WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump can recognize individuals for contributions to the arts and humanities, to science and technology and for other gifts to American society, but the Medal of Honor is one of the only awards he gives out regularly, recognizing military members living or dead for acts of bravery against an enemy.
Trump on Wednesday presented his eighth Medal of Honor, this time to the family of Army Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins, who gave his life in 2007 to save fellow soldiers from an Iraqi suicide bomber.
In place of Atkins, his son, Trevor, and his parents represented him on Wednesday. Atkins was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, but it was upgraded to a Medal of Honor following a Defense Department review.
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 saved three soldiers.
"In his final moments on Earth, Travis did not run. He didn’t know what it was to run. He did not hesitate. He rose to the highest calling, he laid down his life to save the lives of his fellow warriors," Trump said the White House ceremony Wednesday. "In so doing, he embodied the deepest meaning of the motto of the 10th Mountain Division. He climbed to glory. Now Travis is looking down from above on all of us, on all of his fellow warriors, on his great family. Wrapped in glory, the loving glory of almighty God."
Atkins' son, Trevor, said it was an "honor" to accept the award of his father's behalf in brief remarks to reporters after the ceremony.
"He was an absolute hero in a lot of people's eyes, mainly mine for way he was as a father — goofy, kind, tough," Trevor said.
He thanked his father for "making me who I am."
Atkins belonged to the 10th Mountain Division based out of Fort Drum, New York. He was on his second tour of duty in Iraq and overseeing a 15-soldier squad at the time of his June 2007 death, one month after he was promoted to staff sergeant. He first deployed to Iraq in 2003 and was later honorably discharged as a sergeant. He re-enlisted in the Army in 2005 after attending the University of Montana and was sent back to Iraq in 2006.
"When Staff Sergeant Atkins faced the unenviable choice of being a survivor or a hero, he chose the latter," said Sherman Gillums Jr., chief advocacy officer for AMVETS, a veterans service organization. "His actions, while costing him his life, gave new life to those he'd saved and will forever be embodied by the Medal of Honor."
The president, who received a series of deferments to avoid military service during the Vietnam War, speaks highly of medal recipients. He recounts for White House guests the details of the heroic acts for which the recipients are being recognized and, at times speaks of them using language that suggests he could not have matched their bravery.
"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 , the most recent medal recipient. "There are very few. There are very few. Brave people, but very, very few like you, John."
The 80-year-old 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 first seven medals he awarded recognized gallantry during World War II, Vietnam and war in Afghanistan, including two posthumous awards. 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 signs off, 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 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 in 2017 went to first responders who were injured when a gunman fired on lawmakers at baseball practice, critically wounding Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. 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.