On this day in 2015, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Thomas Patrick Payne’s heroism came as he served in Operation Inherent Resolve near Hawija, Iraq.
The mission that day was urgent. Hostages were being held by ISIS, and then-SFC Payne’s special operations task force was working with Kurdish Special Forces to attempt a rescue. Time was of the essence: Freshly dug graves had been spotted outside the prison compound where the hostages were being held. It appeared that executions were imminent.
Things got intense—and quickly—once the rescue team was inserted into the area.
“It’s a complete brown out,” Payne described. “Part of the compound was already in a pretty intense fire fight.”
The forces separated, with half of the team moving toward one building and the other half moving toward another. The first building held 38 hostages, and Payne’s team worked quickly to get them out.
“You see their faces light up and they’re being liberated,” Payne later said, “and some are crying, some are excited, and while that’s going on there’s still an intense fire fight going on in another building. You can see the flames. You hear all the explosions going on and hear on the radio an urgent call for assistance and that’s when I looked at a teammate. I told him, ‘Hey, let’s get in the fight.’ He said, ‘Let’s go.’”
The rescue operation was in some trouble at the second building. Payne and his teammates quickly scrambled up a ladder to the roof, engaging the enemy with grenades and small arms fire from above.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be that easy. The enemy countered with suicide bombers, who detonated their vests in the building and tried to collapse the entire structure. Payne was forced to the ground, looking for another way into the building.
As Payne searched near the building’s main entryway, he could see the prison door. It had the same types of locks that he’d just cut through in the first building. He was exposing himself to enemy fire, smoke, and a possible building collapse, but he knew what he had to do.
He ran in through the smoke and enemy fire, finding and cutting the top lock with bolt cutters. It was difficult to breathe in the dense smoke, though, and he was forced back outside to catch his breath. He stayed outside for just a moment before rushing back through the enemy fire and smoke to cut off the second, bottom lock.
“That’s when we hear that the building is starting to collapse,” he said. “So the building’s starting to collapse, we’re getting shot at. It’s on fire, and we have hostages inside. It was a mandatory evacuation call, so my sergeant major is pulling the guys from one of the rooms, and I’m like a third base coach, waving them, waving through the initial breach point.”
In the end, Payne went back into the building three times to make sure that all the hostages had been located and evacuated. Thirty-seven hostages were saved from that building, in addition to the 38 from the first building.
The mission would prove to be one of the largest hostage rescues in special operations history.
Payne received a Medal for his part in the rescue just last year, but he would tell a room full of reporters that “I don’t consider myself a recipient, I certainly consider myself a guardian” of the Medal.
“It’s an amazing responsibility that is going to be bestowed upon me tomorrow by the President,” he concluded, “and I look forward to serving you as a guardian of the Medal of Honor and I just want to be a man that wears it well for you.”
Humble and gracious, as so many Medal recipients are.
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Medal of Honor citation (Thomas Patrick Payne; War on Terrorism)
Payne, Thomas P.: Sergeant First Class, U.S. Army, Operation Inherent Resolve (National Medal of Honor Museum website)
Recognizing Recipient Thomas P. Payne (Congressional Medal of Honor Society website; Sept. 25, 2020)
Sergeant Major Thomas P. Payne: Medal of Honor, Operation Inherent Resolve (U.S. Army website)
Sgt. Maj. Thomas P. Payne: Master Valor (U.S. Army video)