Montana , was trying to subdue the suspected insurgent in June 2007 when he realized the man was attempting to detonate a bomb strapped to his body. Atkins then covered the bomber’s body with his in a selfless act that officials said spared three soldiers. He was on his second tour of duty in Iraq and overseeing a 15-soldier squad at the time of his death, one month after he was promoted to staff sergeant.
Atkins’ initial award, the Distinguished Service Cross, was upgraded to the Medal of Honor after a Defense Department review. His son, Trevor, and parents will represent him at a White House ceremony Wednesday afternoon.
Trump can recognize individuals for a variety of contributions to society, including to the arts, the humanities and to science and technology. But the Medal of Honor is the one Trump, who avoided military service but advocates for service members and veterans, regularly gives out.
“America is the greatest force for peace, justice and freedom the world has ever known because of you and people like you,” Trump said at the October ceremony for retired Marine Sgt. Maj. John Canley , who, at age 80, is the most recent medal recipient.
“There are very few. There are very few. Brave people, but very, very few like you, John,” Trump said. Canley’s heroism during the Vietnam War included twice scaling a hospital wall in view of the enemy to help extract wounded Marines.
At an earlier ceremony, Trump said Medal of Honor recipients are a godsend.
“Our nation is rich with blessings, but our greatest blessings of all are the patriots like John and all of you that just stood, and, frankly, many of the people in this room — I exclude myself, and a few of the politicians, who, like John, carry our freedom on their shoulders, march into the face of evil, and fight to their very last breath so that we can live in freedom, and safety, and peace,” he said before presenting the medal to the widow of John A. Chapman. The Air Force sergeant was critically wounded and died in 2002 while trying to rescue a Navy SEAL in Afghanistan.
Trump asked past Medal of Honor recipients attending the August 2018 event to stand and be recognized.
The seven medals awarded so far have recognized gallantry during World War II, Vietnam and war in Afghanistan, including two posthumous honors. Wednesday’s award will be the first Trump gives to a service member who fought in Iraq.
Presidents often get credit for putting the medal and its familiar blue ribbon on living recipients, but they have little say in who ultimately gets them.
The process takes years, including strict time limits for making an initial recommendation and awarding the medal itself, and can vary depending upon the circumstances of each case. Cases work their way up the chain of command at the Pentagon to the service secretary and defense secretary. Both have authority to disapprove of a recommendation.
Once the defense secretary approves, the president — as commander in chief — has final say. Exceptions sometimes are made, as in the case of Canley, who personally saved more than 20 Marines during combat in one of the Vietnam War’s longest and bloodiest battles.
But as the years stretched into decades, some of the Marines who fought alongside Canley pushed for the Oxnard, California, resident to receive the medal. After reviewing the case, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis agreed in December 2017 that Canley deserved the honor. Trump then signed legislation waiving the time limit on awarding the medal.
“To me, it wasn’t really about me,” Canley said in a telephone interview. “It was about those young Marines that I had the pleasure of leading in combat.”
Some 3,522 people have received the Medal of Honor since President Abraham Lincoln awarded the first one in 1863, during the Civil War, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Canley is one of 72 living recipients.
The first awards Trump presented after taking office went to first responders who were wounded in 2017 when a gunman fired on lawmakers at baseball practice, critically wounding Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. Last year, for the first time, Trump recognized seven Americans with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for a civilian.
No arts or humanities medals have been handed out since September 2016, when Barack Obama was president. No science medals have been given since May 2016.