TAMPA, Fla. (FOX 13) - The military’s highest honor was given this week to a fallen soldier who couldn’t be there to accept it.
Wednesday, the Medal of Honor was posthumously awarded to Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins, who died in Iraq in June 2007.
“He laid down his life to save the lives of his fellow warriors," President Donald Trump said during the ceremony at the White House. "Today, the name of Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins will be etched alongside the names of America’s bravest warriors.”
His story lives on through men like retired Pfc. Mike Kistel, whose life Atkins saved before his own was taken.
“He set the bar so high," Kistel said of Atkins.
The Tampa resident served as Atkins' driver for months. Though he wasn’t an infantryman, Kistel said the 31-year-old took him under his wing.
“He stayed up countless hours teaching me everything," Kistel said. "Shooting, reading maps, you know, how to be a soldier.”
His company was running security on June 1, 2007, when they noticed two men approaching. Kistel says Atkins got out and approached the first one, who was carrying a bag.
“[The teenager] was pretty hesitant about [Atkins] stopping him, but Sgt. Atkins [was] always a friendly guy. At the end of the day, he was just trying to put a smile on your face," Kistel said. "He says, 'Why are you guys… you look upset, what’s wrong?'”
Members of the company went to separate the two men, but something went wrong.
“I see Sgt. Atkins start wrestling with this guy," Kistel recalls, getting choked up. "I don’t know why. You could tell he was going to try and wrestle for his life. Atkins just grabs him as hard as he can, picks him up, throws him to the ground. You could just tell, he knew something was going to happen, because of just how he was moving and positioning his body. You could tell, he just didn’t want this guy to get up. The next thing I know, there was an explosion."
The insurgent set off his suicide vest, killing Atkins instantly. Because of his actions, three in his company were saved, including Kistel, who was only five feet from the blast.
“He was so determined to make sure he didn’t get to us," Kistel said.
A fight ensued with the second insurgent, a teenager, who ran toward the truck.
"He had about four grenades attached with strings, and I saw him grabbing for it," he said.
The crew's gunner engaged with the insurgent as Kistel tried to get back into the truck. The teen then set off his suicide vest.
In the aftermath, the three men recovered Atkins body.
"We had to just do our job," he said. "After we searched and found his body, I couldn't even move my feet."
Atkins left behind a son, Trevor, who was 12 at the time.
On Wednesday, President Trump presented the now 23-year-old with his father's Medal of Honor.
“All over appreciation for his men, everything you’ve said to me over the last few days has meant the world to me,” Trevor said.
For Kistel, it meant the world to meet the son of the man he credits with saving his life.
"I just remember the long talks, staring at the Euphrates, about his son," he said. "He was there for a reason, you know, at the end of the day, you wanted him."
Atkins’ awards and decorations from his time in the Army include the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, and the Purple Heart.